Puducherry-Saving a Global Heritage Puducherry

Restoring a stately legacy

PUDUCHERRY, 29/11/2014: Board gives the details about the Iconic Mairie Building (Town Hall), project and proposed restoration plan, placed in front of the building, which collapsed under the impact of incessant rains, in Puducherry.Photo: S.S. Kumar

PUDUCHERRY, 29/11/2014: Board gives the details about the Iconic Mairie Building (Town Hall), project and proposed restoration plan, placed in front of the building, which collapsed under the impact of incessant rains, in Puducherry.Photo: S.S. Kumar

> At the Shanghai World Expo in 2010, Puducherry was hailed as a success story in heritage conservation. It showcased its achievement there as part of the Asia Urbs project - ‘Achieving Economic and Environmental Goals through Heritage Preservation Initiatives’. Under the project, the Vysial Street in the Tamil precinct had been restored and it had won the UNESCO Asia Pacific Heritage Award for Culture Heritage conservation in 2008.

But it has been a long journey of mixed results for Puducherry, which many still fondly call Pondicherry. It is one of 34 cities from 28 countries that won fame as an ‘Urban Best Practices Area’ at Shanghai, rubbing shoulders with cities like Venice, Cairo and Liverpool. It also has witnessed the collapse of the iconic French-era Mairie (Town Hall) Building on a rain-hit afternoon in November this year.

Need for conservation

The collapse has turned global attention to the need to preserve Puducherry’s heritage. A vision for this is outlined by the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) Pondicherry in its plan titled ‘Restoration of Government Owned Heritage Buildings in Puducherry.’ One obvious reason, of course, is the potential to grow tourism and to maintain an aesthetic sense to Puducherry’s streets.

On a deeper note, however, the report states that the buildings are the ‘essence’ of this town and ‘serve as markers of identity that remind people of their historical antecedents’. “In a situation like this, where there aren’t many intangible links to the history and culture of the city, the last visible vestiges of the built inheritance of Puducherry are these buildings. It is this that makes their preservation so important.” INTACH had identified 1,807 heritage buildings in the Boulevard area in 1995 and that number has now fallen to 980”, says the organisation.

After the Mairie

Incidentally, the Mairie was to have had a new lease of life with a renovation plan under the Project Implementation Agency of the government, with Rs. 7.5 crore aid from the World Bank. The task was entrusted to INTACH after taking technical advice from IIT, Madras, and the Archaeological Survey of India.

While the exact cause of its collapse is still under investigation, the ASI Chennai circle has said, if the government had paid heed to its 2012 report which had warned of the precarious state of heritage buildings, including the Mairie, that fate could have been avoided. One of the special directives according to the report was that the Mairie required ‘immediate structural and seismic strengthening’.

The collapse set off a chain of events, with the government and residents waking up to the dangers that could befall other buildings. In visits after the collapse, officials from ASI Chennai Circle have emphasised the urgency in taking up restoration of the three schools it inspected, the V.O.C School, Pensionnat De Jeunes Filles (Government Girls French High School), and Calve College. On the Mairie, they say an attempt could be made to restore it.

Issues and misses

Paucity of funds has been the oft-cited reason for delay in taking up restoration projects. But the first time the Government announced a proposal to renovate 18 government-owned heritage buildings at a cost of Rs. 80 crore was in its 2014-2015 budget .

The coastal tourist haven can claim to have preserved the French-era quintessence on some of its streetscapes and there are success stories such as the preservation of Tamil architecture on Vysial Street, but Puducherry’s heritage conservation story is also one of misses.

In 2009, the old lighthouse was set to be renovated and converted into a maritime museum under an initiative of the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts and the Union Ministry of Culture. Five years later, the lighthouse is in a worse state, with nothing having taken off yet. The project had delayed because of lack of follow-up, said former Union Minister V. Narayanasamy, who was then Union Minister of State for Culture.

There was also a proposal nearly a year ago to renovate the V.O.C School, Pensionnat De Jeunes Filles and Calve College to be taken up by the Housing and Urban Development Corporation Limited with funds from the National Culture Fund. This too seemed to have gotten stuck.

Following the success of the Asia Urbs project, a Heritage Conservation Advisory Committee was constituted under the former Lieutenant Governor Govind Singh Gurjar, with members from the Town Planning, Tourism and Public Works Departments, and representatives from INTACH, Aurobindo Ashram and Auroville. At the time of its constitution, it was supposed to have been involved in revising the listing of buildings, framing guidelines and enforcing bye-laws. Though the committee met a few times, it has mostly been inactive and was vested with little power.

Rise of citizen activism

However, in a major positive for heritage conservation, the collapse of the Mairie also sparked the rise of a citizens’ group, the ‘People for Pondicherry’s Heritage’, consisting of businesspersons, architects, artists and others. In the two weeks since it has begun work, the group organised a public memorial event in tribute to the Mairie and met the Chief Minister and the Lieutenant Governor with a petition calling upon the government to take urgent action in the restoration of heritage buildings in Puducherry. The group has asked that residents be made stakeholders in the restoration process and has lined up more events to bring about public awareness on heritage structures and the need to save them. ​

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Printable version | May 19, 2022 12:54:11 am | https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/puducherry/puducherry-heritage-conservation/article6700961.ece