A Historical Glimpse Into One Of India’s Oldest Colonial Port City Of Pondicherry

Pondicherry is one of the historical cities of India. As a matter of fact, it is much older than some of the other historical cities of India such as Shahjahanabad and Jaipur. However, the notable difference between them is that unlike these historic cities, Pondicherry was a port city, and it was colonial. The now “Puducherry” is a Union Territory of India located in the state of Tamil Nadu. It boasts of an extremely fascinating and dynamic timeline, scattered with remnants of what is a long period of shifty reign. The Tamilians who were native to this small oval-shaped patch of land of about 20 square kilometres experienced a major change in their economy, society, and culture as the Dutch traders set foot in the city in the early 1600s, prior to which the land was ruled by the Pallava, Chola, Pandya, Vijaynagara, and Bijapur dynasties.

The port and the rocky beach (source-tripoto.com)

Fairly undisturbed until then, Pondicherry noted a remarkable bloom in trade with the dawn of the seventeenth century. The Danes followed the Dutch, and by the second half of the century, French rule was starting to gain strength. As a result, new French colonies were coming up. However, towards the end of the century, the Dutch seemed to take over from the French, who soon retaliated and took back control. Pondicherry was under the French rule till the mid-eighteenth century, when the British set foot on the land and acquired control. The command of the city fell from the British to the French and vice-versa time and again until the early nineteenth century. The French, however, took over charge, once-and-for-all in 1815, since when it continued to colonize the city until 1954, after India gained independence. As a result of the cession between India and France, the control of Pondicherry went to the Government of India, yet the historic part of the city retained its original aura and grandeur as a part-French part-Tamil settlement.

But how does this exciting history hold any significance in the town planning of Pondicherry?

Since the beginning of time, the region has a noteworthy geographical feature- a canal cutting right through the site of habitable land which makes up the city of Pondicherry. This fact is worth remembering because it plays an enormous role in the planning of the historical city. As it gained reputation for trade, it turned into an important port city. Traders from lands far and wide crossed the great waters and banked upon the mighty and highly temperamental tides along the rocky seashore of Pondicherry. The number of merchants escalated quickly, and soon there was a need for foreign colonies on the Indian Territory.  Although the traders wanted to expand business prospects in the local markets, they wanted their families to stay safely away from the native population while inside the city. Hence, the role of the previously mentioned canal came into play. As it ran essentially parallel to the coast, the colonial settlement happened strictly in the portion of land enclosed by the sea on one side and the canal on the other. The native Tamil population was, resultantly, pushed to the other side of the canal. As time advanced, this canal got established as a strict line of control in the city, with occasional connections between the two parts. The disparity between the lifestyles of the two almost-halves of the same city was astounding! It is as if the canal is not a geographical feature dividing a city into two, but a thin line of connection between two parts of the world, extremely opposite in every respect.

Pondicherry map (source-INTACH,Pondicherry)

The social division
The French part of the city (historically known as the “white town”) features buildings dominantly of the French architectural style. One can find French-style churches, cafes, restaurants and boutiques spread all over the French town.

The Tamil town (formerly referred to as “black town”) was divided, as though equally, into three parts- Muslim, Christian, and Hindu. These had their unique modifications into the individual agraharam-style dwelling units, made to reflect their culture. For instance, the Muslim houses had jaalis on their facades. Each sub-part of the Tamil town had places of worship- Mosques, Churches, and Temples, depending on the religious inclination of the surrounding settlement.

The architecture
As one walks down the streets of the French town, he finds himself, as though teleported magically, in a part of France. The facades are decorated with vertical pilasters, horizontal cornice bands, and flat or segmental arched windows. Each façade is divided into small panels. The buildings sometimes feature a small setback in front, and at other times, open up directly onto the streets.

The Tamil part was made in the typical agraharam style of south Indian residential architecture. Dwellings have a slow transformation from public to private areas with the use of semi-covered spaces, courtyards, and backyard gardens.

The color scheme
While the French town has a mandatory color scheme of sunburnt yellow, rose pink, and white. These mild colors soothe the eyes of the onlooker while he travels through the town. The Tamil part, however, flaunts bright, cheerful shades of all primary and secondary colors.

The French Town (source-cntraveller.in)
The Tamil Town (source-lakshmisharath.com)

The streets
There are five major roads in the historical city. The oval shaped historical city is enclosed by a curved peripheral road known as the Promenade-which encloses the Tamil town on three sides, hence having Tamil names, whereas the one along the beach, enclosing the French town is named in a French style. The fifth major road is the canal road.

Although streets are arranged in an orthogonal manner in both parts of the historical city, various dissimilarities can be spotted.  The French town has roads running perpendicular to the shore, and the Tamil town has them parallel. This can be linked with the fact that all major roads in the French town lead towards the beach road, whereas in the Tamil town, multiple major roads run parallel to the canal, and open into residential streets and sometimes, major commercial roads.

The present-day Pondicherry
The modern day historical city has four major stakeholders- the Tamil, the French who come to occasionally come to visit their French homes, the tourists, and people of the Aurobindo Ashram (who have characteristic grey and white buildings). Many of the buildings of the French town have now been transformed to accommodate public and administrative functions. Although Pondicherry has expanded much beyond its original ancient boundaries, the city retains its original aura and grandeur remarkably.


Ritika Sharma

Ritika Sharma is a fourth year student of architecture, currently pursuing her bachelor’s degree from the School of Planning and Architecture, New Delhi. Being in a college with representation from all parts of India and around, she has developed a deep sense of cultural and architectural heritage, belonging and inquisitiveness towards all cultures, cuisines, languages and attires. She is also highly open to learning and adapting to the social ways of these beautifully diverse places. Numerous study trips to a different state every time over the past years of college proved immensely enlightening. These studies also helped her develop the critical eye of an analyst and the intellect of a researcher. As a student, history of architecture has also been a subject of great interest. The knack for photography and sketching only add to her interest in architecture. Her infinite love for travelling and exploring new things is unequivocal.

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One comment

  1. Wow!
    I have been to Pondy, and all that I have experienced there as a student of Architecture is beautifully presented here.
    Kudos to the writer… Job well done!

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