India has always been a country rich in its architectural identity, and the arrival of European settlers in the 1400s introduced the influences of the western world into the Indian architectural fabric. The most prominent among these influences was the French style which quickly spread along the coastal towns along the peninsula.

An overview of French Architecture in India - Sheet1
French influence seen in Pondicherry._©Ashwini Chaudhary

Introduction to French Architecture in India

After the Dutch and English, the French established colonies in India, and their influences are still seen in some areas of the country today. Pondicherry, Karikal, Yanaon on the Coromandel Coast, Mahe on the Malabar Coast, and Chandernagor in West Bengal are some of the earliest French establishments. After the first permanent settlement in Pondicherry, the French soon expanded their presence in India by setting up a string of colonies and forts. In the 18th century, French architects began experimenting with more European styles, resulting in notable works such as the Palace of Versailles-inspired Rambagh Palace and the Neo-Gothic St. Paul’s Cathedral.

An overview of French Architecture in India - Sheet2
Rambah palace, Jaipur is distinct in its Indo-French style._©Unihotels

The 19th century saw a decline in French architectural activity in India, but the 20th century witnessed a resurgence, led by such architects as Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret. Their work helped shape the modern cityscape of Chandigarh, which is now considered one of the most important examples of 20th-century urban planning.

Characteristic Elements of French Architecture in India

French architecture in India is a blend of Indian and French styles. The most characteristic element of French architecture in India is the use of columns to support the roof and divide the building into sections. Dormers, Shutter windows, rounded towers or gables, sloping roofs, and chimneys were prominent features of the Indo-French architectural style.

An overview of French Architecture in India - Sheet3
French architectural elements like sloped roofs are a common sight in French Quarters._©Shutterstock

Another characteristic element of French architecture in India is the use of arches- either free-standing or attached to the walls, and ornate designs on surfaces such as ceilings and walls often made with stucco or plasterwork. French towns in India used grids, clean sectors, and perpendicular lines in their urban design.

The Architecture of the French Quarters in Pondicherry

Visitors to Pondicherry can see the romance between different cultures and architecture on its streets. The city divides itself according to its architecture into the French Quarter and the Tamil Township. The minor features of the cityscape, such as French-written signboards, white-painted buildings, decorated facades, etc., depict the French portion of Pondicherry. 

An overview of French Architecture in India - Sheet4
The White town also known as the French Quarter._©Nullvoid

Parisian influence reflects in the streets lined with pastel-coloured houses, each with its unique style. Many of these houses feature wrought iron balconies and shutters of typical French architecture. Currently known as the White Town, the French Quarter in Pondicherry features Villas with large compounds and houses the color of sunburnt yellow, peach, or white, reminiscent of the south of France.

An overview of French Architecture in India - Sheet5
Aayi Mandapam features traditional French elements like pediments and columns._©M Amirtham Dinodia Photo

One of the most notable features of the French Quarters is the Aayi Mandapam, a monument built in honour of the wife of a French governor. Made up of six columns supporting a dome and decorated with intricate carvings, this monument is distinct in its French essence. Another interesting feature of the French Quarters is the ‘Statue of Dupleix’ erected in 1817. The statue depicts Pierre Dupleix, the first governor-general of Pondicherry. The French Quarters are a beautiful example of how two cultures can come together to create something truly unique.

Indo-French architecture in Chandernagor, West Bengal

The French East India Company first established a settlement in Chandernagor in 1673. It became an epicenter for French trade when the Nawab of Bengal gave permission for a trading post along the Hooghly river. The city’s architecture is a blend of French and Indian influences, divided into French and Indian Quarters. In contrast to early British buildings, French architecture utilized local raw materials and considered the local climate. The French architectural style included French shutter windows, carvings on archways, and thin street fronts, blending nicely with traditional Bengali homes’ courtyards and backyard gardens.

An overview of French Architecture in India - Sheet6
Influence of French Architecture in Chandernagore._©Rama Warrier

The majority of the structures in the French institutions showed the use of local resources and materials as well as Bengali influence in their layout, even though they resembled settler residences while adhering to classic geometry, ornamentations, and construction details. Due to the town’s geographic position, the buildings were elevated by a deep foundation to rise above the soft and moist soil and had high ceilings for natural ventilation.

Some of the most notable examples of Indo-French architecture in Chandernagor include the Governor’s House, the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, and the Church of St. Francis Xavier. The Governor’s House is a two-story building with a grand staircase leading up to the main entrance. The front facade is decorated with ionic columns, while the back features Rajasthani jali work.

An overview of French Architecture in India - Sheet7
The Chandernagore Church in the French Quarter._©Biswarup Ganguly

Today, the French Quarter is a recognized UNESCO World Heritage Site due to its well-preserved architecture and historical significance. Visitors to the quarter can see a variety of architectural styles on display, including Indo-Saracenic, Baroque, Rococo, and Neoclassical. Many of the buildings in the quarter are still used for their original purposes, such as government offices, churches, and schools.

French Influence on Contemporary Architecture in India

Palace of Assembly, Chandigarh by Le Corbusier._© Roberto Conte

In more recent years, contemporary architects in India have continued to draw inspiration from France, creating modern interpretations of classic French styles. This can be seen in buildings like ‘The Leela Palace’ New Delhi, which blends Art Deco and Neoclassical elements to create a truly unique Indo-French monument. French Architects like Le Corbusier laid the foundations of modern urban planning in India.

Citation

  1. French architecture in Pondicherry – musafir (no date) Musafir.com. Available at: https://in.musafir.com/blog/what-the-french-left-behind-in-pondicherry-architecture (Accessed: November 3, 2022).
  2. Gautam, U. (2017) France within India: Architectural ties to a common heritage, Architectural Digest India. Architectural Digest India. Available at: https://www.architecturaldigest.in/content/france-within-india-architectural-ties-to-a-common-heritage/ (Accessed: November 4, 2022).
  3. Sariya, T. (2022) Exploring Colonial Architecture in India – part II, Caleidoscope. Available at: https://www.caleidoscope.in/art-culture/exploring-colonial-architecture-in-india#:~:text=French%20Architecture%20in%20India&text=The%20establishments%20were%20seen%20in,rich%20in%20French%20architectural%20history. (Accessed: November 4, 2022).
  4. Sharma, P. (2022) Colonial architecture in India, Biltrax Media, A Biltrax Group venture. Available at: https://media.biltrax.com/colonial-architecture-in-india/#:~:text=Architecture%20of%20the%20French&text=The%20Indo%2DFrench%20architecture%20adapted,%2C%20chimneys%2C%20and%20sloping%20roofs. (Accessed: November 5, 2022).
Author

Badurunissa is an architect, history enthusiast, Literary fiction aficionado, and aspiring writer. She likes to weave worlds through words and is always trying to find ways to understand the parallels between culture and architecture. A lover of the lively and vibrant, she seeks to create spaces that emulate the same.

Write A Comment