The French Footprint
I was visiting Pondicherry after a long time again. This time with the sole aim of visiting the Matri Mandir at Auroville. I was always intrigued of this golden orb and its French Connection!
It was in 1673 that French first set their foot on Indian shores. The French East India Company set up five trading posts along the coast gradually establishing French town and taking the control of the territory.
A few battles later the British and French made peace and proceeded to co-exist on Indian sub-continent with British enjoying the dominance on larger part of the country. The French were restricted to Pondicherry, Mahe, Karikal and Yanam. Known as Puducherry now, an union territory of the country, it was ceded to the Indian governance only in 1962.
Auroville a much recent addition is not the only thing that has French imprint. The French Colonial Empire has left a huge chunk of its influence on the soil of Puducherry. And as I walked down the Goubert Avenue along the Promenade beach I realized how extensive this legacy was in this part of the country in the names of its cafes, streets and the colonial buildings….even the language survives on the street signs and boards.
The French White Town:
Planned on French town planning system, Pondicherry is laid out in grid pattern with streets perpendicular to each other. The French separated themselves with native Indians and divided the town in two distinct sections; the french Quarter or Ville Blanche, the White Town as it is popularly known as and the Indian Quarter or Ville Noire, the Black Town.
The high peach, ocher yellow and grey walls, the multi paneled windows, white stucco exteriors, the polished wooden doors in arched doorways, the high ornate gates flanked by bright bougainvilleas and the wrought iron lamp-posts give just a peek of French Quarters that are the adapted version of 18th century private mansions of France.
Take a walk down the Promenade, the sea facing side of the White town and cut across the perpendicular streets for a glimpse of what once was a bustling French area and still holds it mystery beyond the high solid walls.
Some of the other colonial structures in the White Town
Once an official residence for French Governors, Le Palais Du governor, renamed as Raj Niwas, is now the official residence of Lieutenant Governor of Pondicherry currently occupied by Dr Kiran Bedi.
The foundation of original Governor’s palace was laid by French Governor Pierre Benoît Dumas in 1738 only to be destroyed in 1761 by British. It was rebuilt in 1766 as a single story rectangular buildings with wide verandah and porticos. Later it was extended into a two story building.
The palace still has the magnificent collection of crockery, brass and silverware, statues, coins, antique furniture, vases and fine porcelain from era gone by but it is not open for public visits. Still take a walk down the street to see the splendor of the lit up mansion. The main entrance is from South side. If the police guards are in a benevolent mood, they allow to take pictures from the gate.
Eglise de notre Dame des Anges:
Better known as Domus Dei Cathedral, the church facing the sea, stands in former Capuchin’s square surrounded by streets Dumas, Romain Rolland and Surcouf.
Built and destroyed twice, the existing church was built from 1851 to 1855 by engineer Louis Guerre. The brick and lime mortar structure with two square bell towers in the front is laid out in a Latin Cross plan. With an extensively decorated barrel vaulted roof, the high circular dome, colored glass windows and Corinthian Pillars, the interiors of the church give a distinct architectural flavor that is immediately attractive.
The symmetrically designed church has the distinction of being the only church in Pondicherry which conducts mass in three languages French, English and Tamil.
Step in for a while and soak in the beauty….it wouldn’t disappoint.
The French Consulate:
Used as an extension of a cemetery once, the French government bought the property in 1840 and added another floor in 1843. It was allocated to French Consulate General only in 1956.
Though the Consulate is for French nationals, a stroll by allows for a quick photo op with the yellow white walls in backdrop!
Institut Francais de Pondicherry was inaugurated in March 1955. It is engaged in research on history and culture of India, social sciences and ecology.
The grand entrance leads you into a courtyard facing an equally imposing structure inside. Two grand staircase lead to the upper floor. Visitors can take a tour all through the week till five in the evening. I was there at weekend and missed the opportunity to peek inside though.
A folk lore says that the monument was built to honour local courtesan Ayi’s sacrifice during the rule of Napolean III. King Krishnadevraya on one of his visits to trade port, chanced upon a beautiful building which he mistook for atemple. When the king bowed down in reverance, the people told him about the building being a courtesan’s house. King’s pride was hurt and he ordered the structure to be demolished. It is then the courtesan Ayi offered to destroy her own house and build a water tank for the locals instead.
Later when French tried to get supply of drinking water, they found Ayi’s tank to be the only source of sweet drinking water. The story of the tank reached the French king’s ears and he ordered a monument in honour of Ayi.
The monument is set amid a public garden. Whether the story has any element of truth or not, the monument built to commemorate provision of water to French town, still stands.
Promenade Beach and French War Memorial:
Pondicherry’s prized possession is 1.5 kilometer stretch of Promenade Beach. A favorite haunt for locals and tourists alike, this stretch has many landmarks like Light House, French Le’ Cafe, Mahatma Gandhi’s statue, stautues of Joan of Arc and Governor Dupleix and the French War Memorial.
The sea breeze, the food stalls and the enthusiastic crowd at the sandy stretch somehow pulls you in…an early morning or evening by the Promenade is not to be missed. Walk, jog, cycle, skate or just sit across the rocks and watch the waves crash and sun setting over the horizon.
The Goubert Avenue that runs along the Promenade beach has the French War memorial built in remembrance of soldiers who sacrificed their lives during First World War. A solemn structure that names of soldiers inscribed on it is lit up especially on 14th July the Bastille Day.
The French Colonial structures are reminiscent of a fine architectural legacy…a distinct delicate flavor….proof of French Footprint!