Built Heritage

A Chocolate Palace for the Chocolate People

Sketch by Susmita Bhattacharya

Allow me to tell you a sto­ry about a quaint idyl­lic town per­ched on the Coro­man­del Coast, whi­ch has cap­tu­red the ima­gi­na­tion of all and sun­dry, from India to Euro­pe. Eve­ry­day, we conti­nue to dis­co­ver fan­tas­ti­cal ele­ments of the charm of Pon­di­cher­ry and now­he­re else is this sen­se of exo­tic fas­ci­na­tion more beau­ti­ful­ly cap­tu­red than an excerpt from a book by one of the grea­test sto­ry­tel­lers of our time, Roald Dahl’s Char­lie and the Cho­co­la­te Fac­to­ry.

Prin­ce Pon­di­cher­ry wro­te a let­ter to Mr Willy Won­ka,’ said Grand­pa Joe, ‘and asked him to come all the way to India and build him a colos­sal pala­ce enti­re­ly out of cho­co­la­te.’
When it was all fini­shed, Mr Won­ka said to Prin­ce Pon­di­cher­ry, “I warn you, though, it won’t last very long, so you’d bet­ter start eating it right away.”
”Non­sen­se!” shou­ted the Prin­ce. “I’m not going to eat my pala­ce! I’m not even going to nib­ble the stair­ca­se or lick the walls! I’m going to live in it!”

It may be a slight stret­ch of my ima­gi­na­tion, but I find subt­le meta­phors in this small sto­ry. The archi­tec­tu­ral ensem­ble in Pon­di­cher­ry whi­ch has been care­ful­ly hand­craf­ted by ancient Tamil king­doms and a patch­work of Euro­pean nations is fal­ling prey modernisation’s wre­cking ball and his­to­ri­cal amne­sia. The Tamil Town bears the brunt of it all to a lar­ge extent, with the num­ber of lis­ted heri­ta­ge buil­dings fol­lo­wing a down­ward spi­ral eve­ry year.

How do we turn the tide?

When do we stop sta­ring at the dete­rio­ra­tion of our cultu­ral and mate­rial fabric, whi­le it is being sacri­fi­ced at the altar of capi­ta­lis­tic trends and ethos?

The Govern­ment of Pon­di­cher­ry relea­sed a Gene­ral Order in 2015 to pla­ce 21 public buil­dings under the conser­va­tion and res­to­ra­tion pro­gram­me. The Cal­ve Col­le­ge on Mis­sion Street and the Sou­ci­la­bai School on Vysial Street have faced years of neglect and non-exis­tent main­te­nan­ce sche­mes. Only time will tell how much of the poli­ti­cal jar­gon will be trans­la­ted into on-ground action.

A gla­ring exam­ple of neglect and inde­ci­si­ve­ness is the Pen­sion­nat de Jeu­nes Filles, on Dumas Street, whi­ch is the only Govern­ment Fren­ch High School for Girls, in India. Years of deli­be­ra­tion bet­ween inter­es­ted par­ties, seve­ral draft pro­po­sals by public and pri­va­te ins­ti­tu­tions and a pin­ch of non­cha­lan­ce later, the school was final­ly shut down last year due to “struc­tu­ral inade­qua­cies”.

Will we see the VOC school on Mis­sion Street go down the same path?

The opti­mist in me never dies, though. Through the cour­se of the seve­ral Heri­ta­ge walks in Pon­di­cher­ry over the last few months, I have tried to make others see the deli­ca­te strings of his­to­ry whi­ch lend a veri­ta­ble charm to this city like no other pla­ce in our coun­try. It is most encou­ra­ging to see the glim­mer in people’s eyes as we stroll along the slee­py streets, and even more so when they have been living here for seve­ral years. So, whe­ther I am on a tour with tou­rists or local resi­dents, as long as I can igni­te their curio­si­ty about their sur­roun­dings even if for a bit, I think I am doing my part.

Are you?

Don’t let the pala­ces of Pon­di­cher­ry melt away in the scor­ching sun of the coming days. The cultu­re and heri­ta­ge of Pon­di­cher­ry is here to stay. Join our efforts by sen­ding us your thoughts about what Pon­di­cher­ry repre­sents for each of you. Help us spread the good news.

Intangible Heritage

Pondicherry and the Great Textile Story


Tra­de and com­mer­ce was quin­tes­sen­tial to the eco­no­mic and sub­se­quent social deve­lop­ment of Euro­pe from the 17th to the 19th cen­tu­ry. An objec­ti­ve ana­ly­sis of the notion of the rise of the West howe­ver, reveals an under­lying Euro­cen­tric para­digm. The role of non-Euro­pean agen­cies in glo­bal tra­de and their influen­ce on the deve­lop­ment of dif­fe­rent regions has gai­ned signi­fi­cant impor­tan­ce in recent times, part­ly owing to the rapid eco­no­mic grow­th in Asia from the late 20th cen­tu­ry and more recent­ly that of sub-Saha­ran Afri­ca. In this context, Pon­di­cher­ry, having been under the domi­nion of various Euro­pean powers for a lit­tle over 300 years, played a vital role. At the cen­tre of it all, lay a sim­ple pie­ce of indi­go dyed clo­th whi­ch would later beco­me popu­lar­ly known as the gui­née. An inter­es­ting sta­tis­tic high­lights the signi­fi­can­ce of the clo­th : under the rule of the Fren­ch East India Com­pa­ny, from 1672–1791, more than 6 mil­lion pie­ces of blue gui­née were expor­ted.

Befo­re the esta­blish­ment of the first Fren­ch tex­ti­le mil­ls in Pon­di­cher­ry, it was alrea­dy an impor­tant dyeing cen­tre for clo­th along the Coro­man­del Coast along with Madras, Nega­pat­nam and Masu­li­pat­nam. The dyeing of ordi­na­ry clo­th great­ly increa­sed its value, and Pon­di­cher­ry beca­me espe­cial­ly renow­ned for the brillian­ce of its dyed clo­th and the qua­li­ty of the dye’s adhe­ren­ce to the clo­th. Tra­ces of alu­mi­na and other mine­rals in the arte­sian wells contri­bu­ted to it’s emer­gen­ce over other dyeing cen­tres. The Fren­ch had been using gui­née clo­th for the gum tra­de in Sene­gal well befo­re it beca­me the prin­ci­pal export from Pon­di­cher­ry. In fact, the suc­cess of Euro­pean tex­ti­le prin­ting in the midd­le of the 18th cen­tu­ry and it’s abi­li­ty to com­pe­te with impor­ted Indian clo­th depen­ded on Sene­ga­le­se gum whi­ch was used as a thi­cke­ning agent. Prin­ters valued it high­ly becau­se it allo­wed the clo­th to retain its colour after washing. In due time, Sene­gal slow­ly repla­ced Ara­bia and the Nile Val­ley to beco­me Europe’s pri­ma­ry sour­ce for gum in the 18th cen­tu­ry. Gui­née clo­th ente­red Sene­gam­bia and the upper river of Sene­gal and Niger not only as a varie­ty of clo­th but as a unit of account. It was regu­lar­ly used by the Fren­ch to buy sla­ves from Afri­ca who would later be employed in the sugar plan­ta­tions of the Carib­bean islands, and in the mili­ta­ry conquest of Afri­ca in the 19th cen­tu­ry. The­se cur­rents of com­mer­ce lin­ked Fran­ce, India and Afri­ca — dis­tant parts of a vast colo­nial Empi­re.

As the effects of the Indus­trial Revo­lu­tion per­mea­ted to the Euro­pean tex­ti­le indus­try in the ear­ly part of the 19th cen­tu­ry, the demand for gum increa­sed consi­de­ra­bly. To tap addi­tio­nal sup­plies of gum, tra­ders along the Sene­ga­le­se river nee­ded a grea­ter volu­me of gui­née clo­th. In res­pon­se to increa­sed demand for Sene­ga­le­se gum in Fran­ce and for Indian gui­née in Sene­gal, French­men armed with metro­po­li­tan Fren­ch capi­tal and Sta­te sub­si­dies star­ted the first tex­ti­le mil­ls in Pon­di­cher­ry to manu­fac­tu­re clo­th. ‘Pou­lain Duboy and Co.’ was the first mill to esta­bli­shed in 1829, whi­ch chan­ged names to beco­me the Sava­na Mil­ls and final­ly the Swa­de­shi Mil­ls.

Pro­duc­tion at the mil­ls increa­sed stea­di­ly and the ini­tial years were par­ti­cu­lar­ly suc­cess­ful. Most of the yarn manu­fac­tu­red was used for wea­ving and manu­fac­tu­ring gui­née clo­th. The pro­ducts from the mill were also dis­played at the Paris Inter­na­tio­nal Exhi­bi­ton of 1834, whe­re they recei­ved an honou­ra­ble men­tion.

For a detai­led list of natio­nal and inter­na­tio­nal exhi­bi­tons in Fran­ce, you can visit :


Although gui­née clo­th was manu­fac­tu­red in Fren­ch fac­to­ries and in Sene­gal, it was of an infe­rior qua­li­ty. During the mili­ta­ry cam­pai­gn of the conquest of West Sudan in 1881, Lieu­te­nant-Colo­nel Bor­gnis-Des­bor­des com­plai­ned of the impos­si­bi­li­ty of using gui­née manu­fac­tu­red elsew­he­re to pay for goods and ser­vi­ces nee­ded local­ly. He wro­te to his super­iors that gui­née pro­du­ced in Fren­ch fac­to­ries was as good as “coun­ter­feit money in Fran­ce”. Ins­tan­ces such as the­se seve­re­ly high­light the impor­tan­ce of the clo­th to Fren­ch mili­ta­ry cam­pai­gns in Afri­ca. Sub­se­quent­ly, to ensu­re ade­qua­te sup­ply of high qua­li­ty gui­née, the Fren­ch Govern­ment ope­ned direct nego­tia­tions with the Sava­na Mil­ls mana­ge­ment. The natio­nal ocean liner com­pa­ny, Mes­sa­ge­ries Mari­ti­mes was given exclu­si­ve control over the export of all gui­née clo­th from Pon­di­cher­ry in 1886 to ensu­re the smoo­th pro­gress of for­th­co­ming Fren­ch mili­ta­ry cam­pai­gns.



Biblio­gra­phy and Fur­ther Rea­ding :

1) Richard Roberts, Depart­ment of His­to­ry, Stan­ford Uni­ver­si­ty
2) Kazuo Kobaya­shi, Lon­don School of Eco­no­mics and Poli­ti­cal Scien­ce
3) Ima­ge Cour­te­sy : Musée de la Com­pa­gnie des Indes de Lorient