On the coast of Coromandel
Where the early pumpkins blow,
In the middle of the woods
Lived the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo…
As a child I assumed that these lines by Edward Lear, England’s 19th-century master of nonsense poetry, described a magical home for the Yonghy, his fantastical protagonist. So it was with a shiver of thrill, as at a spell taking effect, that I landed in Chennai, on India’s southeastern shore—the actual Coast of Coromandel. Lear himself visited the city in the 1870s, when it was called Madras.
Lear’s primary modes of transportation then were bullock carts and sedan chairs. I was grateful to be riding in a Toyota minivan steered by my driver, S. Jayapaul Sreenevasan, a gentleman of courtly manners dressed entirely in immaculate white, who navigated the roaring capital of the state of Tamil Nadu with a mixture of nerve and verve. The morning rush hour was thick with traffic, crow calls, and the salty air of the Bay of Bengal.
Tamil Nadu might best be thought of today as a country within a country. Under its charismatic leader, Jayalalithaa Jayaram (who died suddenly last December, plunging the region into political uncertainty), it became one of the stablest and most developed parts of India. Its more than 70 million residents power the third-largest state economy in India, with a gross domestic product of about $130 billion. Yet even as Tamil Nadu has embraced the present, traditional Tamil culture and language, which date back thousands of years, remain vigorously alive. The state’s temples and treasures have long drawn travelers and pilgrims from other parts of India, but they are less familiar to foreign visitors. Because Tamil Nadu has not been as economically reliant on developing a tourism infrastructure as other parts of India, like neighboring Kerala, only now are a number of sleek hotels coming to the state. They provide an ideal way to experience Tamil Nadu’s diverse living history, which includes the monuments of long-ago dynastic rulers, hermetic spiritual practices, and eccentric breakaway communities. From the inscriptions at the burial site of Adichanallur carved in 500 B.C. to the great Meenakshi temple at Madurai where mystic rituals are enacted nightly, there is much to discover, even for frequent travelers to India.
As we reached the outskirts of Chennai, Sreenevasan pointed out the shining headquarters of several international tech companies. The buildings looked strangely incongruous beside lagoons and marshes where egrets stalked and bent-backed farmers tended rice paddies, just as they had during Lear’s time.
Sreenevasan and I drove for several hours through a repeating landscape of rice paddies, palm trees, and little villages until we reached the first treasure of the coast, the beguiling town of Pondicherry. Officially Puducherry since 2006 (though I never heard the new name used), it is a languid and floral place, busy with birds and dragonflies, that still reflects centuries of French rule. This is another of Tamil Nadu’s oddities; while Britain colonized nearly all of India, France maintained a few small enclaves on the Coromandel Coast, including Pondicherry, which it controlled from 1674 until 1954. After independence, some Pondicherrians chose to become French citizens. Today, French is less an influence than a mode de vie.
“I think in French most of the time,” said Christian Aroumougam at the Café des Arts, on Rue Suffren. He was born in Pondicherry and educated there and in France, where he ran a yoga school until returning to India to help his parents settle into retirement. “French rule in Pondicherry was not as harsh as British rule in the rest of India,” Aroumougam explained. “They were more tolerant and permissive of local traditions and arts. You have seen the statue of Joseph Dupleix?”
A bronze tribute to Pondicherry’s 18th century governor, grandly dressed in a long coat and riding boots, stands on a plinth by the sea. Like the French street signs, the cuisine of the French Quarter, and the tricolor flying over the consulate of France, it is a symbol of pride in Pondicherry’s unusual heritage.
My base was La Villa, a delightful hotel in a colonial mansion that has been updated with imaginative architectural flourishes, like a spiral staircase leading up to a pool overlooked by elegant rooms. Each evening, I sallied out to join the crowd of flaneurs who stroll Pondicherry’s seafront. We relished the milky-green violence of the Bay of Bengal bursting on the breakwater and the cool of the sea wind. At Le Café, a beach restaurant, students and families drank café au lait and ate dosas while across the road men played boules. They posed with the same meditative hunch, hands behind their backs, that gentlemen throughout France adopt when they fling the steel balls. Between rounds, one spoke briefly to me.
“I worked for the police in Paris for twenty years,” he said. “Of course we care for France. Soldiers from Pondicherry fought for France in Vietnam.”