Without its distinct colonial flavour - the architectural patterns, the streetscapes or ex-combatants parading the streets in war finery on the eve of the Bastille Day, Pondicherry would be just another seaside town along the Coromandel Coast.
And even as the government seeks to develop this former French colony along the lines of Singapore - the 11th Five Year Plan (2007-12) will give a special thrust to that objective, it insists that it has not lost sight of what matters most: preserving the character of the city.
With the Group of Ministers clearing the Bill for allowing foreign universities to establish campuses in the country, Pondicherry government has smelled an opportunity to strengthen the French connection.
Even though the Bill is yet to be brought before the Cabinet, the government has begun the groundwork to get top French business schools and arts institutes to set up shop in Pondicherry. Pondicherry chief secretary Pradip Mehra told Hindustan Times that the planning board had projected an outlay of Rs 10,000 crore for the 11th Plan period and the government machinery would endeavour to develop the city on the pattern of Singapore.
That vision includes setting up a mass rapid transport system, a self-contained township on the suburbs, rail and air link with major destinations, a special economic zone and an oceanarium. Mehra said, 'The USP of Pondicherry is its French heritage. Getting French institutes to set up campuses is aimed at further building on that heritage'.
Increasing numbers of students from Pondicherry are Paris-bound every year to pursue higher education, a privilege that comes with French nationality. "It will be a good idea to offer them more options in Pondicherry itself. French institutions should have no inhibitions about coming to Pondicherry as the culture in Pondicherry is identical," said Claudine Marie Genevieve, whose son studies at the Universite de Versailles Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines.
The Masquerade is still a big draw in Pondicherry and the town comes to life during the popular mask festival. But in its enthusiasm to preserve French traditions, some feel the government should not dilute its focus on safeguarding Tamil heritage.
INTACH (Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage) has warned that the quality of streetscapes is threatened by the widespread destruction of traditional houses in the Tamil quarter developed around the nucleus of a group of temples. INTACH has no doubt that to protect the city's heritage, it’s important to restore these houses, as they contribute to the architectural 'ensemble' of Pondicherry.