The striking feature of this charming town by the sea is the architecture, that dates from the time of the French reign. Most of it was built around the 19th or early 20th century. The French called the town Pondicherry from the Tamil name – Puducherri, meaning new settlement . It was a trading post and excavations have shown that the Romans came to trade here as early as the 1st century AD. The Europeans came here to trade in dyed textiles, pottery and semi precious stones. It was consolidated under the French, who made it an important port.
The British attacked and destroyed many of the buildings and structures in 1761 but a small domestic part of the original town remains till date. These days it is known as the White Town or the French quarter. It is separated from the native Tamil habitat by a storm drain . It is rife with restaurants, cafes, quaint guesthouses and shops. The impressive mansions hidden behind grand gateways are a visual treat for anyone interested in architecture and style. I am always trying to peep in through the open windows which are, thankfully, large to get a look at the interiors.
On a recent visit, for the first time I stayed away from the White Town. We stayed at a resort on the beach mid- way between Pondicherry and Cuddalore. Hence spent a fair amount of time driving into town and I noticed quite a few houses and long commercial spaces with small local retail shops in them, that looked similar to the french buildings but with variations. These structures seem to date from around the same time as the colonial houses. I was intrigued by this and decided to do a bit of research.
The first difference you notice is that these houses are not hidden behind gateways but open to the street and have verandas with sloping roofs of Mangalore tiles supported by wooden pillars. These open verandas are known as Talvaram and they feature raised platforms and masonry benches called Tinnai. These are a hybrid of the European aesthetics and the traditional native style. Franco- Tamil architecture is quite unique and worth looking up the next time in Pondicherry. The Tamil Quarter now known as the heritage town is interesting to explore on foot and I highly recommend the INTACH heritage walk as one of the things to do in this town.
Maybe it was a way of keeping up with the Joneses or an architectural fad, which lead to the use of the French style in the facades of the buildings . Arched windows, plaster decorations, tall columns, European motifs on mouldings of the doors and windows and the exterior layout give these buildings the French touch. Interestingly the interior layout and style of these houses have no evidence of the French. The hybrid aesthetics is most apparent in the two storey structures, where the top floor is more evident from the streets.
The central open courtyard known as Mutram, is lined by an inner veranda that leads to various rooms – bedrooms, kitchen and pray room. Most of these spaces are small in size. Accessible from the kitchen, the rear end of the house are where the toilets and bathrooms are situated along with a well . It is the combination of the open, semi open and covered spaces that provide these houses with cool spaces and good ventilation.
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