From the first contact of the French with these shores, the Anglo-French wars and destruction and restoration of the city to the modern history of liberation and accession to the Indian Union, an exhibition hosted as part of the 66th Liberation Day celebrations offered a snapshot of the U.T.’s evolution.
Chief Minister V. Narayanasamy opened the exhibition hosted by the Tourism Department and curated by Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH-Puducherry).
The event was supported by Alliance Francaise, the French Institute of Pondicherry and Ecole Française d’Extrême Orient (EFEO) (French School of the Far East) in the city.
Though the exhibition used to be at least a week-long event in past years, this time the programme was curtailed to a day in view of the pandemic situation.
Through a series of panels and charts, the exhibition was designed to chart the historical, architectural and cultural evolution of the place, spanning over 400 years. It features stalwarts who shaped the city’s architectural and cultural identity and highlights the restoration work undertaken by INTACH in the heritage town.
The French first settled in erstwhile Pondicherry in 1674. The coastal town was taken over by the Dutch in 1693, who prepared the first comprehensive and unique grid-patterned layout for the settlement.
The place changed hands to the French again in 1700, paving the way for implementation of the architectural plan and a series of fortifications — being enclosed in an oval-shaped rampart by 1740. As early as 1709, there would be one of the first initiatives by the French company to build a stronghold — Fort Louis — in the heart of the town. Modelled on the fort built by French military engineer Vauban in Tournai, the city would have a pentagon-shaped fort with five bastions, underground chambers for storage and a moat around it.
The period between 1761 and 1825 saw several outer fortifications and the Boulevards.
In 1761, the place came under the onslaught of the British, leading to its near-total destruction. However, the French wrested back Pondicherry in 1763 and reconstructed the town as seen today over the old foundational design.
There are frames on personages from the French era from Governor-General Joseph Francois Dupleix to Ananda Ranga Pillai, the Dewan whose diaries are a rich source of archival material on life in the mid-18th century. Panels documented the contributions of Sri Aurobindo and The Mother, whose legacy permeates the quietude associated with the White Town precincts, and fascinating figures from history such as Chinese scholar Xu Fancheng, who lived in the city for 27 years.
According to Ashok Panda, INTACH co-convener, new investigations by French scholars regarding crucial periods of the town’s development hold immense appeal for revisiting the Union Territory’s story.
Dutch maps and plans throw new light on the origins of the settlement at the end of the 17th century; the register of land in the White Town precincts in 1777 which constitutes a veritable cadastre, an inventory of the essential elements of urban life. The historical and statistical accounts of the main French settlements in 1824 can be considered the first gazetteers of India.