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Puducherry, a French window on India

The former French colony is now reviving the French touch to attract tourists to Puducherry.

india Updated: Dec 07, 2007 21:01 IST

"Give time a break!" is the motto coined by the Pondicherry (now Puducherry) department of tourism to attract tourists to what used to be a sleepy colonial town. But things have changed.

In 2006 alone, nearly 700,000 tourists (among them 46,000 foreigners) visited the former capital of French India. This represents a staggering increase of 20 per cent over the previous year - nine per cent above the national average - and this makes the union territory one of favourite tourist spots in India.

There are many reasons for this phenomenon. Probably first and foremost is the "French touch".

A few years, ago, Francis Wacziarg, the founder of the Neemrana Group who had just opened L'Hotel de l'Orient, the first Heritage Hotel in Puducherry (today there are four or five more), explained why he had invested in Puducherry.

"The UPS (unique selling proposition) of this place is the former French presence. Now the local government has realised it. Without its French character Puducherry would just be like any other sleepy town of Tamil Nadu, without any tourist interest," he said.

The French government handed over its establishments in India on November 1, 1954. A few days before the final liberation, Jawaharlal Nehru asked the Indian 'freedom fighters' to avoid leaving any bitterness between France and India.

The French were also aware that a smooth transition was better for everybody. The old Archbishop of Pondicherry sent word to the French minister of colonies in Paris: "It is better to leave with a smile and a few advantages for the French influence than with a kick in the..."

Two months later, Nehru triumphantly entered Pondicherry. In his speech at the Town Hall, Nehru insisted on the importance of preserving the French culture in Pondicherry; he wanted the place to remain a "window of France on India".

This was farsighted at a time when many in the Congress were keen to integrate the French resort with the adjacent Tamil Nadu, then known as Madras.

The dynamic IAS officer looking after the department of tourism, A. Ambarassu, agrees that Puducherry's UPS is the French influence.

"Culture, history and heritage have become extremely important the world over. Here, you have a place where you get a unique mix of French and Tamil heritage in one spot," Ambarassu said.

He thinks historically Puducherry has always been a place hospitable to other cultural heritages. He takes the examples of Sri Aurobindo, who came from West Bengal in 1910, or Auroville, the International city located 12 km north of town. It makes a difference for the visitor when he feels welcome. "This melting pot of culture is unique in India," says Ambarassu.

Another factor that plays in favour of Puducherry as a tourist destination is the peaceful atmosphere of the place. Not only have no major law and order problems been reported for years but the presence of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram brings a certain calm that attracts many devotees and visitors.

It is only a few years back that the local government understood the potential of the place.

It has taken the initiative to support the preservation of the architectural heritage of the town. With the expertise of the Indian National Trust for Art and Culture (INTACH), the restoration of several buildings was undertaken.

Today, INTACH helps you to discover the unique charm of the colonial city by organising heritage walks.

Wandering through the French and Tamil quarters, the visitor will note the influence of the vernacular local architecture on the colonial one and vice-a-versa, and the beauty of the first planned town in India.

Ambarassu strongly believes that "this work is also important for the local people who should not forget their history".

Visitors can experience the relaxing atmosphere of the place, strolling up and down the 1.5 km promenade on the sea front, watching the ancient lighthouse or even visiting the Roman vestiges in Arikamedu and, of course, having a taste of the French cuisine.

Ashok Panda of INTACH explains: "It is when the Puducherry government realised that tourism will be the next growth engine (an income of Rs.980 million is expected for 2008) that they started supporting us."

Like Ambarassu, he feels that the uniqueness of the place is the coexistence of French and Tamil heritage.

However, an observer can only be worried about the exponential growth of this new industry and ask how long can the present infrastructure take it?

Panda agrees: "We have not done enough, now we have to take measures to keep the entire city clean and beautiful.

"INTACH has plans for this and we have already made some proposals to the government". He believes that if this succeeds, the tourists will continue to visit Puducherry and its uniqueness can be preserved.