A little piece of France in India, the former enclave of Pondicherry remains a pocket of Gallic charm. Pondicherry won its independence in 1954, but a couple of hundred French families still live here on the Coromandel Coast a couple of hours drive south of Madras (Chennai).
As the setting for the film Life of Pi, the streets of colour-washed and shuttered mansions in the old French quarter have recently been cleaned up and are kept in order by policemen wearing the gendarme’s kepi. Feeling peckish? You’re just as likely to find coq au vin on a menu as a spicy chicken curry. Stroll along the seafront promenade at dusk and you might think you’re in a Mediterranean seaside town – until you see the giant statue of Gandhi.
Elsewhere in Pondy you’ll find the Sri Aurobindo Ashram and Auroville. Populated by a 2000 strong international community, the focus is the shrine-like mausoleum, shaped like a giant gold lotus flower, of the guru Sri Aurobindo Ghose, and his chief disciple, The Mother. The orderly queue to enter the Matrimandir is the only place in India you are likely to find crowds of people in complete silence – it’s surreal. If the lack of Indian-ness is too much to take, the Tamil bazaar is not far away.