Pondicherry in its glory
François Martin was the first Frenchmen to settle in Pondicherry in 1675. The Dutch took hold of the town in 1693 and occupied it for 9 years during which they made heavy investments. They are notably the ones who planned the town in a grid pattern. They returned it to France during the signing of the Ryswick treaty. Three governors then succeeded to François Martin who died in 1706: Lenoir, Dumas and Dupleix. Lenoir then Dumas undertook many urban planning works. But France had its hour of glory under the governorship of Dupleix. Dupleix, named governor of Pondicherry in 1742 after having been the director of the Chandernagor trading post to which he gave a great boost, nearly manages, in 12 years, to create a French empire in the Indian peninsula.
The wars in Europe, between England and France notably, had repercussions nevertheless in Pondicherry. That is how Mahé de Labourdonnais took hold of Madras during the Austrian succession war. The British subsequently laid for their part, and in vain, the siege of Pondicherry. In September 1750, Bussy takes hold of the Gingy fortress, considered impregnable. Pondicherry is at that time at its peak, as much with regards to its radiance than to its wealth. But Dupleix fails to take over Trichy from the British in 1753. In 1754, he is called back to France and replaced by Godeheu. It is the end of an empire dream.
The Seven years war starts in 1756. The British take hold of Chandernagor and raze the city to the ground. France names a new governor: Lally Tollendal, a catholic Irishman emigrated to France, who hated the British. He takes over and razes Cuddalore, then heads towards Madras, but a British squadron is heading at the same time towards Pondicherry and besieges the city during one year. The white town will be razed to the ground in 1761. Lally Tollendal will be judged, condemned and executed for high treason in 1766. Five years later, he will be rehabilitated thanks to Voltaire. In 1763, Pondicherry will be returned to France during the signing of the Paris Treaty. The white town will be rebuilt in two years.
Pondicherry in turmoil
Till the end of the Napoleonic wars, Pondicherry will become at times French, at times British, many times besieged and taken over by the British. Bussy dies in 1785. In 1790, news of the Revolution comes, which provokes a big turmoil in the population. On March 1st, an assembly is constituted. The natives, who had been referred to as “maures” or “gentils” according to religious criteria, become known as “malabars”. The population writes books of grievances. A new era starts for Pondicherry. But in 1793, the British take over the city once again, which they will keep till the fall of Napoleon. Pondicherry will have therefore been besieged 6 times in less than a century.
Pondicherry, French at last
During the Treaty of Paris, signed in 1815, the British return to France, once and for all, its five trading posts: Chandernagor, Yanaon, Pondicherry and Karaikal on the east cost and Mahé on the west coast.
From 1815 to 1940, the highlights are: the establishment of the “Collège Royal” in 1826, of the first school in the French Empire by the viscount Desbassyns de Richemont, of the “Ecole de Droit” (in 1838) and of the first “Alliance française” (1893); the emigration through the Pondicherry port of the “recruited” coming from all of south India, heading towards the sugar islands (Reunion island, West Indies) to replace the slaves from 1848 onwards (abolition of slavery); emigration of pondicherian executives to provide for the colonial administration of Indochina after the taking of Saigon in 1860; the promulgation of the decree on the renunciation of the personal status (September 1881) which allowed pondicherians to become French citizens by adopting the Civil Code.
The pondicherians will take part in the First World War, where a certain number of them will lay their lives (a monument is dedicated to their memory). In June 1940, Pondicherry (and not Brazzaville!) is the first territory to rally to the General De Gaulle: many will join the FFL. All pondicherians become French at the Liberation.
The independence of India proclaimed in August 1947, will be followed by the unification of Chandernagor to India (1948) while the four other trading posts, making up the “Pondicherry territory” will be integrated to India on November 1, 1954. A treaty of “cession” will be signed by France and India in May 1956 and the “de jure” transfer will be held on August 16, 1962. The last, and one of the oldest colonies of France will therefore have been decolonised after three centuries of French presence, which will not have contributed to the economic and cultural development of the trading posts.
Of this colonial time, there remains a French Lycée, mostly attended by the children of a few thousand French people, for the majority of them retired from the army; a Research Institute, the French Institute of Pondicherry, which devotes itself to researches in Indology, Ecology and Social Sciences, and finally an Alliance Française.
French is however very little spoken, Tamil and English being the dominant languages. After Dupleix, France only confined itself to administrating, with no small difficulty, the trading posts that the British had returned to them, and which it would have liked to get rid of, at the beginning at least, in exchange for the Mauritius island or for Gambia.
Pondicherry is the only town in India situated just in front of the sea. The old town, of an oval shape, is planned in a grid pattern, and is surrounded by boulevards. A large canal separates the “white town” from the “black town”, that is the Tamil town. All the French Institutions (French consulate, IFP, French Lycée, Alliance Française), as well as the General Hospital, most of the Indian administration, the town hall, the Legislative Assembly and the Tribunal, are situated in the white town. The Sri Aurobindo Ashram occupies all the northwest area. A big park recently redeveloped, is situated in the centre.
The white town is dimly lit and not very lively in the evening, except on weekends when the local population and tourists come to stroll by the sea. The overcrowded Tamil town is where all the shops are. Two big East-West axes, the big commercial Nehru street (ex-Dupleix) and the Lal Bahadur Shastri street, separate the Hindu quarter with its numerous temples, in the North-East, from the Catholic quarter with the cathedral, the archdiocese and the religious schools, in the centre, and the Muslim quarter with its great mosque in the south-East. All the North-South streets, the Sinna Souprayapoulle, Barathi, Mahatma Gandhi and Mission streets, are entirely occupied by shops. The streets in the white town still bear French names (Suffren, Romain Rolland, Dumas, Surcouf, etc…) whereas those in the Tamil town bear Indian names. The Pondicherry built-up area has considerably developed these past few years: with around 1 million inhabitants, it is one of the most highly densely populated city in India.
Vice President of the Historical Society of Pondicherry
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The Alliance française is an educational organization with a non-profit cultural goal, which is to offer opportunities for people to discover French culture, civilization and language
Travel agencies in Pondicherry
By Air The closest airport from Pondicherry is in Chennai (160 kms away). Kamaraj Domestic Terminal is connected by Indian Airlines, Air Sahara and Jet Airways to and from major Indian cities. Anna International Terminal is well connected by a few international carriers to destinations in Asia, Africa, Europe and Middle East.
By Rail Villupuram (32 kms away) is the nearest railway station connected directly to Chennai which in turn is connected to major cities in India.
By Road Pondicherry is connected by good motorable roads to places in South India: Bangalore 503 kms, Chidambaram 68 kms, Kanchipuram 113 kms, Chennai 162 kms, Mamallapuram 134 kms, Thanjavur 170 kms, Thiruvannamalai 103 kms, Trichy 198 kms etc.
Bus Service It is very well connected by bus services to Chennai, Nagapattanam, Karaikal, Tanjavur, Chidambaram and to major South Indian cities including neighboring States.