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The French Influence in Pondicherry, South East India

By Wednesday, February 11, 2015 , , ,

We arrived at Chennai (also known as Madras) airport about 8am local time, and after learning that my luggage was still in Dubai (that's what you get for showing up early for your first flight: your luggage goes into the plane first and ends up way in the back), we burst out of the air conditioned airport into the muggy sunshine.

There were three of us flying in from Hamburg. One of my colleagues and I were going to Pondicherry, a three hour drive along the coast from Chennai, but the third needed to be dropped off in the middle of the city. While I've been to Kathmandu before, this was my first look at India. It was more or less what I had expected based on what people had told me of Chennai: busy, loud, hot and crowded.
Ladies in Saris riding side saddle on motorcycles
After dropping our friend off, we continued out of the city, passing dilapidated shacks, rice fields and sky scrapers housing luxury apartments. Eventually, after a long, sleepy drive punctuated with a few terrifying moments when you realize you're on the wrong side of the road and a bus is coming straight at you, we made it to a very different sort of modern India that you usually expect.


The French first came into possession of the area (now officially called Puducherry) in 1674, and held onto it (although the Dutch captured it at one point, and the British did at every opportunity) until 1954. Even after that, France still held influence, even sending French teachers to the town as part of the mandatory French civil service.

Still remaining are grand colonial buildings in cream and butter, with columns and archways and courtyards.


A broad promenade (residents told me it was once tree lined, but a storm a few years ago ripped out most of the palms)


French food and wine, crepes and restaurants and hotels with names like Villa Shanti and La Maison Rose.



A French Alliance organization showing French films (or at least, Hollywood films dubbed into French with English subtitles) and holding other social events. We stayed above a trio of older French ladies who mentioned flying in from Paris regularly.

Straight Streets with names like Rue Bazar Saint Laurent are laid out in a grid, and a "Grand Canal" (although to be honest, it's more of an open sewer) separates the "French side" from the "Tamil side".



There was even a statue of Joan of Arc outside one of the churches.
Eglise de notre Dame des Anges
While there are buildings with a clear French influence throughout Pondicherry, it's far more prevalent between the Canal and the Bay, which is also where many tourist oriented restaurants and  hotels are. (It's even still referred to as White Pondi, while the "Tamil side" is, ugh, "Black Pondi").

I was told by the professor we were working with that the reason a lot of India can look run down is the monsoon wreaks havoc on paint, aging it in one year what looks like ten. In the last year or so, a more rain resistant paint has been introduced, and there's been a explosion of technicolor buildings taking full advantage of it:


The mix of bright, eccentrically colored, buildings next to sombre, merge houses and the occasional colonial throwback gives Pondicherry a bit of an usual, eclectic feel (although should mention I haven't traveled elsewhere in India, aside from passing through Chennai and a day trip to Mahabalipuram). It also boasts being greener than other towns and cities, with more trees in the city and two large public parks, another throwback to French Pondi.

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3 comments

  1. What a lot of stuff to see! It's amazing how you can pick out details that were 'imported' from other lands. Great captures.

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  2. I never thought of India have much of a French influence. You only really hear of the British rule. I love the combinations of colors though. So vibrant!

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  3. I'd never thought of the French being in India either... The architecture is very similar to that found in Vietnam. Its a very distinctive buttery yellow and white/off-white there too.

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