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The town... the house... their spirit

Robert Dulau

Exploring Pondicherry and its site through physical and human geography

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1A town does not grow up by chance but is closely interrelated with its locality. Climate and the nature of the landscape are factors which give rise to a particular type of settlement in a particular place.

2In order to know a town we must first find it on the map. Pondicherry is situated on the east coast of India, the Coromandel Coast in the Bay of Bengal, at latitude 12°5’ and longtitude 79°6’.

3There are few elevated areas in the region around Pondicherry and this is why the rivers, flowing through the plains, meet the coast at right angles.

4To understand a town geographically we must identify its climate, the Pondicherry region is subject to a hot and humid tropical climate but the heat is slightly mitigated due to the town’s proximity to the coast with its sea breezes. The tropical climate is characterised by a very limited range of temperature between the hottest and coldest months of the year. In Pondicherry this difference is rarely greater than 12°C (25° in December and 37° in June).

5Pondicherry and its region is affected, as well, by an alternation of monsoons. The summer monsoon winds blow in from the south-west but the rains are much less abundant than those brought in by the north-east winds of the winter monsoon. It is the winter rains which, from October to December, feed the two principal rivers of the territory of Pondicherry: the Gingee river, Varahanadi, to the north and the Ponnaiyar to the south, as well as the Usudu reservoir. The water supply for plants and crops depends to a great extent upon the regularity of the winter monsoon with its heavy rainfall but it must be remembered that the Tamil people of Pondicherry have had to learn, over the centuries, not to depend too much upon monsoon rains.

6Numerous dams, canals and reservoir tanks have been dug to direct natural water supplies into an agricultural irrigation system. This adaptation and spirit of invention applied in a given geographical area bears witness to the close links that exist between physical forms, hydrography, and man's ways of using the soil.

7The richness of the soil also explains the diversity of the flora. There are two main types of harvest: wet land cultivation (rice, sugarcane, bananas and betel nut) and dry land cultivation (sesame, for sesame oil, and groundnuts).

8These basic aspects of physical geography are merely reminders of the nature of the environment of Pondicherry town; additional information on the human geography may tell us something about other aspects of the territory, especially those having to do with population, language and religion.

9The population of the town of Pondicherry and the surrounding territory is about 400,000.

10Languages: The territory of Pondicherry, covering 290 square kilometers, is an enclave, distinct from Tamil Nadu, which bears witness to the erstwhile French presence. Today however, French is spoken only by a small minority of the population, hardly 4%, while Tamil, the majority language is spoken by 92%. Next comes Telugu, 3% then Malayalam, 1%.

11Tamil is accounted the foremost vernacular literary language of India due to its vast poetic tradition, the first known writings dating from 150 B.C. The essence of classical Tamil culture is to be found in the Tolkappiyam and the Tirukkural.

12Religions: Hinduism is the most prevelant religion in the Pondicherry area – 92% in the country and 70% in the town. There are 32 Hindu temples in Pondicherry, 20 dedicated to Shiva.

13The Christian religion which was established in Pondicherry at the end of the 17th century, now represents nearly 10% of the population. Amongst Pondicherry’s several churches is a cathedral, Notre Dame de l’immaculée Conception. This is the seat of a bishop, the highest parochial dignitary of the Christian priesthood. He is responsible for the spiritual direction of the faithful living within his bishopric, which comprises several churches, and he is guide to the priests of these churches.

14There are also a number of small Protestant Churches of various denominations in and around Pondicherry.

15The Muslim religion, the third largest, has been in existence here since about the beginning of the 17th century. In Pondicherry town itself there is a principal mosque and several smaller ones, with still more in the surrounding areas. These mosques are under the spiritual authority of the Kadi who is also a judicial authority.

© Institut Français de Pondichéry, 1993

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