Pondicherry was established in 1674, when La Compagnie française des Indes orientales, otherwise known as the French East India Company acquired a plot of land on the Coromandel Coast from the Sultan of Bijapur.
As trading settlements went, Pondicherry was a rather late phenomenon. The Portuguese had established Goa in 1511, the Dutch Pulicat in 1609, the Danes Tranquebar in 1624 and the British Madras in 1639. Pondicherry itself had been fought over by the French, Dutch and English, and held onto a precarious toehold for much of its existence.
Then as today, the settlement of Pondicherry consisted of a cluster of some dozen enclaves entirely surrounded by British Madras State (today’s State of Tamil Nadu). The heart of Pondicherry is the old town that sits on the waterfront. Here, a walled settlement used to stand – with a tiny fragment of that wall continuing to exist at the northern edge of the waterfront.
The man most associated with Pondicherry and the French colonial effort in India, is the Marquis Dupleix, Governor-General of French India from 1742 – 1754. He it was, who, harboring ambitions of a far larger French empire in India, provoked the British into a serious of sieges and wars that resulted in the loss of much of Pondicherry’s territory.
Nevertheless, he was accorded posthumous recognition when the Second French Empire, under the reign of Napoleon III, erected a statue in his honour here in Pondicherry in 1870. The statue still stands on the southern edge of Goubert Avenue – the settlement’s lovely water-front thoroughfare.
Pondicherry is perhaps best known for Goubert Avenue and its rocky waterfront. Here in the evenings, Pondicherrians emerge to take in the sea breeze and to bathe in the tepid seawater. Unfortunately, the architecture along the waterfront itself is rather less inspiring.
As a matter of fact, Pondicherry as a whole lacks the kind of imposing imperial monumental architecture that its sister city Madras boasts. The city has a quiet and laid-back provincial feel, laid out, as it were, on a simple grid pattern, with verdant tree-lined boulevards and streets.
Like Madras and Calcutta, Pondicherry is divided into White Town (or the French Quarter), on the waterfront, and Black Town (the Tamil Quarter), the latter separated from the former by a canal. Black Town, which is twice the size of White town, is in turn segregated into Hindu, Christian and Muslim sectors. This results in an urban landscape that is multi-cultural in its outlook.
When India gained its independence from the British in 1947, Pondicherry, and the other territories of French India (the coastal enclaves of Karaikal, Yanam, Mahe and Chandernagore) remained French till 1962, when the French Parliament agreed to cede these territories to India. These territories (save Chandernagore) merged to become the Union Territory of Pondicherry, directly administered from New Delhi.
The transition had been peaceful. Unlike the British and the Portuguese in Goa, the French had been more than willing to return its territories to India. As a reward, they were allowed to stay – and even today, one sees a strong presence of French schools and non-government organisations, such as the Alliance Française and L’École Française d’Extrême Orient.
Meanwhile, the streets retain their French names, delightfully spelt out on blue and white signs, the likes of which are to be found in Paris. The city still oozes a French vibe. And the food here is perhaps the best in all the Indian port cities I had travelled to thus far – certainly, this is the only place in India where one could have a hearty steak-frites à la française.
And every steak-frites I had was simply delectable.