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March 2004

The Dutch town plan of Pondicherry

- by Carel

Contrary to established opinion, the modern gridiron town plan of Pondicherry is a creation not of the French but of the Dutch proves French historian Jean Deloche.

Jean Deloche“I am afraid that my French colleagues will curse me as I have demolished one of their cherished beliefs,” grins Jean Deloche. “But the proofs are irrefutable. The town plan of Pondicherry is Dutch, not French, and also not Indian.” His recent publication, Origins of the Urban Development of Pondicherry According To Seventeenth Century Dutch Plans documents this discovery.

French historians always held that the modern gridiron plan of Pondicherry originated in the period between 1724 and 1735, and that its urban spirit of ‘order and regularity' expressed a successful achievement of ‘l'esprit français,' the French Cartesian mind. Some Indian historians consider that Pondicherry was built according to the principles of the ancient Hindu treatises of architecture, particularly the Silpa Sastra, and that the town plan is a classic example of the prastara type of Vedic town. But a detailed analysis of the Dutch plans of Pondicherry dating from the end of the seventeenth century (1693-1694) preserved in the National Archives at The Hague , the Netherlands , shows beyond question that the orthogonal street pattern of the town is a creation of the Dutch. Their survey plans of 1693 detail the irregular street pattern that existed in the then French settlement. In the plans drafted in 1694 by the Dutch town planner Jacob Verbergmoes one finds the design of a large new town, with a very regular geometric layout, rectangular blocks of houses, separated by straight streets, intersecting at right angles. This great urban project of the Dutch East India Company was later adopted by the French who, during the first half of the 18th century, systematically carried out the extensive straightening of the streets into the planned grid.

Pondicherry in 1693 according to French plans, overlaid on the present gridiron plan

“Here at the Institut Français we had always wondered about the origins of the town,” says Deloche. “But my colleagues Pierre Pichard and François l'Hernault never got very far in their research. Then l'Hernault passed away, later Pichard left and I was left alone.

“We had heard about the existence of the Dutch maps, and the Dutch National Archives had even sent us photos, but the legends were in old Dutch and illegible. And then, one day, Mr. Jan Lohman [a member of Auroville International The Netherlands, eds.] dropped in. When he expressed his interest in old cities, I told him he was a godsend, and that I needed a person who could visit the Dutch National Archives and get me all the details. Six months later I received from him all I needed, in great detail with translations of the legends. And then I discovered that everything which has been published about the French origins of the town of Pondicherry was wrong.”

The first Europeans to come to Pondicherry were probably the Danes, who arrived as early as 1653. Old French documents speak about ‘the Danish house' built with bricks. In 1673, François Martin, who is considered the founder of Pondicherry , arrived. He paid Raja Ram, the ruler of Senji (Gingee) to be allowed to build a fort in Pondicherry . But events in Europe influenced the happenings in the colonies. In 1688 the Nine-Year War started. England , Spain , Brandenburg and the Dutch Republic had allied themselves against France . In September 1693 the Dutch conquered Pondicherry , took François Martin prisoner and sent him back to France . Pondicherry would remain in their possession for five and a half years. During that period, the Dutch enlarged the territory under their control by purchasing a few villages from Raja Ram and planned a new town, based on a grid pattern. However, following the Peace Treaty of Rijswijk between the warring parties in 1699, Pondicherry was returned to the French and François Martin came back. “But the Dutch didn't want to surrender the entire territory,” recounts Deloche. “They argued that the treaty of Rijswijk provided for the return of the city and the fort, but said nothing about the villages the Dutch had bought from the ruler. Finally François Martin had to pay the Dutch to get rid of them.”

The town plan of Pondicherry designed by the Dutch, overlaid on the present gridiron plan

The Dutch had developed a unique trading system. They would purchase cloth in India , sell it in Indonesia , and from there bring spices back to Holland . “From all accounts it appears that the Dutch were intending to turn Pondicherry into their main trading post on the Coromandel Coast ,” says Deloche. “They must have been very active for half of the new town was built when they left. The northern part was occupied by weavers, who constituted about 3/4th of the town's inhabitants. They planned the city in such a way that each street was built for a specific caste or profession. The map shows streets for weavers, merchants, farmers, artisans and Brahmins. There is even a reference to a street for ‘hoeren' who were located nearby the Brahmin quarter. Very likely these were the devadasis, dancing girls dedicated to the service of a deity and generally to temple prostitution, hence the abusive name of ‘hoer' (whore) given to them in the maps.

“If I had any doubt left, the findings in the recent book Dutch Town Planning Overseas during VOC and WIC Rules (1600 - 1800) written by the Dutchman Ron van Oers, clinched the argument,” says Deloche. “Van Oers has studied all Dutch colonial settlements, and notes that they were preferably built on a strict geometrical design. He writes ‘Where the Dutch could use it, they preferred this pattern. Symbolic of an ordered, well managed society, hierarchical but democratic, it was emblematic for the hard working, God-fearing Dutch Calvinists.' Van Oers makes but a brief reference to Pondicherry , but shows that its town plan is similar to that of other Dutch colonial towns.”

“Very likely the Dutch surrendered the plans they had made of the city to the French,” continues Deloche. “For the first French town plan is a copy of the Dutch plan. Even the division of the city into ‘the white town' and ‘the black town' is a creation of the Dutch, who wanted the white people to stay on the seashore and the Indians to the west of the canal. The French simply continued this policy. In the beginning of the 18th century, for example, they asked all the Muslims to move to the roads leading to Cuddalore. And that is probably the reason why in that area of the town you find three diagonal streets instead of the grid pattern.”

The map of Pondicherry showing its gridiron layout

As the French started to turn Pondicherry into a big centre, a rampart was built around the city in 1724. “They had already implemented the Dutch plan. And now they made a big wall around it, rounding-off the corners. In 1820, when there was no longer any need for the rampart, they flattened it and turned it into the boulevard surrounding Pondicherry . And that is how Pondicherry got its oval shape.”

Pondicherry , said French documents of the beginning of the 18th century, is becoming a beautiful town with straight streets ‘according to the ancient plans'. But nowhere was it mentioned that the ancient plans were Dutch. For the Dutch did not leave any particular monuments. “Probably, they simply didn't have time,” concludes Deloche.

Origins of the Urban Development of Pondicherry According To Seventeenth Century Dutch Plans, by Jean Deloche. Publications Hors Série 3 ISSN: 0972-2157. French Institute of Pondicherry , PB 33, Pondicherry 605001.

Jointly published by the Institut Français de Pondichéry and the Royal Netherlands Embassy, New Delhi , on the occasion of the 50th Anniversary of the transfer of the French settlements in India to the Indian Union . As this study shows the major role played by the Netherlands and France in the creation of the town, it seems appropriate to associate the two countries with the commemoration of this event by the Government of India,

Jean Deloche is also author of a number of books on Indian systems of transport and communications before the steam engine, on the Grand Trunk Road and on the Gingee Fort.

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