The French Connection - Stories from Pondicherry
The Indian Subcontinent was primarily ruled by the British until India gained her independence in the year 1947. But it was not just the British who had their presence in the Indian subcontinent. Other European powers had their own pockets in multiple locations across India. For example, Goa which is one among the smallest state in India was under the Portuguese rule until 1961. Indian forces liberated Goa after much local retaliation. The French had four enclaves, namely Pondichéry, Yanam, Mahe, and Karikal, all of them were port towns. The presence of the French in India was mostly for trade reasons and was in frequent conflicts with the British in India. Finally, most of it was settled based on various treaties agreed over a period of time.
What is Pondicherry
Among the four enclaves, Pondicherry has been the most influenced place in India. This is very much evident the moment you arrive Pondicherry. Pondicherry has always been a charming south Indian town with its yellow colored colonial buildings and people moving around in cycles through those typical European like streets. In total the French quarter in Pondicherry looks very much like a coastal French Town. Today Pondicherry is officially called Puducherry, its older name and is a union territory that comes under the Union of India and is governed by an appointed governor.
Where is Pondicherry
Pondicherry comes in most itineraries that start from Chennai, for example, you can check our South India Itinerary - Glimpses of South India. The itinerary begins from Chennai, and you head South visiting the ancient shore temple of Mahabalipuram, drive down to Pondicherry, visit the ancient Cholan temples and finally visit the Ancient city of Madurai before entering Kerala. The itinerary covers many historical, cultural, architectural and artistic elements that were followed in this part of the world for centuries. Finally, you travel through Kerala and depart from Kochi. I was giving you an idea as to how Pondicherry could be easily included if you are planning for a South India Tour.
Our visits to Pondicherry
I have been to Pondicherry multiple times when I was part of numerous familiarization trips organized from Green Earth Trails. Familiarization trips are trips that gain us more knowledge about places, the routings and latest updates about each destination. The whole idea is to update and increase the knowledge base about each destination we suggest in our itineraries.
On every visit, Pondicherry offered us something new and vibrant in terms of experiential travel. Let me use this space to let you know more about what Pondicherry is all about. Puducherry was just like any other Tamilian town that existed here in coastal Tamil Nadu. The typical coastal Tamilian village that followed the same caste system where Brahmins ruled the Shudras (people who were in the bottom line of the caste system). This area was under different kings over a period of time. It is believed that Pondicherry has been a port for centuries, it was even mentioned in the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, 1st century CE.
Arrival of the French in Pondicherry
The French arrived at Pondicherry in the later quarter of the seventeenth century to set up a trading post, which eventually became the prime French colony in India. Later the Dutch and the English improved their presence in the area. The Dutch invaded Pondicherry from the French in 1693. However, it was returned as part of a treaty elsewhere. Decades later the English captured Pondicherry in the year 1761 and then returned it as part of a Treaty initiated in Paris between England and France. Thirty years later the British again occupied Pondicherry and returned twenty years later. Eventually, when the British had gained complete control over the Indian subcontinent, the French was allowed to retain all their settlements. For the French, Pondicherry was something important in multiple aspects and that French connection is still evident here. And that era had its own share of local retaliations and protests which were suppressed over a period of time. And then came Independent India, Pondicherry was officially merged to the Union of India on 1962, and it was declared as a Union territory in 1963.
French Influence in Pondicherry
Unlike the British, the French approach and way of doing things were entirely different. The cultural elements of the French were very much deep-rooted to Pondicherry. Probably it was just in Pondicherry, Mahe which was another French trade post in South West India, present day Kerala, does not have a visible french influence, Mahe was smaller than Pondicherry anyway. Pondicherry has one among the five French consulates in India. Here we are going to share with you the different aspects of the French connection in Pondicherry.
The Black & White Town
The town of Pondicherry is divided in two, the French quarter and the Tamil quarter. The French quarter is where you get to see the influence of the French in India and the Tamil Quarter was mostly inhabited by local Tamilians, and you can see a lot of Chettiar mansions in the Tamil Quarter. Chettiars were a wealthy trading community which thrived in South India; they hailed from Chettinad, a county some 120 kilometers east of the ancient city of Madurai. Chettiars would have been the people who used to source goods for the French to export to France. Apart from their business acumen, they are known for their cuisine - Chettinad Cuisine. There is a clear distinction between the French and the Tamil Quarters. Some call it the White town and the black town. Irrespective of the White and Black town, only the wealthy and influential could have a space in the town. Rest of them would have been in the suburbs, that was the way it was.
The town was designed to have perpendicular roads, and yellow was a general color used for the buildings. The yellow pigments were readily available for them, and so they painted everything yellow, this tradition is very much evident even today. Literally, it is no white town; it is a yellow town.
Influence of Sri Aurobindo Sri Aurobindo is a name that you hear and see very often in Pondicherry irrespective of the French or Tamil Quarter. Sri Aurobindo was an Indian Philosopher, Poet, Yogi, and a nationalist during his early years. He was born in Calcutta and later studied Indian Civil Service at the Kings College Cambridge. He was assigned to working in Baroda when started to gain alignment of thought with the Indian Nationalist movement. He was arrested multiple time as part of bomb outrages against the British Raj. During one of his tenure in Jail, he got a vision of enlightenment and moved to Pondicherry to move forward with his mystical spiritual visions. Pondicherry was then a French colony, and the laws were that of the French. Technically his crimes of the past in British India may not be counted when he was living in Pondicherry. He started the Sri Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry that embraces divinity and a divine way of life. He even followed a spiritual practice which called Internal Yoga.
When Sri Aurobindo met Mirra Alfassa
Sri Aurobindo met his Spiritual collaborator Mirra Alfassa while in Pondicherry. She had arrived Pondicherry in 1914 from Paris along with her husband. Visiting Sri Aurobindo, Mirra Alfassa found a natural equilibrium of thought. She settled in Pondicherry in 1920, four years later Sri Aurobindo, left for seclusion and he left Mirra Alfassa to run, and build the Ashram. Four decades later She formed Auroville, a spiritual village where citizens around the world become citizens of Auroville. Vast spaces of land were acquired, and a village was created by The Mother, as fondly called by the followers of Mirra Alfassa. Today Auroville is home to Aurovillians who work and practice the spirituality that they learned from the Mother. A visit to Auroville would be a distinct concept. Creative, innovative, and sustainable industries work from Auroville that aims for the betterment of humanity.
Visit to Aurovillie Gopi who is an Aurovillian conducts tours within Aurovillie sharing about the view and thoughts learned from Aurovillie. When we met Gopi, he gave us a quick visit where we could experience a glance of it. You should be visiting with an open mind to connect to what Aurovillie is all about. I think I should be writing my experience with Gopi in another blog where he expresses his views and thoughts about what it is all about. Aurovillie is about 10 kilometers North of Pondicherry, never consider Aurovillie as a local attraction, on a general visit all you could see is the Matri Mandir which looks like a distinct representation of Aurovillie, that too from far and nowhere close to it.
Biswajith's walking tour of Pondicherry
That's the spiritual side to it, but there is more to Pondicherry, nice boutique hotels, restaurant, beautiful mansions, exciting walking tours, and some great places to spend some leisure time. Biswajith was the person who took us around Pondicherry, and I should say he is the best guide in Pondicherry who has a clear perspective about what the town is all about. He is a construction contractor and does tour guiding for visitors to Pondicherry for the love of it. His wife organizes lunch and cooking classes in Pondicherry which are enjoyed by many visitors to Pondicherry. A well-versed traveler, Biswajith has a beautiful story about both sides of the coin. His walking tour is very much a personal recommendation from me, loved the time we had with him. As a South India tour operator it is these people who make our tours outstanding.
Arulmigu Manakula Vinayagar Temple While we were on a walking tour of Pondicherry with Biswajith. We walked to a French Mansion where he grew up. Further he took us to the Arulmigu Manakula Vinayagar Temple. Like many temples in India, the inception of the Arulmigu Manakula Vinayagar temple is not very much known. During the time of Joseph Marquis Dupleix, who was the governor of Pondicherry during the French tenure, there was some strong attack on various Hindu temple with the idea of incorporating Christianity to the local community. The story goes like this, Dupleix ordered his party to throw the idol of Ganesha into the sea. They did it thrice, and each time they did it, the deity was found in the temple the very next day. The operation was dismissed and never dared to repeat an act against the temple. Today the temple houses Lakshmi, the elephant who welcomes and blesses devotees with her trunk. There a golden chariot in the house and looks very much like a typical Tamilian temple.
Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, Pondicherry The caste system is something that has been haunting the Indian society since ancient times. The Shudras or the labor class had always been under suppression and oppression. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, there was a large scale conversion of Shudras to Christianity since the French were Catholics, all of them were converted to Catholics. It was largely a volunteering act to escape the burdens of caste system. Many of them had this opportunity to travel and work in France. Most of the local converts attended service at the Sacred Heart of Jesus Basilica, Pondicherry. However, the first church built by the French was the St. Paul Church which was built in 1692 which was mostly attended by the French residing in Pondicherry. The St. Pauls church was rebuilt several times due to destruction which was part of the occupation of other colonial forces mostly the Dutch. Today it is called Immaculate Conception Cathedral, Pondicherry. At the Basilica you see an idol of Mother Mary dressed up in Saree which is an intercultural influence.
Let me conclude
I am sure, unlike the British and the Dutch, the cultural influence by the French is very much evident in Pondicherry. The British were probably interested in just the wealth of the colonies, but the Dutch, French, and Portuguese did have a more profound cultural influence in their territories during the colonial era. Even in Fort Kochi, Kerala close to where I live, While you walk through the streets, the old colonial mansions that you see around were mostly built by the Portuguese, Dutch and Jewish Merchants. If there was something built by the British, they were just administrative offices and warehouses. I hope you found this blog throwing some light about the French connection in Pondicherry. I curated this blog based on stories and information I gained during my stay in Pondicherry. If you had some thoughts and stories reading this blog, I would be more than happy to read it in the comments.