Pondicherry - Basic data Pondicherry (English), Puducherry (Tamil) Aka : Pondy Area : 293 km² Languages : Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, English and French Population 2001 : 973.829 inhabitants (with agglomeration) Men : 486.705 Women : 487.124 Time zone IST (UTC + 5h30)
Pondicherry, an Island - landlocked on three sides in the midst of India - or an enclave distinguished by a unique culture, unlike any in the world ?
Essentially there are four regions making up the territory of Puducherry- as it was originally and now officially known. Pondicherry and Karaikal surrounded by Tamil Nadu, and Mahé by Kerala. The fourth is Yanam. Mahe, surrounded by Kerala, is on western coast meeting the Arabian Sea while Yanam, surrounded by Andhra Pradesh, is on the eastern coast meeting the Bay of Bengal. Once the Colonies of France in India, today they are all Union Territories- with Pondicherry as the administrative centre and effectively the capital. Comparatively small with a total area of 492 km² (Puducherry 293 km2, Karaikal 160 km2, Mahé 9 km2 and Yanam 30 km2), the territory has an equally small population density with approximately 900,000 inhabitants (2001).Yet, it has, at Rs 57500, one of the highest per capita incomes of the country. Puducherry also has the distinction of being at the top of the score for Elementary Education in the National Education Index of India (2008). In higher education, Puducherry has in recent years, become the regional hub of South India with a host of established advanced medical, engineering, arts, science and technical colleges.
There is little Industry to reflect the high per capita income, fisheries and agriculture forming the bulk. Recent successive governments have initiated various measures to stimulate industrial growth, such as expansion of the Port, Special Economic Zones and development of the Airport. However, with ‘world class’ educational institutions increasingly seeing students from all over the world, and in the same measure becoming a prominent figure on the International tourist destination map, Puducherry’s Public Policy development is seeing a significant and unique thrust towards Heritage, Medical and Educational Tourism. A host of supportive measures have recently been initiated, such as subsidies for both residential and commercial renovation and conservation.
Politics Reflecting its relatively small size and population, Puducherry has only one representative seat in the Lok Sabha- persistently aligned to the Congress Party from the very first Parliament of India. Local Political Partys generally follow alignments with the State Party’s of Tamil Nadu. Most prominent amongst these the AIADMK (All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam) the DMK (Dravidria Munnettra Kazhagam) and the PMK (Pattali Makkal Katchi). The most distinguishing feature of Pondicherry Politics is the absence of Communalism and sectarianism. Pondicherrians are resolutely loyal to their unique Social history and culture above all else. As one minister of the Pondicherry Government, speaking at the launch of Jean Paul Sartre’s “Les Main Sales” in Tamil, put it: “I’m a Muslim, elected from a constituency in which 90% of the voters are Hindu. Where else in India would that happen?”
History Tracing its origins to as early as 800BC, with the Romans establishing a small trading post, it is with the arrival of the Dutch (circa 1680) and then the French (circa 1710) that the city began to take form. Especially after 1740, with the arrival of Joseph Francois Dupleix as Governor and popularly regarded as the ‘Architect’ of the city today. Dupleix set about establishing Pondicherry as the throne of France’s Colonial ambition in India. He rapidly developed the original Dutch plans, funding every facet ostensibly with his own money, and constructed magnificent administrative and residential buildings. Along with these came churches with cathedralesque features, parks and gardens along the promenade (The Sea Front), a fortified pier, jutting far into the sea and encouraging a massive development of business and industry. By the time Dupleixs reign ended, Pondicherry had become the epicenter of commerce with the Orient for France. Encompassing trade with territories such as Burma and Vietnam to the East and Mauritius, Zanzibar, and French Africa to the West, Pondicherry became to be referred to as “la Cote d’Azur de l’Est”- the Azur Coast of the East.
Profile “France left Pondicherry in 1954, yet the French remained” is a phrase often heard. This, in great measure, is witnessed by the fact that unlike the British (and the Portuguese in Goa) the French signed a Treaty- “Traité de Cession”- with the Government of India. Giving Pondicherry a special administrative status with provisions such as a legislative assembly and French as the official language, yet more significantly, France extended citizenship to all of its colonial subjects. In addition, the French Government allowed a number of Educational and Cultural Institutions to continue flourishing, actively supporting them with funding and staffing. Prominent amongst these today : The “Ecole française d’Extrême-Orient”, internationally renowned for its research in the field of Indology, History and Archaeology, is departmentally linked to the “Sorbonne” University of Paris. “Le Lycée” (The school) provides education to the level of “Baccalaureat”- the French pre-University entrance exam. The “Alliance Francaise” provides French language classes and cultural programmes.
Together with the substantial “ex-patriot” French staff of these institutions and the many local inhabitants who have access to French citizenship- known locally as the “Tamouls Francais” (the Tamil French) or “Franco-Pondichériens, ensures that Pondicherry has an extensive and very active involvement with France.
What makes Pondicherry an Island? The French influence, is certainly the most striking of confrontations as one enters the city. The ubiquitous policeman’s “képi”- or red hat, and the churches, such as the Notre Dame des Anges with its imposing façade, flanked by square towers and a barrel vault roof with a great dome rising above.- Just as one would find in any French provincial town. Street names like “Rue Dupuy”, “Rue Francois Martin” and “Rue Suffren”. Then there are the wafting aromas of freshly baked Baguette and Croissants, as good as any in France; the buildings - unmistakably French, with huge wooden doors opening onto shielded courtyards and walls almost a meter thick; the planning layout with conveniently laid out residential and commercial zones and a canal running straight through the centre. The French language, widely spoken and inescapably heard on street corners, and in the evenings the clicks and clacks of “Petanque”- a uniquely French National game- played on grounds along the canal and the Sea front. More than this, it is the unique social concepts that Pondicherrians fiercely imbibe from their legacies; the slogan of the French Revolution “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité” (Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.) and 'Viduthalai', the great Tamil clarion call of freedom from colonial rule.
Pondicherrians don’t see themselves as a fusion of the West and the East, but as comprising parts of each, embracing the best and rejecting the rest. Thus whilst the grand colonial French buildings are preserved, the classical Tamil ones cherished, and the modern ones passionately debated. Pondicherrians reflect this aspiration in all spheres of their lives. Resolutely refusing to dilute or fuse they are as likely to listen to Bach and Beethoven in the auditoriums, the greats of Classical Carnatic on the Sea Front and French Reggae in the Park. At ease with their French past as they are with their Indian, Pondicherrians are renown for their exceptional sense of practicality. Whereas in other capitals it would be de rigueur to arrive in a motor car, Pondicherrians prefer to go about town on foot, bicycles and mopeds- after all, the well laid out streets and conveniently planned shopping centre really do encourage the pleasure of being in the open- and given the sub tropical climate, even the most chic of restaurants don’t insist on formal dress codes; shorts and chapels are as welcome as a Vaishti is normal.
Despite the relative wealth, one finds few expensive motor cars or opulently garish houses lining the streets. Where in other capitals one would find five starred hotels and designer shops jostling each other for space, here we find beautiful buildings restored and adapted into small hotels and guest houses. Antique and classical furniture shops with craftsmen outside working in wood and stone. Then there are the restaurants happily serving “Moules Marinières” along with “Idly” and “Dosa” on their menus.
Perhaps, it is also this unique sense of the classical that gave Sri Aurobindo and Subramaniya Bharathi, refuge and asylum from persecution. Internationally considered to be amongst India’s greatest of Freedom fighters, philosophers, National Poets and Pondicherry’s most famous of residents.
This legacy is an unmistakable part of Pondicherry today. Vibrant and alive, its presence felt the moment one enters the city. Encountering, on almost every street, Sri Aurobindo’s symbol, we are led through the wide streets- lined with trees and bougainvillea, to the immiscible Bharathi Park. Surrounded by grand French buildings of Administration and backing onto the sea front, this is where Pondicherrians throng in the evenings and weekends. Combining picnics in the park with walks along the sea and taking in concerts, dance performances and exhibitions along the way. All the time watched over by the figures of Subramanian Bharathi, Dr. Ambedkar and even Joan of Arc, amongst the statues and monuments. The most prominent amongst these of Mahatma Gandhi, taking centre stage on the Sea front. If this is not enough inspiration, then there is the Sri Aurobindo Ashram. One of the city’s most prominent of institutions and occupying a large part with various buildings dotting the city landscape. The Ashram brims with activity, ranging from making its world famous incense and handmade paper to research in Natural Medicine, Education, Green Energy and “Integral Yoga”. On the outskirts Of Pondicherry is the other famous inspiration of Sri Aurobindo: ‘Auroville’- an international experimental township dedicated to the ‘Realisation of Human Unity’. Engaged in similar activities as the Sri Aurobindo Ashram but distinguished by its lush green parkland surroundings and the ‘Matri Mandir’- a huge spherical monument clad with gold disks- in the centre.
Perhaps it is this Sense (or as the French would call it essence) of liberty, equality and fraternity combined with an aspiration to explore the human consciousness and an obsession for everything that is classical- Food, Music, Philosophy, Architecture- that sets Pondicherry out as an Island.