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Where India Meets France


For most people, images of European imperialism in South Asia are inextricably bound up with the poetry of Kipling and the pomp of the British Raj. Yet few people, by contrast, are familiar with the former French Indian Territories, administered from the sleepy colonial enclave of Pondicherry until their return to India in 1954.

Pondicherry – derived from the Tamil putucéri, or "new village" – wasn't always French, of course. According to legend, the narrow sweep of coastal plain nowadays known affectionately as "Pondi" is the site of ancient Vedapuri, where the sage Agastya Muni founded a hermitage in 1500 BC. More recently, a mere two thousand years ago, goods from the classical Greco-Roman world were traded for dyed muslins and spices at the market of nearby Arikamedu. A thousand years ago a Sanskrit university reportedly flourished at Putucéri – though by the mid-17th century, when the French first arrived, the settlement had become a simple fishing village once again.

The Compagnie des Indes, the French equivalent of the British East India Company, was established in Paris with the blessing of King Louis XIV in 1644. Thirty years later, in 1674, its representatives acquired the territory around Putucéri from a local Tamil ruler, and set about establishing a French trading post which they renamed Pondicherry. Over the next century this enterprise enjoyed mixed fortunes. For four years, between 1693 and 1697, the post was occupied by the Dutch, who endowed it with strong fortifications before handing it back to the French in a peace settlement. Real difficulties began in 1740, however, when Britain and France, at war in Europe, carried their rivalry to the quiet shores of India's Coromandel Coast.

At first the resourceful Governor of Pondicherry, Joseph-François Dupleix, succeeded in repelling the British and extending French influence in South India. France gradually lost the initiative, however, and Lally, Dupleix's successor, was eventually obliged to surrender Pondicherry to the British in January, 1761. The settlement was handed back to the French in 1816, and was held by them continuously until 1954, when it was returned to India. In 1962 the former French Indian territories were officially reconstituted as the Union Territory of Pondicherry, with its capital at the historic city of the same name.

For almost three centuries, though, Pondi was under French rule, and this was certainly long enough to impart a distinctive Gallic quality which adds immensely to the city's charm. In 1761, following Lally's surrender, the victorious British had razed Pondi to the ground. But beginning in 1816, throughout a long period of uninterrupted peace, the French rebuilt their Indian capital within the confines of an oval boulevard which circles the entire city. Inside this oval the main roads run along straight, north-south axes, bisected by lesser streets running east-west. The city is thus divided into a series of rectangles and squares, which makes it very easy for visitors to find their way about. The eastern third of the oval is separated from the western two thirds by a straight, north-south canal. In colonial times the area to the east, facing onto the Bay of Bengal, was known as Ville Blanche, or "White Town"; this was where most French residents lived. By way of contrast, districts to the west of the canal were known as Ville Noire, or "Black Town" – an area inhabited primarily by the indigenous Tamil people.

Such invidious distinctions have long since been swept away, but the former Ville Blanche remains the heart of old Pondi. Here the finest colonial buildings, the cleanest, quietest streets, and the most distinguished compounds are set against an almost Mediterranean sea front. Even today, forty years after the Tricolour was lowered for the last time, Pondi remains redolent of France, with many streets still retaining their French names. Some recall famous generals – Rue Suffren and Rue Mahé de La Bourdonnais, for example. Others celebrate literary figures, such as Rue Alexandre Dumas, or politicians, like Rue St Martin.

The seafront is certainly the best place to start any exploration of Pondi. Viewed from here, the city's twin cultural heritage is immediately apparent. At the north end of the esplanade stand the French Institute and Consulate-General, whilst the south end terminates in the Alliance Française, all housed in fine old colonial buildings. By way of contrast, in the middle of the seafront, close by the old lighthouse and pier, a statue of Mahatma Gandhi now stands where once the stony visage of Dupleix – long since moved to the southern end of the esplanade – gazed sternly across the bay.

Immediately behind lies the former French Place, today renamed Government Square – the heart of colonial Pondi, dominated by the Raj Nivas. This two hundred year old building, perhaps the finest surviving example of Indo-French architecture, was once the residence of the redoubtable Marquis Dupleix and today houses the Lieutenant-Governor of Pondicherry. Nearby are other fascinating reminders of the past. These include the Romain Rolland Library, which holds more than 60,000 volumes on its shelves, many of which are old and rare. Pondicherry Museum functions as an adjunct to the library, and is well worth a visit, housing a remarkable collection of artefacts from all parts of former French India.

The remainder of the Ville Blanche can best be divided into northern and southern sectors. To the north, behind the French Consulate-General, lies the Sri Aurobindo Ashram and the Sri Manakula Vinayagar Temple. To the south, easily identified by its striking square towers, stands Notre Dame des Anges. Hanging within this church, which was built in 1865, is a rare oil painting of Our Lady of the Assumption presented by Emperor Napoleon III. Nearby, in a little garden off Rue Dumas, is a statue of the French heroine Joan of Arc, burned at the stake by the English in 1431.

The former Ville Noire, lying to the west of the canal, may also be conveniently divided into northern and southern sectors. To the north, beyond Cathedral Street, lies a closely-packed, densely-peopled area where the streets have names like Ranga Pillai, Chettiar, Kovil and Nehru. This commercial district is the most Indian part of Pondicherry. Here the air is filled with the scent of spices, the familiar aroma of Indian cuisine, and the warm, rolling vowels of Tamil speech. Ranga Pillai is Pondi's main shopping street, but the entire area is filled with restaurants and tea shops, lodging houses and small bars offering a wide selection of refreshments at very good prices.

Opposite the Grand Bazaar, on Ranga Pillai Street, the house of Ananda Ranga Pillai is well worth a visit. This eminent Indian, who was Dupleix's trusted confidant and trading agent, enjoyed great wealth and power during his long life. For posterity he left a detailed, erudite and fascinating diary covering the period 1736–60, a veritable treasure trove of information on Franco-Indian social customs and mores of the time. He also left his remarkable house, which has been converted into a museum. This graceful building, filled with fine period furnishings and decorations, is an exquisite example of Franco-Indian architectural design, successfully blending elements of both traditions into a single whole.

The southern section of the former Ville Noire is more Christian and Muslim in nature that the Tamil-Hindu north. Here, appropriately enough on Cathedral Street, rise the twin spires of Pondicherry Cathedral. Further south still, on Mulia Street, the minarets of the Kuthpa Mosque indicate that Tamil Muslims, known locally as Labbais, also contribute to the ethnic mosaic of Pondicherry. Near the mosque are halal restaurants, and bookshops selling Qur'ans and Islamic prayer caps. Finally, at the southern edge of town by Ramaraja Street, may be found the third of Pondi's distinguished old colonial churches, The Church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Gothic in style and serene in atmosphere, it boasts some fine stained glass and an elegant stucco facade. In the nearby cemetery elaborately carved headstones mark the final resting-place of early French settlers.

As the sun sets over the distant Eastern Ghats, it illuminates an unexpectedly evocative scene. Here, in one small corner of the Indian Union, Tamil policemen wearing unexpected red képis stand guard outside the French Consulate-General, whilst teachers at the Alliance Française struggle, against local odds, to promote French language and culture. Are such efforts doomed? Happily, probably not. Pondicherry's unusual colonial past retains an enduring fascination, and holds the promise of an increasingly prosperous future. In the not-too-distant future, India's tourist authority is likely to promote Pondi as a cultural destination. For the moment, however, the enclave remains a delightful and fascinating backwater which is sure to appeal to the discerning traveller.

Mahé, Karaikal and Yanam

Pondicherry was the capital of the former French territories in India. Besides Pondi itself – acquired from a local ruler in 1674 – these included Chandernagore in Bengal (1690); Mahé in Kerala (1725); Yanam in Andhra Pradesh (1731); and Karaikal in Tamil Nadu (1739). Chandernagore was returned to India three years after independence, in 1951, and was absorbed into West Bengal. Returned to India in 1956, the remaining four territories were constituted as the Union Territory of Pondicherry in 1962.

Today Karaikal, Yanam and Mahé are all small seaside resort towns, known chiefly for their cheap beer made possible by Pondicherry's light alcohol taxes. Karaikal, on the Coromandel Coast 100 kilometres south of Pondicherry, is similar to rural Pondi – a prosperous, Tamil-speaking enclave renowned for the abundance of its rice harvests. Yanam, located on the coast of Andhra Pradesh more than 600 kilometres north of Madras, is a tiny, Telugu-speaking town on a branch of the Godavari River. Of more interest to the visitor, Mahé, on the Malabar Coast of northern Kerala is a quaint, picturesque town, named for its founder, Count Mahé de La Bourdonnais.

Pondicherry Festivals

Festivals in Pondicherry are essentially the same as those celebrated in neighbouring Tamil Nadu, with the exceptions of Masi Magam and, of course, Bastille Day. The most important festivals, in chronological sequence, are:

•     Sankranti/Pongal

Harvest Festival (January): Observed mainly in Tamil Nadu and neighbouring Andhra Pradesh, this celebration marks the change of season as the sun moves northward. Several days of festivities are accompanied by spring cleaning, the burning of accumulated household junk, and the tracing of beautiful kilar designs on floors with moistened rice flour.

•     Shiva Ratri

The Night of Shiva (February–March): A day of fasting dedicated to Lord Shiva. Temple processions and chanting of sacred texts, culminating in the offering of bilwa leaves and milk to temple linga, the phallic symbol associated with the god. Generally large mela, or fairs, are held near Shiva temples. Sometimes there are exhibitions of fire walking.

•     Holi

Spring Festival (March full moon): An exuberant celebration at which Hindus mark the advent of spring by throwing coloured powder or water at each other. On the night before Holi bonfires are built to celebrate the destruction of the evil demon Holika.

•     Masi Magam

On the day of the full moon in the Tamil month of Masi (February/March): Hindu deities from local Pondicherry temples are immersed in the sea, accompanied by thousands of pilgrims who also take a holy sea-water bath.

•     Bastille Day

In commemoration of the French Revolution (July 14): On this day in 1789, the Bastille – a fortress used as a prison on the outskirts of Paris – fell to the advancing revolutionary forces. Celebrated with Gallic enthusiasm, uniforms and marching bands, a vivid legacy of Pondi's rich colonial past.

•     Ganesh Chaturthi

In Honour of Ganesh (August–September): Processions, accompanied by drumming and

singing, carry images of Ganesh, the elephant-headed son of Parvati, for ritual ablution.

•     Dassehra

Honouring the God Rama (September–October): A celebration of Rama's victory over the demon king Ravana. Colourful processions parade with images of Rama, his bride Sita, his loyal brother Laxman, and the ever-popular monkey general Hanuman.

        •     Diwali

The festival of Lights (October–November): The most popular festival of the Hindu calendar. At night tens of thousands of tiny oil lamps are lit to guide Rama home from his period in exile. The festival is also dedicated to Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth. Processions and firework displays mark the beginning of the new financial year.

Sri Aurobindo and Auroville

Sri Aurobindo, in whose honour both the Aurobindo Ashram and Auroville are named, was an accomplished linguist, scholar and advocate of Indian independence who was imprisoned by the British on three separate occasions. During these periods of imprisonment, Aurobindo's interests became increasingly spiritual, and he began to practice yoga. In 1910, disillusioned with the slow progress of the freedom movement and the intransigence of the British, he retired from politics and left his native Bengal for French-administered Pondicherry. Here he was joined in an intensive study of the spiritual discipline of yoga by a French woman, Mira Alfassa, who would become known to devotees as "The Mother".

As he grew older, Aurobindo became increasingly reclusive, leaving the running of the Ashram to his followers. He died in 1950, and was succeeded by "The Mother", whose brainchild, Auroville, was designed by the French architect Roger Anger, and inaugurated in 1968. Auroville, 'an experiment in international living where men and women can live in peace and progressive harmony above creed, politics and nationality', survived "The Mother" who died in 1973, and is at present home to about 1,000 individuals from more than thirty countries. Visitors interested in Sri Aurobindo and his teachings should go the Auroville Information Centre at Promesse, about six kilometres north-west of Pondicherry City.

Excursions from Pondicherry: Two of the most rewarding side trips which can be made from Pondi are to Gingee [pronounced 'Shingee'] and Chidambaram.

At Gingee, about 40 kilometres north-west of Pondi, there is an interesting complex of forts, constructed by the Hindu rulers of Vijayanagar in the early 13th century. The fortifications are fascinating in themselves – three strong hill-top keeps linked by nearly four kilometres of defensive walls. What really makes a visit to Gingee worthwhile, though, is the uncanny silence combined with the harsh, boulder-strewn landscape. There are no picture postcard salesmen here!

Chidambaram, located near the coast about 25 kilometres south of Pondi, is one of the jewels of classical Dravidian architecture. The great temple complex is thought to be the oldest in South India, and covers an astonishing 13 hectares. There are four huge gopuram, those at the north and south entrances towering 49 metres over the surrounding plain. At the centre of the complex is the great Temple of Nataraja, dedicated to Shiva in his role as cosmic dancer. Notable features include a one-thousand-pillared hall; the Nritta Sabha Court, which is designed to resemble a giant chariot, and the image of Shiva-Nataraja himself in the inner sanctum.


Text by Andrew Forbes; Photos by Rainer Krack & Pictures From History © CPA Media