French Colony in Pondicherry – An ultimate walking guide
Most famous for being an Indian city with French vibes, the remnants of the French colony of Pondicherry can only be seen in 10% of the total area of the union territory. In this post, I am taking you on a virtual walk in the French colony in Pondicherry and Auroville.
Together we will explore the architecture, the subtle colors, Gothic influence in the churches, cute cafes, tree-lined streets, and wide-walkways lends a unique charm to this area of Pondicherry.
You can also find French influence in the design and culture of Auroville, the Global experimental city.
But before that, let’s start with a brief historic background.
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French Colony in Pondicherry – A brief history
The excavations at Arikamedu near Pondicherry reveals that the region was a glorious trade center in south India as early as in the 1st century AD. However, most of the documented history comes from the colonial era.
In the early 17th century, the French East India Company established its presence on the Eastern coast of India, and in 1674, they acquired a small fishing village called Putucerri, which later became known as Pondicherry.
The French administrators implemented various urban planning schemes, giving rise to the distinct French Quarter, characterized by its grid-like layout and well-preserved colonial buildings.
The colonial rule ended in 1954 when Pondicherry merged with greater India as a Union Territory. Time passed, and slowly the French cultural influences faded as the city reclaimed and embraced its ancient Indian roots. This is reflected in the current official name of the place, Puducherry.
But as you enter into the White Town of Pondicherry, you feel like you have transported into a different country. The well-preserved colonial buildings, the whitewashed walls, the government buildings, the churches transport visitors to a bygone era.
And then there is Auroville, a global experimental city that was established by a French woman in honor of an Indian sage and freedom fighter! This seamless blend of French and Indian cultures has earned Pondicherry the moniker “The French Riviera of the East“.
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Exploring the Pondicherry’s White Town and Auroville
Pondicherry is a diverse region with some of the most exhilarating places in and around it to explore. I would ideally recommend spending at least 3 days in Pondicherry on your trip. But if you have only one day in Pondicherry, then rent a bike or hire a tuktuk and set out to explore the White Town and Auroville.
And if you don’t mind walking 5 km in the hot and humid climate, just embark on a walking tour like we did. You can click the button below to download the walking map highlights the best places to visit in French Colony in Pondicherry.
Rishi Aurobindo’s life-story is stranger than fiction. A brilliant scholar born to a wealthy Bengali family, who grew up in England since the age of 5. He returned to India and joined civil services at the age of 21. While working on this role he started taking interest in the politics of Indian independence.
He soon joined the national movement by Bal Gangadhar Tilak and was imprisoned by the British. During his prison years, he was visited by Swami Vivekananda which greatly influenced his thoughts.
He studied and wrote during his prison years and converted completely from politics to spirituality. Mirra Alfasa, “the Mother”, was a French by birth who joined him in his spiritual endeavor and helped spread yoga and the vision of Auroville.
After the audio-visual tour, we then go past the French cafes and walk through the woods shielded from the harsh sun by the thick canopies. We walk up to the Matrimandir vantage point while reveling at the nature and works of art all around.
We end our trip to Auroville with a brunch at one of the cafes. Relishing the locally produced organic food is one of the best things to do in Auroville. After this, we go through the exhibit shop, buy some books and garments before we set off for a tour of the White Town of Pondicherry
You can also book a guided small-group walking tour on Viator
Please note of Auroville timings for visitors:
- Mon. to Sat., 9.00 a.m. – 4.30 p.m.
- Sunday, 9.00 a.m. – 13.00 p.m. only
- Sunday Afternoons Closed
If you are in Pondicherry for more than a day, you can choose to stay in the Auroville area. These are some good options-
Vysial Street, Heritage town
From Auroville, you can drive to Vysial Street and park your car carefully. We stayed near the Heritage town so our car remained at our hotel itself. From here begins our walking tour of the French town of Pondicherry.
Also known as the heritage street of Pondicherry, it is lined with beautiful colonial-era buildings. Most of these are residential buildings that have now been refurbished into boutique hotels.
You can also indulge in street-shopping here, rent a bike or hire one of those colorful rickshaws for commute. We choose to walk in the beautiful roads. The generous canopies shield us from the harsh sun as we walk towards the white town.
Alternatively, you can also take a bike tour of Pondicherry eliminating the need of a car or rickshaw.
Our next stop is Sri Aurobindo Ashram. This Ashram is dedicated to Rishi Aurbindo and is currently home to a community of 2000 members.
The Ashram is open to visitors from 4:30 pm to 6:30 pm, and there is no entry fee. We keep our shoes outside and enter the premises. A peaceful calm exists in the confines of these walls.
Photography is strictly prohibited inside the premises of Ashram.
Police Museum in Dumas Street
After this, we continue to walk on the beautiful tree-lined streets of Paris.. oops Pondicherry. We came across the Police Museum.
Established in 1992, by renovating a deserted house in the Dumas Street of White Town, Pondicherry, the police museum records the evolution of the police services since colonial era.
Escape the scorching heat of Pondicherry in the afternoon by entering this unique small museum.
Immaculate Conception Cathedral on Mission Street
Now we enter the gorgeous white cathedral adorned with golden bars. It is the Immaculate conception cathedral located on the Mahatma Gandhi Road – a 300-year-old shrine.
It is built in the Portuguese style of architecture and is the residence of the Bishop. The frescoes inside are as beautiful as the design outside. It is one of the most beautiful churches in India.
The Raj Bhavan is not a place where you can just buy tickets to and enter. It is the residence of the governor, a magnanimous white palace located in the white town.
You can, however, visit rajnivas.py.gov.in and register for a visit inside the premises. It stands right opposite to the historic Bharathi Park.
Bharathi Park or the government park is a green oasis in the French Town of Pondicherry. The park’s unique charm captivated us the moment we entered.
The Aayi Mandapam, a pristine white monument stands at the center of the park.This French Era monument is in the honor of a French lady who gave up her mansion for building a reservoir for the city.
From here four lanes divide the Park in almost equal parts speckled with sculptures new and old. These ancient sculptures are a tribute to the glorious history of Tamil Nadu.
With a bustling children’s park, large old trees and beaitfications around, this is one of the most beautiful parks you’ll find in India.
Right outside the exit, there is a bustling market of local food and souvenirs.
Open Time: 10 am to 5 pm
Mahatma Gandhi Statue
The Mahatma Gandhi statue across the rock beach is one of the icons of Pondicherry. Surrounded by ornate obelisks stands the statue of one of the greatest men in world history, also revered as the father of the nation.
Opposite to the Gandhi statue stands the statue of Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India. From here begins our walk along the Bay of Bengal which is lined with the best photo spots of Pondicherry.
Pondicherry Old Lighthouse
From here you can see the old lighthouse of Pondicherry which was constructed by the French in the nineteenth century. Though the lighthouse is not functional it is a significant point for many cultural activities throughout the year.
We have been walking constantly so far. It’s time to sit on the rocky beach and enjoy the sea breeze while providing the much-needed rest to our aching calves. It’s disheartening to see plastics littered over this beautiful place.
It’s not really dirty but it’s an eyesore in an area that is so clean and beautiful. We sit there for a while watching the boats and the birds floating in the canvas of nature.
Le Cafe at Promenade
Le Cafe is an important landmark for many reasons. The graffiti on its walls attract many posers in the age of Instagram. It’s also open all day and all night serving French delicacies.
While the beaches here are closed to public at 11 pm, you can still enjoy the sea breeze at this cute cafe. We walk past the cafe enjoying the vibes of the promenade.
Get yourself a two-hour walking tour of the art-trails of Pondicherry
French War Memorial
The French War memorial is the most iconic structure at the promenade, after the Mahatma Gandhi statue. It is dedicated to the soldiers of French India who died in the first world war. Pondicherry sent 800 recruits for the war and saw 75 deaths from this group.
The soldiers and their sacrifice were immortalized through this memorial. Every year 14th July is observed as the Bastille Day the memorial is illuminated. French officials visit here and lay flowers to honor them on this day.
Open Time- 10 am to 5 pm
BR Ambedkar Memorial
There are many exhibitions that go on at the promenade all-year-round. We come across one such space exhibition. Unique collages made of recycled sacks, cans, and other wastes adorn the corners. Then we reach the BR Ambedkar Memorial.
BR Ambedkar is the architect of the Indian Constitution who fought against the caste system and for the betterment of the downtrodden. It’s a small building with a fountain in front of BR Ambedkar’s statue.
Lady Des Angels, Notre Dame Church
Our penultimate stop in this walking tour is the Lady Des Angels Church, the fourth oldest church in Pondicherry. It was commissioned by Napolean III and built in Greco-Roman style.
This beautiful pink church was originally white with two functional clocks on its pillars. It is located in Rue Surcouff. one of the prettiest streets in the White Town, Pondicherry.
Now the clocks are not functional, but the church has been renovated to a great extent to make it look new. The highlight of this church is the statue of Joan of Arc outside the main chapel which faces the seaside promenade beachfront. We continue to walk towards the beachfront now.
It’s time for a little rest before we leave the seafront. The promenade beachfront is another rocky beach where you can sit for hours just enjoying the views.
It’s time for the sunset already and there is no better place to experience it than here. We sit here for some time before we head to our last stop of the day.
Sacred Heart Basilica
Pondicherry is full of beautiful temples and churches. The churches are found mostly in the French town and here I have selected my favorite three on the walking tour. The Sacred Heart Basilica is a glorious monument on the south boulevard of Pondicherry.
Established in 1902 in the Gothic style of architecture, this is the most ornate church I have seen in Pondicherry and probably the only one with this color combination. The bright red and white colors outside are complemented by stained glass inside depicting events from Jesus Christ’s life.
None of these churches are as big or magnificent as the ones in Europe, or even in old Goa in India. But they have their own charm in their simplicity.
Places to stay in French Colony, Pondicherry
If you are going to stay for a night or more in Pondicherry, White Town is the best area. There are many heritage bungalows converted into boutique hotels, which are the best to experience something special.
You can also choose some beautiful hotels across the promenade beach for a seaside view, or near the Vysial Street. These are my recommendations.
- The Promenade – Located right at the Promenade Beach, this 4-star property is my top choice
- Hotel Le Dupleix Pondicherry Located near Rock Beach, this 18th century mansion once housed the Mayor of Pondicherry
- Dune L’Orient Converted from a mansion dating from 1760, this boutique is a located close to the Promenade Beach
- Shenbaga Hotel & Convention Center A 4-star hotel in Vysial Street which is the highest building offering beautiful panoramic views from the roof-top infinity pool
Book a private excursion to Pondicherry and Auroville from Chennai
What next in Pondicherry?
Here ends our walking tour of the French Colony of Pondicherry. It was a long and exhausting one, but exciting at the same time. Isn’t it?
Now what to do next? Also known as the White Town, this is just 10% of the total area of Pondicherry. And we have only walked here.
There’s a lot more to explore in this Union Territory of India. There’s shopping and dining and exploring places like the Serenity beach, the Paradise Island and others.
But you’d need two or more days in Pondicherry to do so. Check out my 3-day itinerary and travel guide to Pondicherry to know more.
Check out our post about the best places in Tamil Nadu for more gems and travel tips in the state.
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