Aditi Sriram’s debut book, Beyond the Boulevards, charts Puducherry’s eventful history, in which diverse cultures of the world, from Dutch to French to Portuguese, have played defining roles.
Beyond the Boulevards: A Short Biography of Pondicherry
By Aditi Sriram; Publisher: Aleph Book Company; Pages: Rs 176; Price: Rs 399
Some of South India’s most creative nomenclature comes from the city of pétanque. Although best known as Pondicherry, 2,000 years ago it was Poduke, and a dozen years ago it reincarnated into Puducherry. There were several name changes in between, inevitably moving towards something less European and more Tamil, heralding a cultural, political, social revolution along the way.
I start my research in a sunny library one block south of Joan of Arc Park. Carefully folded to fit into tiny drawers are 100-, 200-, 325-year-old maps of Pondicherry. Squiggles denote rivers and fields; lines divide foreign and local populations; boxes mark homes that have been clustered by community. Opening a map is to step into a historical moment: time is measured by the yellowed paper and faded ink, space is measured by the key at the bottom left or right corner, and colonial rule is spelled in different European alphabets. Arrayed on the table, with books serving as paperweights to hold down the corners, these maps display a lively timeline.
What began as a Tamil settlement in the first century CE served as a busy trading post for the Romans, who documented the city using versions of Poduke and Puduvai. In the twelfth century, some scholars referred to it as Vedapuri: a place of Vedic knowledge. In the mid-sixteenth century, the colonial story began when the Portuguese settled there; in their records they called it Puducheira. The Dutch spent the early 17th century in Poelisjeri, introducing new vowels into the name. The Danes arrived 20 years later, in the 1630s, but lost the land to France twice over the next 90 years. A Dutch map produced in 1690 announced their territory as Podechery, and another map made in 1694, one year after having gained their fort back from France for the second time, used a new spelling, Poedechery. This newly added “e” is silent by itself, but when paired with an “o” becomes a round, audible “oo”; perhaps symbolic of the noisy effort required to win the city back.
By this time, the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb was about 13 years into his political campaigns in the south. One of his soldiers, Bhimsen, was also a reporter, and his memoir, Tarikh-i-Dilkusha, written in Persian, mentions his visit with Aurangzeb to “Phulchery”. The French had resumed power by the time of Aurangzeb’s death in 1707, and titled a map they produced in 1748 “Plan de la Ville de Pondicheri”. This introduced the nasal “n” of the French language, and replaced the swoop of the “y” at the end of the word with an “I”. Could this have been visually symbolic? A play on the French word chéri, meaning darling?
With the Dutch out of the picture, the beloved settlement endured a 70-year-long tug of war between the British and the French. A 1778 map calls the fortified city Pondichery, which could be a French or British spelling, since a key at the bottom of the map states—in French—that it was “fait par les Anglais”, or made by the British. A year later, a new map reasserted French dominance with a beret over the “e”: Pondichéry. This became a permanent fixture starting 1816, when the territory was “finally and definitively restored to France”.
Maps through the 19th and 20th centuries kept the accent on the “e” until the French left India. From 1954 onwards, the territory became Indian and, in a country that loves its long, rolling “r”, the name grew to Pondicherry. This version gave rise to the popular nickname Pondy, which was tacked on to businesses, hotels, resorts and cafés: Le Pondy; PondyCAN; Pondy Cycle Tour, etc. Pondy is catchy, easy to say and, thanks to the city’s tourism industry, still connotes clean beaches, exotic food, and charming eateries. Ask college students in Chennai what their weekend plans are, and a predictable answer is “Pondy” and “sarakku”, as these youth go looking for alcohol friendly escapes.
Current maps of South India show that Pondicherry borders, and is intermingled with, the state of Tamil Nadu—itself named out of its pride for the Tamil language. From Pondicherry, the city has become a compound of two Tamil words, pudu and cheri, to make Puducherry. In fact, pudu means new, and cheri means village, so this latest name means new village—something Pondicherry might have been back in the 16th century, but is hardly so 500 years and several architectural resurrections later.
Today the place alternates between Puducherry and Pondicherry, just as many Indian cities ping-pong between their Indian and colonial names: Mumbai and Bombay; Chennai and Madras; Kolkata and Calcutta; Bengaluru and Bangalore. But these tier-1 cities, established metropolitan zones with thriving commerce, culture and scholarship, boast a simple either/or nomenclature at most. It is worth noting that Puducherry, much tinier and far less conspicuous, has boasted several
While those many names evoke a turbulent, adventurous past, the present has been levelled by the Indian Census and its standardised naming schema. “Puducherry” is the name of multiple entities nestled within each other, starting with the largest, the union territory, and working its way down to the census’s smallest administrative units. In between these are mid-sized Puducherrys with government descriptors like “metropolitan region” and “urban agglomeration”
For the biographer, therefore, an early question is how much of the city of Puducherry comes from its role as administrative capital of the union territory, and how much from its tourist-friendly metropolitan lifestyle. The answer requires more maps and more history.
Puducherry is one of seven union territories (UT) in India, comprising four “districts” or “enclaves”: Mahe, Yanam, Karaikal and the eponymous Puducherry. Like some of the other UTs, it is not contiguous; its subterritories are spread across South India, from Mahe in Kerala to Yanam in Andhra Pradesh. Karaikal and Puducherry are within the UT’s borders, themselves an archipelago of settlements islanded by Tamil Nadu. These enclaves were jointly administered by the French as comptoirs, or trading settlements, for roughly 300 years until 1954. They continue as a collective entity today, although their prominence as European tourist towns has waned at different rates. There was a fifth district, located forty-five minutes north of Calcutta, called Chandannagar—formerly Chandernagore—but it quit the French dominion in 1949, six years earlier and one referendum sooner than its southern counterparts. Correspondingly, it carries a fainter presence of its colonial power.
Extracted with permission from ‘Beyond the Boulevards’, by Aditi Sriram, published by Aleph Book Company