On a tour of the three small but attractive zones in the Boulevard Town

Among the charms of Puducherry's Boulevard Town (BT) and its immediate periphery are its small area and the variety to be found in that small area. There are roughly ten distinct precincts, all within walking distance of each other. On the east side of the canal are three zones. One, the French Quarter south of the park, has seen its attractiveness decline as uncoordinated individual and commercial decisions steadily erode the pleasure of walking in its once architecturally harmonious streets. It's almost time to stop wringing our hands about this, and accept it as an irreversible fact. On the other hand, one of the most attractive parts of the BT is the Ashram Quarter with its architectural integrity and the coming and going of its inmates and visitors.

Withering beauty

The park is a success in a more important sense: people are enjoying it as never before. Skeptics may wonder whether the new gloss will be maintained or, in line with a venerable tradition, largely allowed to deteriorate. There are already signs that what is broken in the new park seems to stay broken. But just as the park has its wonderful "inconsistent pockets" (the Balaji shrine in its southeast corner and the old French bandstand across the street, for example), the apparently uniform Ashram Quarter has some surprising corners not painted in anything like grey and white.One such pocket lies along the canal between Patel (North) Boulevard and Lally Tollendal Street. This would be a nice place to live, and it is a nice place to visit. We start our tour with the Sri Aurobindo Ashram paper unit, which makes handmade (including art and marbled) paper from cotton stock in a charming "Hobbit industrial atmosphere" you can visit between 8.30 a.m. and 12 noon and 1.30 p.m. and 5 p.m., except Sundays. Heading south along the canal is a small market that summons up images of the novelist R.K. Narayan's Malgudi. The women of this makeshift market sit comfortably under large trees selling small portions of vegetables and flowers to people, including Ashramites. Just south again are semi-shaded and, at night, ill-lit petanque pitches. Petanque is a game that is French in origin but Pondy to the core. It might even trump cricket among the hundreds of men, old and young, who play it. There are numerous pitches and competing teams all over the town. This space is one of the most frequented and accessible. You are free to watch the game as long as you don't distract the players who are intent on the play and their own comradeship, and oblivious to all else, including spectators. Petanque is played by two sides of three players each. Some specialise in rolling and others in lobbing the two metal balls each plays and treasures. (Some of the balls, still made in France, have been in families for generations). The object of the game is to win 15 points in various rounds. Points are won by whichever side is successful at the end of each round in positioning a ball closest to the small wooden ball, which is tossed out to begin each round. That side then scores one point for each of its balls closer to the wooden ball than any of those of the other side. The other side scores nothing in that round. The maximum number of points in each round is 6 but even scores of 4 and 5 are rare. There are nuances in rules and strategy that you may be able to deduce from patient observation.The religion called cricket is practised on Sundays and other holidays on a large sandy rectangle just south of the petanque pitch. This space has occasional performances on the large proscenium stage built by the government long ago to clean up what was a derelict space. To the east lies Lally Tollendal Street. We salute this 18th Century French soldier both for his name with all its mellifluous "Ls" and for the fact that he was posthumously pardoned after having been beheaded on his return to France for military reverses in India. "Guilty" - chop - "sorry".

Home to ashrams

Given the spatial and historical prominence of the renowned Sri Aurobindo Ashram, it is easy to forget that Pondy has quite a number of ashrams, all of them interesting for their founders' visions and programmes. One such is the Ramakrishna Ashram on Lally Tollendal, worth a look in for its activities alone. Next door is the small gate of a largely forgotten and slightly forlorn shrine complex believed to have been established in the early 19th Century as a garden associated with the famous Sri Kalatheeswaran Kovil on Mission and Kosakadai Streets. It is open from 7 to 11 in the morning and from 5 to 9 in the evening, and you are welcome to drop by to view shrines to Lord Vinayaka, Hanuman and the "Forest Lake" Goddess in the pipul tree at the entrance. There is also an old granite stepped tank so completely covered by green vegetative matter that you might be tempted to walk on it. It's easy to imagine what a wonderful and sacred space this would be once tidied up and returned to its earlier form of shrines in a garden. PETER RICHARDS

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