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Le vieux Pondichéry (1673-1824) revisité d'après les plans anciens

Jean Deloche

English summary

Old pondicherry (1673-1824) revisited

Texte intégral

1In 1936, M. V. Labernadie published a famous monograph on the history of Pondicherry (Le vieux Pondichéry). Some years have passed since then, new investigations were carried out regarding some crucial periods of the town development. It is now time to «revisit» Old Pondicherry. From Dutch maps and the unique collection of maps and plans preserved in French Archives a comprehensive picture of the urban development of the town from 1673 to 1824 is here presented.

2Until the arrival of the French in 1673, Pondicherry was a small weavers’ centre. From this year until 1693, when it was taken by the Dutch, the French, under the command of François Martin, managed to set up a factory, to build a fort, to attract craftsmen and succeeded in making of this place a fairly large and prosperous settlement.

3At that time, there was no urbanism, the streets or lanes followed an irregular pattern, without any shape or symmetry. There was no town-planning in the native quarters of the town in the western part, or in the eastern. The layout was one of irregularly criss-crossing streets [figs. 2 & 3].

4To protect the factory from incursions, the French built a brick fortress in 1689, called le fort barlong. It was a roughly rectangular structure with 4 round towers, surrounded by an earthen embankment. Inside the enclosure, were the main buildings of the factory and the Director’s residence. The Indian population was irregularly distributed in the western and eastern part of the town, mostly in thatch-roof huts, and the few Frenchmen resided in stone houses to the east of the fort [fig. 4].

5During their occupation of Pondicherry from 1693 to 1699, the Dutch planned a large new town, on the western side of the establishment, with a very regular geometric layout: rectangular blocks of houses separated by straight streets intersecting at right angles. This layout was a simple structure which corresponded to a functional spatial distribution of the different Indian communities (brahmins, weavers, merchants, farmers, craftsmen) which the Dutch wanted to establish there. It included not only the northern tract, partially and irregularly inhabited, but also the southern land beyond the Uppar river (Petit canal), which was covered with fields, groves and gardens [figs. 5 & 6].

6Five and a half years later, when the Dutch left the place, this great urban project had not been fully implemented. Only the north-western part of the new town was occupied; the whole tract south of the Uppar river (Petit canal) was still under cultivation. The French territory was a tract of land comprising, from east to west, sand dunes along the shore, then a lower area with rivulets and finally a slightly higher ground suitable for gardens and groves.

7The town was surrounded with an earthen embankment covered with a row of bushes and thorns, provided with redoubts erected at irregular distances with two gates: the Madras Gate (at the end of Mission Street) and the Valudavur Gate (at the end of Nehru Street) [figs. 8-12]. One of the first initiatives taken by the Company was to build in the centre of the town a stronghold which could resist not ony marauders but regular armies: Fort Louis.

8Following the model of a French fort constructed by Vauban in Tournai, it had the shape of a pentagon with five bastions, two gates (Royal and Dauphine Gates) and several underground chambers for storing commodities. This strong structure, surrounded with a moat, was for more than fifty years the citadel of Pondicherry [figs. 7 & 8].

9As the population was increasing (50 000 to 60 000 people in 1710), the Company had to expand its urban area towards the south-west. The Moslems were the first settle on the other side of the Uppar (Grand canal), along the road to Cuddalore. To the north, there was the parias’ quarter with a cemetery. Craftsmen (painters of chintz mainly) came and built their houses between the big garden of the Company to the south and the Uppar [fig. 13].

10By 1721 the town had almost reached the limits of the old Dutch plan. Except for the Moslem quarter, where the peculiar diagonal configuration of their streets could not be corrected, the French managed to carry out the extensive straightening of the thoroughfares into a planned grid by forcing people to build in rectangular blocks separated by lines intersecting at right angles [fig. 14].

11But as the town was not protected, in 1724, the Company, in order to put the settlement in complete safety, started building a strong enclosure, with curtain walls, bastions, parapets and a ditch all round the city. It took nine years to complete the work. Impressive gates were erected, particularly the New Madras Gate (at the end of Mahatma Gandhi Street), to the north, the Valudavur Gate (at the end of Nehru Street) and the Villiyanur Gate (at the end of Lal Bahadur Sastri Street), to the west, and the streets leading to these gates became the main arteries of the town [figs. 15 & 16].

12This fortified town became the capital of a potential Empire. The period from 1741-1754 was for Pondicherry a time of success and brilliant achievement marked by the genius of Dupleix, by the heroic defense of the town and by the victorious military campaigns in the Deccan. These were followed by a period of setbacks culminating in the final disaster in 1761.

13In 1741, Pondicherry was a large town with a population of 130 000. At the time of Dupleix, it was divided into 4 areas or quarters delimited by the Uppar river (canal): in the old town, called the white town, there were the quartier Saint-Laurent, to the south of the fort and the quartier Saint-Louis, to the north; in the new or black town, to the west, there were the quartier de l’Hôpital, south of the Petit canal, and the quartier Saint-Joseph, to the north [fig. 21].

14Looking at the street names, we note that, in 1755, in the white town, the streets were named after saints mentioned in the catholic calendar or French provinces, and also according to their position in relation to the enclosure, to a particular gate, or after their proximity to a public or religious building, such as a market; in the black town, to the north-west, the streets were mostly called after their occupants, craftsmen and tradesmen, whereas, to the south-west, they were named principally after the names of prominent Indian persons, great merchants or men in the service of the Company.

15During all this period, thanks to the prosperity of the town, there was, within the remparts, an intense building activity in which individuals, religious orders and the Company took part [figs. 17-18].

16New churches were constructed. The Missionaries had their chapel constructed in 1723. Twice, in 1702 and in 1728, the Jesuits rebuilt their church (second and third Notre-Dame de la Conception, on Mission Street). In 1707, the Capuchins built a church which they reconstructed in 1739-1758 (first and second Notre-Dame des Anges, to the south of Surcouf Street).

17As the town needed badly an institution in which sick or injured people would be given medical treatment, a Hospital, in the shape of a large T, was built in 1734-1742 to the east of Sacré-Cœur church [fig. 24].

18After getting the permission from the Mughal to produce coins, in 1736-1738, the French Company erected a Mint, comprising several buildings, on the site of today’s PWD Office [fig. 23].

19The most important construction of the period was the Government Palace, inside Fort Louis, begun in 1738 and completed in 1752: this governor’s mansion was a magnificent edifice with a long frontage (80 m) consisting of an elegant gallery adorned with 24 columns, crowned with three pediments and topped by a balustrade [fig. 18]. Ananda Ranga Pillai, Dupleix’s dubash, never stops singing the praises of this sumptuously decorated building.

20After the fall of Pondicherry in 1761, the town was a shadow of its former self. There was no trace of the splendours of Dupleix’s time. All the buildings had been razed to the ground by the British. Pondicherry, given over to destruction, had lost its soul.

21When the new governor, Law de Lauriston, arrived in August 1765, the French, who had been scattered along the Coromandel coast, returned and began reconstructing their houses. Four years later a large part of the town was rebuilt.

22Fort Louis and its palace were in ruins. A part of it, to the north, was levelled and was turned over to a tree-lined square called Place d’Armes; the rest, to the south, was granted to Company servants and built upon [fig. 33].

23Regarding public buildings, new edifices such as the Bureau du livre, situated opposite Raja Sahib’s house (Mission Street) [fig. 25], the Betel & Tobacco Godown, which fell into disuse after 1792 [fig. 26], and the Hôtel de la Marine (today the Sub Courts) [fig. 22], were erected, and some large buildings, such as the Hospital [fig. 24], the Mint [fig. 23], the Chaudrie [fig. 27], and the New Government were reconstructed on their foundations with later additions.

24The New Government palace (today’s Raj Nivas) was established by Law de Lauriston, the governor, on the site of the large plot occupied by the Hôtel de la Compagnie and including houses in the northern part and two vast gardens in the southern part. It was a one-storied building, flanked by two wings. The façade consisted of a gallery adorned with six columns. The ground floor was used for administrative purposes; the first floor was the residence of the governor [fig. 28] (the modern ground plan of Raj Nivas does not differ from the old one!). It should be stressed that this building had much smaller dimensions than this of its predecessor, Dupleix’s palace, and was much less decorated.

25Thanks to an exceptional document, The Register of Land in the White Town, commisioned by Governor Bellecombe, we know the names of the different owners of plots as well as the size of their properties in that part of the town in 1777. It is interesting to note that the population was distributed according to communities and social classes [fig. 36].

26In the survey, the proper names of the French are preceded by 3 designations corresponding to 3 different social levels: monsieur or madame, titles given only to persons of very high station, le sieur (sire), and le nommé (the man named), the former, being given to men of a category somewhat higher than the latter. The others were topas, natives or progeny of Europeans and women of the country, and malabars or Tamilians, coming under the Hindu code.

27In the Government quarter, on the site of the old Fort Louis that had been levelled to the ground, beside Government buildings to the north and the east of the Place d’Armes, the area was divided into several plots which were granted to French people only.

28In the southern quarter there were some persons of the first category; in the second category were 92 households belonging to men who played important roles; in the third category, only 45 families of ordinary men were counted. Most of the topas families were also found here.

29In the northern quarter, there was no monsieur and, among the 61 sieurs, only two officers have been mentioned; as for the category of ordinary persons it comprised 98 households, principally craftsmen. The Hindu population (113 Tamil families), craftsmen or merchants, lived nearly exclusively in this part, and 1/4 of them were Chettiyars.

30It is surprising to note the important place which Tamilians occupied in the white town in 1777, since we know that their presence was considered undesirable.

31Two detailed plans of houses drawn in the same year give us an idea of what the residences of the wealthier families of Pondicherry were like in this period. Marihaure House, rented by the Government to serve as Palais de Justice (Law courts) was situated on the site of 15 Romain Rolland Street. A pair of columns in the centre of the façade framed a passageway that led to a garden flanked by symmetrically placed buildings. A large stairway led to the varande, or veranda, with two small rooms on either side. In the centre of the building was the sitting room, flanked by two other larger rooms. At the back was another varande facing an outside flight of stairs. The back courtyard comprised outbuildings (kitchen, shed, bath, latrines). The veranda on the main façade of the house opened through three arches separated by columns [fig. 34].

32Rivaly House, purchased by the King to make of it the Maison du Contrôle, was demolished to build the modern Secretariat. A stairway led to the vestibule or veranda, then to the dining room or sitting room, flanked on either side by two rooms; finally, at the back, around a semicircular courtyard were found the utilities (kitchen, well, storerooms, shed). Openings were made in the central part of the façade forming three arcatures (for the door and two windows) and, on either side by three windows with segmented arches [fig. 35].

33Among the buildings owned by Tamil noble men and traders, the house of Ananda Ranga Pillai (109 on the street that bears his name), built in 1735, is one of the oldest. Spared by the British in 1761, this is one of the most beautiful examples of a traditional Tamil house with European influence in Pondicherry.

34On the ground floor, in typically Indian fashion, the courtyard is surrounded by exquisitely carved wooden pillars; on the first floor, the terrace is supported by elegant masonry columns of European design.

35This edifice is plainly the expression of the two cultures to which the great dubash of the French governor Dupleix belonged.

36Pondicherry was administered by the French from 1765 to 1778. In August 1778, the town was again besieged and occupied by the British until February 1785. From 1785 to 1793, it remained in the hands of the French. It was then recaptured and ruled by the British, except for a short interlude in 1803, until 1816.

37From the military point of view the situation was disastrous. Everything had to be rebuilt: fortifications, barracks, arsenals. New solutions had to be found. Several projects were submitted to the Government, some of them fanciful. An engineer, in 1763, proposed a semicircular enclosure [fig. 29]; an anonymous author, in 1768, suggested a curious polygonal figure with enormous demilunes [fig. 30]; another engineer, in 1771, recommended the transfer of the town to the south, inside the Ile-aux-Cocotiers [fig. 31]; Bourcet thought of a citadel to the north of the enclosure; finally, it was decided to rebuild the fortifications on the foundations of the destroyed enclosure [figs. 33 & 37]. During the short periods of French occupation, bastions, gates and parapets, were renovated, but these did not stave off the final disaster.

38In 1816, when the town was ceded back to the French, there were only ruins and desolation.

39On the site of the fortifications [fig. 38], an outer boulevard was laid out, bordered with trees in 1824; the extension of the canal towards the north was ordered in 1827, and the creation of a grand bazar on the present site was decided upon in 1826.

40Thus, the urban development of Old Pondicherry was completed. Except for a few modifications, the structure of the town was not to be changed further.

© Institut Français de Pondichéry, 2005

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