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Origins of the Urban Development of Pondicherry according to Seventeenth Century Dutch Plans

 | 
Jean Deloche

Conclusion

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1The lesson we learn from this analysis is that we have to revise our ideas on the urban pattern of Pondicherry. This unique layout still puzzles most of the town planning experts who wonder how to explain its origin.

2If we look for other comparable urban types in history, we find that Alexander the Great’s architects used the grid plan for their new cities, that this system was adopted by the Romans in their military encampments and their colonies, that it was also used in South France for the bastide towns in the 14th century, in the colonial towns built by the Spanish in the New World, and finally, in several modem cities in North America. But when and how was it adopted in Pondicherry?

    • 76 Vide K. T. Ravindran, Colonial Urbanism: a Cross-cultural Perspective on Pondicherry, cyclostyled t (...)

    Some Indian scholars today consider that the town was built according to the principles of the ancient Hindu treatises of architecture, particularly the Śilpa Śāstra, that its structure is a classic example of the prastara type of town.76 This reasoning does not stand up to analysis, as it is not based on any serious documents.

    • 77 Μ. V. Labernadie, op.cit., pp. 124-126. “Cette clarté qui nous caractérise et frappe davantage, en (...)
    • 78 P. Pichard, City planning and architecture in Pondicherry, cyclostyled text, E.F.E.O, Pondichéry, p (...)

    French historians, on the other hand, feel that the true period of urbanism, when thought was given to “order and regularity”, is more recent, that it took place between 1724 and 1735, and that it should be considered as a successful achievement of “l'esprit français”.77 P. Pichard78, however, wonders why this grid plan was not adopted from the very beginning of the French establishment, but only after 50 years of occupation.

  1. In our analysis of the Dutch plans of Pondicherry, we have demonstrated that the orthogonal street pattern of the town is a creation of the Dutch.

3The plans made in 1693 show that, in the old eastern French settlement, between the marshy depression and the seashore, the alignments of the streets were roughly north-south whereas, towards the land, the streets or lanes were following an irregular pattern, without any shape or symmetry.

4In the plans drafted during the Dutch occupation, which take into account the urban projects of the Company, on the other hand, we see, to the west of the median lowland, a very regular geometric layout, with rectangular blocks of houses, separated by straight streets, intersecting at right angles. The first French plans of Pondicherry, indicating the same pattern obviously were, as we have seen, copied, from the Dutch plans.

  • 79 Dutch Town Planning Overseas during VOC and WIC Rule (1600-1800), pp. 79, 169, 164, 11, 156.
  • 80 When the French developped the southern portion of the new town, they adopted the same geometric la (...)

5Does it represent typical Dutch colonial town planning? Ron van Oers, in his recent study on the Dutch-founded settlements overseas under Company rule, thinks so. Considering that the ultimate goal of the Company was “to facilitate administrational management and control of the area according to rational and undiscriminating principles”, he notes that Dutch colonial settlements, built preferably on “a strict geometrical design to subdivide the usable area into building plots”, “all had a common image of being neat and well organised.” Describing the orthogonal street model, applied in newly laid out cities like Pondicherry, he concludes by saying: “where the Dutch could use it, they preferred this pattern. Symbolic of an ordered, well managed society, hierarchical but democratic, it was emblematic for the hard working, God-fearing Dutch Calvinists79.” This leads us to conclude that the French appropriated this great design and that the extensive straightening out of streets into a planned grid, systematically carried out by their governors in the first half of the 18th century, was therefore the extension of the existing Dutch orthogonal pattern into the rest of the town.80

  • 81 This fact is clearly specified by abbé Guyon (Histoire des Indes Orientales anciennes et modernes, (...)

6This observation, however, should not reduce the merit of the French who monitored the urban growth of Pondicherry to achieve the present form: the credit for the implementation of this network goes entirely to them.81

Notes

76 Vide K. T. Ravindran, Colonial Urbanism: a Cross-cultural Perspective on Pondicherry, cyclostyled text, 8 pages, 3 plans. “Not only does the geomety of the local settlement structure correspond to the prastara form of Vedic town, also the street network and its community structure correspond to the prescription in the Vrat Samhita”.

77 Μ. V. Labernadie, op.cit., pp. 124-126. “Cette clarté qui nous caractérise et frappe davantage, en un pays plus éloigné encore de la France par la pensée qu’il ne l’est par l’espace, explique ce fait, à vrai dire un peu paradoxal que Pondichéry évoque même aujourd’hui, dans son renoncement pour ne pas dire son avilissement, quelque chose de Versailles”.

78 P. Pichard, City planning and architecture in Pondicherry, cyclostyled text, E.F.E.O, Pondichéry, p. 7, and The Case of Pondicherry, cyclostyled text, E.F.E.O, pp. 3-4. He thinks that the French adapted their plan to the natural conditions of the littoral: “this was possible because the straight coast line was a very strong feature of the site and has, from the beginning, determined the general orientation of the buildings and the direction of the streets; behind the dune, the low marshy lands and their outlet, running parallel to the seashore, increased this trend”.

79 Dutch Town Planning Overseas during VOC and WIC Rule (1600-1800), pp. 79, 169, 164, 11, 156.

80 When the French developped the southern portion of the new town, they adopted the same geometric layout, except to the south-east, in the Muslim quarter, where the streets were orientated diagonally (vide the Plan de la ville de Pondichéri dédié à la mémoire de Mr Dupleix, Archives nationales, Centre des Archives d’Outre-Mer, Aix en Provence, DFC, portefeuille 32 A, 32-33).

81 This fact is clearly specified by abbé Guyon (Histoire des Indes Orientales anciennes et modernes, tome II, p. 104), who writes: “les changements que Messieurs de la Compagnie y ont apportés depuis qu’ils en sont paisibles possesseurs est presque incroiable. Ils y ont une forteresse régulière... On a rebâti la plus grande partie de la ville qui s’augmente et s’embellit de jour en jour. Les rues y sont tirées au cordeau; les maisons des Européens y sont de brique, bâties à la romaine, à un seul étage, parce qu’on y manque de bois et qu’on y craint les vents. Quoique celles des Indiens n’y soient que de terre mèlée avec une espèce de chaux qu’ils font des coquilles d’huitres calcinées, elles ont leur agrément parce qu’elles forment des rues droites. On y voit de belles allées d’arbres à l’ombre desquels les tisserands travaillent ces toiles de coton si estimées en Europe.”

© Institut Français de Pondichéry, 2004

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