Pondicherry Past and Present

General Introduction

After their defeats and frustrations in the 18th century and the conquest of India by the British, the French deliberately wanted to forget the remains of Dupleix’s short-lived empire. Pondicherry was only a name in their memory, learned by heart by the schoolboys along with the list of the French départments and leaving a feeling of regret at a lost opportunity, a colonial adventure which ended in disaster.

Historians favoured Dupleix and Bussy’s valiant deeds, the golden age of the French presence in India, considering the 19th and 20th centuries a time of insignificance. It is true that Pondicherry, after the retrocession following the Napoleonian wars, was a small coastal town, with no political, strategical or military importance, a victim of British hostility and of metropolitan abandonment and that it played only a minor role.

But its history is not without interest, since, as pointed out by Jacques Weber, it is marked with “the meeting of the French civilisation, impregnated with the ideas of the Revolution and traditional India with its caste sytem” and also because it was “a French establishment in a British world.”

A curious reversal of situation took place since the transfer of territory to the Indian Union: today Pondichérry is “à la mode” and is an important site on the tourist map of India. There are several reasons for this renewed interest for the ancient French settlement.

The first one - and it is by far the most important - is the fact that the people of Pondicherry themselves are very keen to keep their identity, the French character of their town whose traces are still inscribed on the stone of their houses and in their hearts; they want to have a special place among the other states of the Indian Union, as testified by the fierce resistance they put a few years back to an attempt of merger with the neighbouring state. The local authorities never miss an opportunity to remind the population of this specific character and the people have taken responsibility for themselves to fight for the French heritage with a conviction that would make the French colonial administrators in charge of the territory before the second World War blush with shame.

The other reasons are les important, but they are not negligible. There is, on the one hand, the influence of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram in India and in foreign countries, firmly entrenched in the town for more than half a century by the Mother, a French national, and on the other hand, the role played by Auroville, as a society scheme and a laboratory of new experiences.

All this explains the extraordinary touristic development of this former French settlement: Indians, French, foreigners, all rush to this town to enjoy its “French touch” which is not found anywhere else in India.

This is the reason why we have collected all the available documents related to the urban development of Pondichery from the origins to the present day.

This CD, intended for our Indian friends and our fellow countrymen, is at the same time an introduction to the history of Pondicherry, an inventory of monuments, a guide and above all “an invitation to enter into a closer relationship with the spirit of the place” (R. Dulau).

In the first part, we show Pondicherry from the origins to 1824, we lay stress on the dazzling expansion of this modest textile centre which became, for a short period, the capital of a potential empire in the first half of the 18th century, then, we dwell on its slow death after its destruction by the British in 1761. This development is illustrated with the magnificent watercolour plans and maps preserved in French archives.

In the second part, we present Pondicherry from 1824 to the present day, a small colonial settlement now merged in the Indian Union, we point out the difficult stages of its rebirth, then, its slow expansion before becoming an Indian territory. We can still have a fairly good idea of the town since streets, public buildings, private houses, and also local people in their daily life, were photographed from the end of the 19th century. All these documents will be used in our presentation of the town.

Finally, looking towards the future, in conclusion, we will evoke the urban projects of the Pondicherry Government and what has been done to preserve this Heritage.