Ghost town | Pondicherry
The air is humid and the green is greener than I’ve seen before. Here, the sea is quiet. It fades in ombre, from a grey-tinged green to vivid blue. As I pedal through narrow lanes bathed in vibrant colours, I realise that Pondicherry is impeccably partitioned. Parts of this city are colour coded, not for aesthetic pleasure, but as an assertion of traditional identities in the diverse cultural landscape that is typical of most Indian cities.
Perhaps the clearest indication of this eclecticism is through architecture. The structures, designs, colours and doorways mark the various communities that inhabit Boulevard Town in Pondicherry.
The French quarter in Boulevard Town comprises the proverbial colonial era heritage mansions drowned in candy floss pastels. The high walled doorways embellished by columns serve as enclosures. Unlike elements of traditional Tamil architecture, these walls symbolise a very clear distinction between communal and domestic space. Located closest to the Promenade, these homes seem to resemble the block structure I’ve often witnessed in western civil architecture.
The Tamil Quarter, located deeper within the town, is instantly recognisable; its doors and houses painted in terracotta brown, ashy red, dull turmeric hues and burnt orange brightness. After sunrise and before sunset, the women of Hindu households emerge to meticulously draw ‘Kolam’ in front of their doors — the white chalk (or rice flour) defining geometric shapes both simple and intricate in design. The carved wooden doors bear ‘vasakal', a main door frame fixture typical of Tamil residences, and ‘thinnai’, a seating area outside the main door. Wooden rafters to support the terrace and timber fascias are recurring features in this region.
I was unaware of the Muslim Quarter in Boulevard Town, and the distinctive architecture that characterises it. When I encountered this area during the evening Namaaz, the projected recital near the mosque was a pleasant reminder of the diversity that exists within the area. Unfortunately, my auto rickshaw buzzed past and I missed out on documenting the subtle hued wide homes — spacious verandahs lined by iron railings and sheltered under ornate fascias — a fair excuse to visit again.
The Aurobindo Ashram and affiliated guest houses are painted in bright grey contrasted by white accents. Some of these are reused colonial buildings, but others (like the Ashram School) are contemporary structures that maximise spatial utility while blending seamlessly into the colonial architecture in the French Quarter. The arched doorways are nestled within wide white columns that rise up till the cornice. The simplicity of the doors is intriguing. While they are not ornately carved, some of them feature door handles at the bottom and door stoppers towards the top, when usually the reverse is applied.
The structural design in Boulevard Town is positively overwhelming and beautifully preserved. Each home is uniquely designed yet complements the city’s nebulous essence. At night, these flamboyant lanes are recast as dimly lit streets. Depending on the kind of person you are, you may consider this either melancholic or a safety hazard.
In flashes, Boulevard feels like a ghost town. It is not abandoned, but it has endured. The architecture is so deeply influenced by the rich and often brutal history of Pondicherry, that it is impossible to observe in isolation from the events that have shaped it. Intersecting parts of this city feel awkwardly disconnected from each other, making it difficult to estimate where it ends, where it begins, where it now stands.
Maybe it sits.
WORDS AND PHOTOS: AKSHAY SHARMA