Category Archives: Pondicherry

The Grand Bazaar in Pondicherry and a train passage to old ‘Madras’…part two



“Bonjour Mademoiselle, ca va?” asks the shallot seller. His smile is radiant, his demeanour peaceful. He shifts and shakes his shallots in a slim basket, removing their skins and depositing them lighter and more saleable into a substantial basket. The shallots are the sellers only commodity this Sunday morning at Pondicherry’s Grand Bazaar.

If you’ve watched the movie Life of Pi, you’ve briefly glimpsed Pondicherry. The narrative begins here, the film sweeps through parts of the old town including the expansive bazaar. Founded in 1827, it’s about the size of a football pitch, and we had been told to not miss it.

Pondicherry’s rich heritage is revealed here; the sellers, the produce, the decorative flower garlands created and sold for cultural and religious occasions. As I experienced in Kazakhstan, a market is where the fabric of a city reveals itself. A place where the murmur of regional languages, the aroma of exotic spices and unfamiliar produce beguiles you. An experience where the cultural thread that stitches a community together heightens the senses – market places are a traveller’s touchstone.

The shallot seller is proud to be of French ancestry, common in this once French port on India’s South East Coast. Pointing to his talika spread across his forehead, he makes it clear that his devotion is for Shiva. The broad stripes, painted or smeared from ash, are worn proudly on followers of the Hindu deity. The seller motions to his stripes and white dot, “Shiva is love,” he tells us in dreamy affirmation. I marvel that he sits, sifting his produce and smiling contentedly, almost in the pathway of the bustling bazaar…in complete serenity.


Most sellers have a stall, a perch, a ‘hole in the wall’ from which to sell. Many have their own small puja (shrine), a smattering of religious calendars and a hefty ancient scale beside them. Some have a speciality item, others sell it all. Red for apples, tomatoes and luscious pomegranates. Green for coriander and limes, curry and betel leaves, peas and lady fingers…you know them as okra. Purplish eggplant IMG_1117and orange for carrots and mangos.

In Southern India bananas straddle both the yellow and green spectrum, their bunches often sold on thick stalks…ready to be steamed, fried or roasted. Banana leaves are vital as ‘plates and platters’. Practical yet with a side benefit – it is believed that antioxidants are transferred to the curries and masalas from their thick, waxy leaves.

I feel I’m in the way as burlap sacks of beans, groundnuts and garlic are heaved high on shoulders and humphed past me. I’m cautious underfoot for squashed oranges and smashed corn husks, for the odd rat that darts in and out. I dig my hands into stuffed, rolled down sacks, trickling and rolling rice, myriad beans and lentils through my fingers.

I’m thankful for sincere smiles as I make my way through the crowded lanes, haggling and chatter filling their space. My curiousity is most often met with warmth and returned smiles. The odd person reminds me they are busy trading and understandably, my camera isn’t welcomed by all.

The volume of produce is staggering, yet somehow it seems to get sold. This is where the people of India procure their food. Not at sterile well-lit grocery stores, but at bazaars, at markets, at roadside vendors.

As colourful as the canvas of fruits and vegetables is, the cultural complexities of the flower and petal stalls are even more intoxicating. These petals of jasmine and lotus, chrysanthemum and oleander, roses and marigolds, are transformed into the dainty, the neck-sized and a variety of shaped garlands for welcoming and worshiping. One might even wrap a garland around an auto rickshaw…yes, they can be purchased by the meter. They can reach seemingly gargantuan proportions and be elaborately decorated; they have to be seen to be believed.


Flower petals are bought cheaply by the bag, both for wholesale and for personal use. It isn’t uncommon to come across ladies sitting on street sides conversing and threading, petals slowly forming a garland. Yet most garlands are threaded at a maker’s stall.

I meet Chandra and his two sons. Their hands are swift and supple as they thread jasmine and roses. “It’s a family business,” I’m told. “My sons are following my foot-steps.” Small businesses such as Chandra’s are the backbone of India and the garland business is prolific.

img_4516They are offered for worship, draped around doorways at a housewarming, a new motorbike or auto rickshaw may be blessed with a garland, a bride and groom exchange them three times during a wedding. They are also woven into a lady’s plaited hair, especially here in Southern India.

I’m told that each Hindu deity has a unique garland: Goddess Lalitha prefers hibiscus, Lord Vishnu wears tulasi leaves, Lord Subrahmanyan likes to be draped in jasmine, whereas Mahalakshmi likes red lotus. Ancient kings appointed keepers whose only role was to tend flower gardens – cultivating precious petals for daily devotions, never to be sold. It is also rumoured that these royal gardeners did not marry.

When I wander to a tucked away lane and find garlands as tall as myself, it crosses my mind to take one to our hotel as a kind gesture. I realize it’s prudent to ask if there’s a special meaning attached to the over-sized creations, “Oh yes madam, those are for funeral!”

The rules for the flower pluckers, the sattarars, is fascinating…and yes I use the word ‘plucker’. In India, the word pluck is always used in reference to flowers. You do not pick flowers, one plucks flowers. It seems the rules for sattarars are rather specific, whether it be for the plucking or the making of garlands.

Flowers should be plucked in the early morning, ideally after having bathed. The flowers or petals should not have been smelled by anyone. They most definitely should not be used if they’ve fallen to the ground. Namajapam, or the repetition of holy names, should be done while plucking.

While constructing garlands the petals and other material such as banana tree fiber used as the base should be kept on a table but ideally above hip level – a flower for God should not touch the feet. I note that Chandra and his sons were building their garlands above the hip, their creations then displayed above them. I realize I had lifted one gently to my nose to appreciate its fragrance. Did I unwittingly break a rule, or does that only pertain to the loose petals?


It seems the fragrance of jasmine, the most cherished scent of Indian flowers, is meant to be enjoyed. When their delicate ivory buds are threaded into gajras, not only do they decorate women’s hair, it is believed the scent reduces anxiety, emitting peace and happiness. Ancient Hindu art, chiseled some 2000 years ago, depict goddesses with delicate gajras enhancing their thick locks. And so it is, still today.

I stand close to ladies at a temple and the scent of jasmine lingers. More of those exotic scents and vivid colours that this traveller soaks up. I breath it in and cherish the scene. The images that await me in the coming day, further affirms my love of travel.

We journey back to old Madras (Chennai) by train. Not in first class or in air-conditioning, just the type of train that millions of passengers travel in daily. The kind of train with only bars on the windows and rickety old fans whirling above simple seats. The kind of train that costs less than a dollar to ride 160 kilometres or so.

We are the only foreigners, first aboard, and firmly planted next to the windows. This is important as the bench-seat for 4 will fill to 5, 6, maybe 7 by journey’s end.

img_1418-2Barely ten minutes out of Pondicherry a time capsule awaits. As the clatter of the wheels settle to a rhythmic, soothing pattern, the city gives way to a beautiful patchwork; palms, rice, vegetables and flowers. From these fields come the produce, the bounty found  in Pondicherry’s Grand Bazaar.

Against this verdant backdrop, ladies swish in bright saris as they tend crops and herd flocks. Small villages – simple buildings roofed with palm-fronds and tin, bullock carts trundling down narrow lanes – an old age farming culture stocking India’s bazaars and markets.

The train halts or passes through lyrically named towns like Valavanur, Vullupuram and Vikravandi Mailam. At Tindivanam it gets busy, the 4 seater long-bench is now a 6. A sinewy fellow in a vivid orange lungi asks to borrow the Times of India, a rural family boards dressed in fresh linen and shiny saris – their young daughter toys with a new cell phone, a young professional strikes up a conversation. Might he get a photo for Facebook with our son?

The train screeches to rest at platforms, sellers jump on, plying the aisles…roasted groundnuts, guavas, biscuits and papers. The chai sellers need only to latch their aluminum urns onto a window bar. Tiny cups of sweet chai pass through the gaps; it’s common to treat your fellow passenger. As passengers disembark there are nods all around, perhaps a handshake, we’ve become acquaintances. “Very happy you are traveling the train,” they say.

Temples peek over groves of palm and trees of mango, children splash naked in ponds, water buffalos laze close by. At Melmarmuvathur, dusk settles in and the sultry evening finally offers a cooling breeze.

And the light casts different hues. Green fields deepen to emerald and hills become shadowy. The smell of the sultry air changes.

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Our young friend Anand shakes our hand warmly. The train has rolled into his station, he’s home to visit his recently widowed mother. We regret that we hadn’t exchanged contact details.

The scene changes at Chengalpattu Junction, on the outskirts of Madras. It’s now 7:00 p.m. and crowds of young professionals have left work in suburban offices and await their train into the city.

The fields give way completely to a rainbow of tall skinny homes, to the crush of the city. A milky, full moon dances over the lights of Madras. I close my trusty Moleskin and pack away my travel notes…the images dance vividly in my mind’s eye.

Pondicherry, the once French India…part one


Colonial architecture in the French quarter

From the time we arrived in Bangalore, we had been told to visit Pondicherry. “You’ll feel like you aren’t quite in India,” people say with a twinkle in their eye.

We decide to fly to Chennai (or the once and more romantic sounding Madras), then take a leisurely drive south to Pondicherry. With our driver forewarned to be sensible (well aware of the customary incautious driving), we make our way down the Coromandel Coast of the Bay of Bengal.

The mass of Madras gives way to villages and verdant fields stretched along a narrow highway – squeezed with villagers on foot and bike, goats, cows and bullock carts, and then the stream of traffic. We’re all vying for space against the ‘green monsters’ as I’ve dubbed the massive hulks of metal, painted a shade of that pesky green. There are herds of them, public buses that transport millions of people daily throughout India. They stampede the pavement like rampaging elephants, horns trumpeting and wheels trampling – commanding the road as they overtake dangerously, swerving out and back into their lane with only a fraction of space to spare. Your life flashes before your eyes, bend after bend. By the time we arrive in Pondicherry, this passenger is a wreck.


The welcoming kolam

“I’ll have a gin tonic please,” I plead as we sink into deep wicker chairs at Maison Perumal. We’ve been welcomed with garlands of jasmine and fresh lime sodas in the three-storied courtyard…ironically stuffed with pots the same shade as the ‘monsters.’ “I’m just happy we’re alive,” our son quips as he sips his lime soda.

Jaison, our host at the Maison explains the intricacies of transportation in India. “The buses are on a tight schedule, they have to move ma’am. Maybe take the train back…that’s the only way to see India.” I make a note to check the train schedule.

Pondicherry, the French interpretation of Puducherry (meaning new settlement), has two distinctive quarters, the Tamil and the French. We initially stay in the Tamil quarter. Originating from the Tamil population, the state surrounding the Union Territory of Pondicherry, it was once referred to as ‘black town’. It was settled alongside the French quarter in the late 1600’s.

The Tamil quarter developed around five Hindu temples, countless small pagodas and the Grand Bazaar. This is where the highest caste of Hindus, the Brahmins, lived as well as the businessmen who controlled large-scale trade, the Chettiars. Maison Perumal had been the home of a prominent Chettiar family, the Sunder Iyers, for more than one-hundred years. The family were bankers and cotton traders and lived in a multi-generational fashion – framed sepia photos line the corridors and hint at their privileged lifestyle.


Sam John at Maison Perumal

Sam John, the hotel’s manager greets us. Meticulous in starched white cotton, he points out the finely carved pillars that elegantly frame the courtyard. “This family traded in Burma, so returned with Burmese teak. This is a large courtyard, sixteen pillars, fitting for a prominent Chettair mansion.”

It seems we’re sitting in the men’s courtyard, the women’s is the smaller one, close to the kitchen. They share similiar architectural features; red-oxide tile flooring for colour and open air wells for ventilation and light. In fact the age-old concept according to the Vaastu Shasta (the traditional Hindu system of architecture), each house must posses an open courtyard to honour the auspicious link between the five elements – the courtyard also bustled with family gatherings.

I ask Sam about the stone bench at the entrance of Maison Perumal, having noticed that the Tamil homes have a street verandah with a lean-to-roof over wooden posts, and a masonry bench tucked in the corner. “This is called the thalvaram. A shady place to give protection for the passers-by and to protect the building from the sun and rain. The benches are thinnai, used to welcome strangers or to chat with neighbours. We like sitting cross-legged on the benches, keeps us nimble, like yoga,” Sam tells me.

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Sunday morning thinnai

We experience the concept of thinnai first hand as we’re invited onto a verandah as we pass by a quaint bungalow early Sunday morning. Two sister-in-laws are chatting as they shell peas for mid-day lunch. Like us, one of the ladies is also visiting from Bangalore. We comment on the chaotic streets that we’ve escaped from. We relish breathing the healthier air of  peaceful Pondicherry.

Sam John mentioned the importance of retaining this low-key way of life when we had spoken. He was passionate in explaining that Maison Perumal is a Cgh earth experience hotel, they have a clear ethos.


A tri-shaw tour

The chain of hotels has non-negotiable principles of preserving the nation by honouring local heritage. Cgh hotels are restored to preserve their heritage and architecture. Sam had told us, “Respecting the past, all the hotels have adopted the local culture and way of life, paying homage to traditional modes of living, nature, architecture and heritage.”

At Maison Perumal, we ‘feel’ the ethos as we appreciate the attention to detail in the restored building, its second story evoking the French style with stained glass windows and authentic furnishings. This was often the case in a Tamil home, the marrying of the Tamil and French style. We enjoy local cuisine and an opportunity to tour on a trishaw. “We’ve engaged locals to do these tours,” Sam said proudly. “It helps support the community.”

One morning during our stay, a kolam is being chalked in the courtyard as we make our way to breakfast. It is a morning ritual for the Tamils (as in other parts of India) to create a design in the courtyard and at the home’s entrance. They are delightful either in their simplicity or in more embellished artistic forms, although decoration is not the main purpose of a kolam. Traditionally drawn from rice flour it welcomes people, small creatures and even deities, not least of whom is Lakshmi, the Goddess of prosperity and wealth.

The patterns range from geometric drawings around a matrix of dots, to free form art work and closed shapes. Folklore has evolved to caution that the lines must be completed so as to symbolically prevent evil spirits from entering the inside of the shapes, and thus from the inside of the home.

Such ancient traditions such as these are still a part of every day life for the people in the Hindu enclave. The French quarter gave an entirely different sense of time and place. Puducherry, or Pondy, as the locals now refer to their city, has been a base for trading since the early 1520. Of the Europeans, the Portuguese were here first to trade in textiles; the Dutch and the Danes followed. But it was the French who rebuilt a prominent fortified town and a thriving port of call, despite the British (in nearby Madras) razing most of it to the ground in 1761. The Treaty of Paris returned Puducherry to the French in 1763 and they quickly rebuilt. Today its unique charm captures the romance of those early Colonial days; of retreating  from the punishing heat on breezy verandahs after a day of trading those sought after commodities: cotton, indigo, cinnamon and cardamon, coffee, mehe pepper, cowrie shells and Chinese porcelain. They all passed through the warehouses before journeying, east to west.


The respite of a colonnade portico

The French quarter, home to the French and other Europeans was dubbed ‘white’ town. Their homes and public buildings mirrored the upper-class French style. Imposing gates hinted at the prosperity of the owner ensconced behind high compound walls. They hid lush garden courts and verandahs decorated with exquisite scrolls and floral motifs. Ideally facing the sea breeze, the colonnaded porticos were essential to day to day life as the settlers coped with the extreme heat and humidity –entertaining staved off the sometimes interminable boredom of life in the Indies.

Women of the day visited, gossiped, read and wrote short stories. Tales were told of ‘Indian culture’ as they perceived it to be. Their interaction with the ‘natives’ was restricted to a minimum – mostly to their staff of butlers, gardeners and servants, and punkah wallahs who ensured a constant flutter of air from delicate wicker fans. Every good home also employed palanquin carriers who transported their sir and madam in improbable style. The large box-like contraptions with shuttered windows and a long pole on either end, (handles for the carriers) allowed residents in the French quarter to ‘hide away’ as they made their way through the streets.

We take a tour with Ashok who works with INTACH, the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage. Their mission is to preserve heritage buildings, save them from further dilapidation, breathe life back into their storied pasts. We’re told the old town is in danger of losing its unique charm if more treasured buildings cannot be rescued. Along with the beautifully restored we see once-proud homes, shops and government buildings, lingering and neglected in a slow, sad demise.

Ashok leads us to one of the loveliest of the restored mansions. As we enter through the gate to a stately, white and lemon-hued mansion, there is complete silence despite the presence of many women. They sit embroidering, the chirp of birds and the rustle of palm leaves their gentle sound track. “This was the French Trading Company office and then the Governor’s mansion,” Ashok tells us. “Now run by the Sisters of Cluny Church, they train and help underprivileged ladies through their embroidery work.” It is an uplifting setting and a noble venture – an example of the practical possibilities of preserving the legacies of bygone years.


Embroiders at work in a peaceful setting

Deciding to stay a few evenings in the French quarter, we meet Chandra, a lovely young Parisian. Along with her cousin Ryan, she is the acting proprietor of La Closerie, Bay of Bengal. The guest house is a combination of an old French home and a new annex that melds together seamlessly.

“My mother bought the colonial home about twenty years ago. It was restored and extended four years ago, I’m here to manage it for a year,” Chandra says. She mentions the contrasting pace between Pondy and Paris. “There are quite a few of us French here with Indian roots. It’s a vibrant community, a unique opportunity to spend a year here.”

Chandra is one of many French men and women we meet. When the French left Pondy in 1954, many residents retained Indian citizenship and property, even those who chose to return to France. While some descendants benefited from inherited homes, others found it to be a burden and unable to meet the cost of refurbishment.

Jawaharlal Nehru himself, who in 1947 became the first Prime Minister of Independent India, made it a point to preserve the unique heritage of this once French India. “I want Pondicherry to remain a window of culture,” he had stated. And indeed through the efforts of INTACH and other committed bodies like cgh, Pondicherry is trying to do just that.

We take a late afternoon stroll along the sea front, joining the locals taking in the salubrious sea air. People linger in groups conversing, or ponder alone matching the brooding sky over the Bay of Bengal. The weathered lighthouse looms over the crowds, once more useful when it guided trading ships into these shores. Sculptured pillars from an ancient fort stand guard over a statue of the revered Ghandi – a statue of Nehru stands close by. The scene is much changed since boatmen and tall ships crowded the jetty, and the more somber history of Pondicherry’s colonial days unfolded– the shipping of thousands of Tamils as ‘coolies’ or indentured workers and slaves.

But for now we leave the sultry beachside with its gentle waves, with its people – French, Tamil and Muslim living harmoniously. A place where time stands still yet moves cautiously forward. One last time, we cross back into the Tamil quarter…there’s the Grand Bazaar to visit and that train passage to reserve back to old Madras.