Jane Jacobs, a self-taught urbanist and activist believed that a city had to be experienced, lived in and required unique customized solutions. Many of her principles come across as common sense today but were ahead of their time at one point. The Jane Jacobs Walk Foundation organizes annual neighbourhood walks early May, to coincide with her birthday. This year UDC brought the walk to India – to Pondicherry, Chennai and Mumbai. I was lucky to have been able to attend the walks in Pondicherry and Chennai, both of which changed the way I look at these neighbourhoods. This here, is an account of the walk in Pondicherry’s Boulevard Town.
“Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.” – Jane Jacobs, Death and Life of Great American Cities
Pondicherry has three strong influences that lend it a unique character. It was a stronghold of the French from 1674 to 1954. The French quarter is a distinct European neighbourhood, quiet streets edged with characteristic yellow buildings. The second is that of Shri Aurobindo, a spiritual leader whose Ashram has a strong presence in the French quarter, with its grey austere buildings and a radiating peace. The third, in complete contrast, is the Tamil town, noisy, lively, vibrant and dirty. In the wonder that is Pondicherry, these distinct neighbourhoods coexist and thrive, through an intermingling culture, streetscape and architecture.
Our hosts for the Pondicherry walk were Vidhya Mohankumar and Devangi Ramakrishnan. The walk was attended by a very enthusiastic motley crowd. We were asked to do a round of speed dating to get to know our fellow walkers before we commenced the walk and it was rather interesting to note that not all of us hailed from Pondicherry. Walkers came from Chennai, Bangalore, Calcutta, Trichy, Rajkot, Guwahati, Ernakulam and Mumbai but no, they weren’t tourists… they were just people who connected with Pondicherry enough to move there and make it home.
Our walk started from Le Café on the beach, after a quick coffee and croissant for breakfast, meandered through the French Town pausing at notable buildings, and a forgotten feature here, a game play in the shade of a tree there, to the Tamil Town and ended with lunch at Surguru, a time-tested local favourite notable for its south Indian thali meal.
The whitewashed Le Café on the water side of the promenade is housed in the old port house. It is a fine example of adaptive reuse of a heritage building. I remember spending a lazy Sunday here once, many years ago; greedily soaking in the vast expanse of the ocean, but it was India Coffee house then. The current management and service of the café leave a lot to be desired.
We then walked down the promenade that runs along the beach, also known as Goubert Avenue. It was and is Pondicherry’s most used and celebrated public space. Although the promenade is bereft of much-needed shade, making it a trying place to be in during the day, once the sun sets, it transforms, filled with people young and old enjoying the view of the ocean, street vendors and food carts creating a bustle. What makes it more special is that vehicles are not allowed on the promenade from 6 pm to 6 am everyday making it all the more delightful as a public space. Interestingly, this is not a new phenomenon; carriages were not allowed on the promenade during the French rule as well! It is heartening to experience a pedestrian priority public space, when many of our cities are becoming increasingly vehicle-oriented and elitist malls are being cited as public spaces. Jane Jacobs believed that life was on the streets of a city, that different people used it differently during different times in the day creating a street ballet of sorts.
We passed several monuments and buildings of repute on the promenade. One worthy of mention is the abandoned Mairie building/ Hotel de Ville, once a beautiful town hall. Despite the name, the building was never a hotel, but was the office of the mayor, a community centre for public events and registrar for marriages. A nondescript building in the campus still functions as a marriage registrar, confirmed by one of the participants who recently attended a wedding there. The future of this building is in peril, for unless conserved it will collapse. Sadly, India does not have strict heritage laws and when buildings are abandoned or fall into disrepair they are often demolished, destroying centuries of history and heritage for the sake of convenience.
With heavy hearts we trudged forward to the oldest school in Pondicherry, which was featured in the film, Life of Pi. The compound wall did not deter the dedicated; we climbed a bench to peer into the school courtyard and its empty hall ways.
The walk was interactive with discussions and games that got us thinking. We were asked to list the elements that make up a street. Most of us picked visible elements that we would use such as street furniture, benches, dust bins and trees. We were pointed out that the unsung heroes of the street are the invisible underground services such as the storm water, sewer and electrical lines. (Disclaimer – I was asked not to play the game given that designing streets is one of the things I do for a living)
As we meandered through the French quarter, we learnt to recognize French buildings with their style of windows, doors, and colours from the Ashram buildings which were gray, simple and elegant. The Indo-French architecture of houses is characterized by direct entry from the street into a landscaped courtyard around which the house is organized. Deep verandahs circumvent the courtyard enabling the inhabitants to enjoy the garden from the shade. The first floor usually has French windows/doors that overlook the court.
Another characteristic feature of these buildings is the window grills which project outwards. After a game of guessing, we deduced that it allowed a person to look down both sides of the street as opposed to a straight grill which would only offer restricted views of the street just in front of the window, directly relating to Jane Jacobs’ principle – eyes on the street to create safer neighbourhoods.
Many of the old Indo-French buildings are now being restored and converted to hotels, and an award-winning example of one such building is Hotel D’lorient (Neemrana Group) which was once a public institute. We stopped here for a much-needed refresher of ice-cold water at the courtyard café.
I stayed there last year, and have to applaud the excellent conservation efforts in restoring the lime plaster and old furniture and innovation in including and successfully hiding modern-day plumbing and air conditioning. Though I would recommend everyone to go stay there, I have to warn you that the toilet and bath have no doors.
Our next stop was Bharathi Park, surrounded by an ensemble of important buildings, the impressive UCO Bank building, the state legislative assembly, the government hospital, a beautiful colonnaded building that houses the book society and Qualithe, a hotel and bar that has stood the test of time. It is one of the few bars which is not air-conditioned, full of history, character and locals that have been there for a long time and make for some interesting conversation.
Bharathi Park was an open ground where the French military practiced their drills, and was turned into a park in 1940. Pillars from Gingee fort were brought to Pondicherry to support Dupleix’s statue and are now randomly strewn around the park. The park is a vibrant urban space and supports a variety of uses through the day. Families of patients in the government hospital use the park to rest eat and wait. Patients themselves frequent the park to get some fresh air and hobble around, often in their hospital clothes! Others use it as a park, children play, and some choose to walk through the park as the surrounding roads have no footpaths.
We proceeded to walk past the Ashram and the only Hindu temple in the French quarter the Mannakkula Vinayakar temple, with its famous mascot; Lakshmi the elephant. Urban legend has it that it that the noise from the temple angered a French Governor who ordered his men to throw the idol into the sea, only to have it appear back in the temple even before the men could return to the shore! Dupleix’s wife is also said to have ordered for all the temples in the current French quarter to be converted into churches, but for reasons unknown spared this one.
Our next stop was Golconde, a dormitory belonging to the Ashram, very different in character and style. It is a beautiful example of modern architecture that is designed to be climate friendly. Unfortunately, they do not allow large groups to enter the premises in the interest of the privacy of the inmates, so we gawked at the building from outside and plodded on. I made a mental note to return to it on another day on my own.
The French town and Tamil town are separated by a canal, built by the British during their short reign. This canal carries the town’s sewage and storm water and is a very strong physical and visual barrier between the White and Tamil Town. I wonder if it was planned as a barricade and a symbol of division. From the Canal, the character of the streets change drastically, you have to navigate between vehicles and people and watch where you step, the noise rudely shakes the reverie of the French Town out of you.
Amongst the chaos of the Tamil town there is one street brimming with charm; Vysial Street. All the houses have the traditional thinnai and thazhvaaram, symbols of old world hospitality and the street boasts of visitors like Shri Aurobindo and Subramania Bharathiyar. The buildings on this street defined the edge of the street, greatly engaging with it due to the lack of compound walls or setbacks.
The tree-lined street seems to be from another time, from an old Tamil movie, I half expected giggling girls in half sarees to run past me.
The star on this street is Hotel La Maison Tamoule, belonging to the Neemrana group, an exemplary example of conservation and adaptive reuse. The lovely staff served us some cold hibiscus juice, a welcome respite to the unrelenting heat.
Our penultimate stop was the Goubert Market, a splendid place filled with exciting sounds and smells, begging to be explored, from juicy mangoes to alphabets than can be fried, pan chewing fat ladies, strong-smelling heady flowers, one could easily spend a whole day here and not buy anything.
The walk ended at the V.O.C. School, named after V. O. Chidambaram, the freedom fighter hailing from Pondicherry. Unfortunately its buildings are in a state of disrepair. The school is organized around a courtyard, shaded by old trees, and has a magical quality to it. The walk lasted almost 5 hours and an exhausted bedraggled but happy bunch of us took a last lingering look at the school and dragged ourselves forward to the promise of lunch and air-conditioning.
Though I have been to Pondicherry very many times, the walk bathed the city in new light. A nice old building I may have passed many times came alive with a story, the difference between the white town and black town was made more apparent by a game we played, there were bits of colour in a previously black and white landscape. A walk like this to me, engages one with their community, awakens a sense of civic pride and can be the stepping stone towards a change, towards better cities and more active communities.
Photographs Courtesy- Aishwarya Rajagopal, Hareesh Haridasan, Devangi Ramakrishnan
Nithya Ramesh is an Architect – Urban Designer, passionate about experiencing and changing cities. She currently works in Jana Urban Space Foundation, Bangalore creating better streets and public spaces.