Legend has it that the great sage Agastya came to Vedapuri, by which name the present Pondicherry was once known, only to worship Vedapuriswara, one of the oldest deities worshipped here. The deity, Lord Shiva, the presiding spirit of Vedapuri, was also known as Agatiswara, the lord of Agastya. Pondicherry was traditionally a seat of learning and vedic culture. Such a tradition must have developed from the presence of a great sage in a remote past, surrounded by seekers and disciples living in his Ashram.
Pondicherry is just a speck on the map of India. Yet men have been fascinated by this speck from time immemorial. It attracted to its shores the Romans and the Chinese. It saw the advent, rise and fall of Buddhism, the resurgence of Hinduism and the penetration of Christianity and Islam through two millennia.
Known as 'Poduke' to the classical geographers of Greece and Rome, the ancient port of Pondicherry flourished from the second century B.C. It has now been established that the place had a roman settlement about 2000 years ago. Excavations at Arikamedu, near Ariankuppam, on the outskirts of the present city prove that the Romans settled here and regular commerce was carried on between the port of Pondicherry and the Roman cities. The area later formed part of the kingdom of the Pallavas, the Cholas, the Vijayanagar rulers and the Nayaks. The French came following the Portuguese and the Dutch, and took root here. In the 18th century, in the wake of wars between England and France, the city changed hands several times.
The French first established their 'loge' in Puducherry in 1674. In 1693, it was captured by the Dutch but restored in 1699 following the Treaty of Ryswick. The Territory thus restored to the French, included Puducherry Fort and its surroundings which were taken possession of by the French after paying the Dutch a sum of 16,000 pagodas which they asserted as having spent for acquiring the areas adjacent to the town.
In 1703, the village of Kalapet was obtained by Franco is Martin from the Nawab Dawood Khan, the representative of Aurangazeb, in order to obtain timber from the forests surrounding it for construction of houses in Puducherry town. The same Nawab ceded the village group of Ozhukarai in 1706, the annual revenue of which amounted to nearly one thousand pagodas, as well as the village groups of Murungapakkam, Olandai, Pakkamudayanpet and Karuvadikuppam. The villages of Theduvanatham and Archivak ( Abhishekapakkam), Odiayambattu and Thirukkanji were given as gift to Dumas by Nawab Sardar Ali in September 1740.
In 1750 following the victory of Ambur, Musafar Jung confirmed the grant of Villiyanur and added 36 villages of Bahur so that the advance posts were brought up to the Ponnaiyar. Since then, the French territories were besieged four times by the English. The first siege, under admiral Boscawen was unsuccessful. The second in 1761, resulted in the capture of the town. Following the Treaty of Paris signed on 10 February 1763, Puducherry and its dependencies which included Ozhukarai, Ariyankuppam, Virampattinam, Murungapakkam, Pakkamudayanpet, Olandai, Abhisekapakkam, Kommapakkam and Kalapet were restored to the French. It was again besieged and captured in 1778 and restored in 1785. It was captured a third time in 1793. Following the Treaty of Peace of 30 May 1814 the establishments were finally restored in 1816. The Treaty of 1814 provided for the restitution of all the settlements and factories which France had possessed in India as on 1 January 1792. These Possessions were determined by the Convention concluded at Versailles on 31 August 1787 and by the Treaties of Peace (Versailles) signed on 3rd September 1783 and previously on 10th February 1763. Thus by the Treaty of 1814, the French were allowed to retain only those areas which were in their possession in 1763.
Since then these establishments continued under French rule for one hundred and thirty eight years, after which the French left the shores on 31 October 1954, following de facto transfer of power. This is also briefly the explanation for the scattered nature of Puducherry and its various enclaves.
Karaikal and its surrounding areas formed part of the Mayuram Subha of Thanjavur country under the first Mahratta ruler Yekoji since 1675.
But soon after the arrival of the French in Puducherry, Francois Martin is known to have sent an envoy to the King of Thanjavur seeking permission to set up an establishment in his kingdom. This as well as the mission sent in 1688 did not bring any success.
In 1738, again Dumas negotiated with Sahuji of Thanjavur for Karaikal, the fortress of Karakalachcheri and five villages on payment of 40,000 chakras. The Conseil Superieur met on 10 July 1738 and approved the treaty. Even before the French could take possession of the town and the villages. Sahuji backed out of his promise on the convenient pretext of Dutch objection. Chanda Saheb in an attempt to demonstrate his allegiance to the French offered to march his own troops upon Karaikal. The troops led by Francisco Pereira, a Spaniard in the Service of Chanda Saheb with French interest at heart, took the town and the fort in no time. Karaikal, the fort of 'Karkalanjeri' and the adjacent territory were made over to the French.
On 14 February 1739, Gratien Golard took possession of Karaikal town, the fort of Karakalachcheri and eight dependent villages. Although Chanda Saheb's Thanjavur expedition did not achieve its purpose, he wished to confirm the grant of Karaikal to the French. This was enough for the King of Thanjavur who raised his prize for the town of Karaikal and the fort of Karakalachcheri to 50,000 chakras. He also demanded a loan of 1,50,000 chakras without interest repayable in three years against the hypothecation of Mayuram lands and an annual rent of 4,000 pagodas for five villages. The Conseil Superieur agreed to all the terms except to the payment of 1,50,000 chakras which was reduced to 10,000 chakras. The villages so received were Kilaiyur, Melaiyur, Pudutturai, Kovilpattu and Tirumalarajanpattinam. The parwana of chanda Saheb dated 1 July 1739 ceded to Dumas, the two villages of Niravi and 'Conde' situated south of Karaikal.
Troubles started again in the Kingdom of Thanjavur, and Sahuji lost his throne in a domestic revolution. Pratap Singh who succeeded to the throne renewed the demand for a loan of 1,00,000 chakras. On receipt of the first instalment of 40,000 chakras, he assigned eight more villages to the French, viz. Codague(Kondagai), Vanjiyur, Arinullimangalam, Niravi, Dharmapuram, Oozhiapattu, Mattakudi(probably Mattalangudi) and Polagam. On 5 January 1740, the village of Arinullimangalam was exchanged for Courtallam (Kutralam). On 12 February 1740 Pratap Singh sold for 60,000 Chakras these eight villages which he had assigned only the previous year for a sum of 40,000 chakras. The same year he pledged Tirunallar maganam for a sum of 55,350 chakras(equivalent to Rs.82,000). He also pledged 33 villages for a sum of 60,000 chakras. In July 1741 a parwana was received from the Mughal Emperor, confirming the right to the French over Karaikal and the five villages.
Relations with the Thanjavur Court, however, became strained shortly after. Nevertheless Febrier, successor to Gratien Golard, managed to exchange 'Codague, Thencoutralam and Mattakudi'. For Kovilpattu, Vadamarakadu, Kilkasakkudi and Talatterevu which increased the number of villages sold from eight to nine. By a treaty signed on 12 January 1750 Pratap Singh ceded to the French 81 villages around Karaikal and cancelled the annual rent of 2,000 pogodas(Rs.7,000) payable for the villages. This was all the territory the French possessed in the Thanjavur country when they surrendered to the English in 1761. The territory then passed twice to English control in 1783 and 1797 after which it came finally restored by John Thackerey, the collector of Thanjavur to Comte de Beranger on 14 January 1817. The French held it until they left the colony in October 1954.
Thus, the region which saw the influence of different peoples has grown into a repository of a very high standard of art and culture.The name Pondicherry is the corruption of Puducherry which means a new hamlet. The fact that people speaking 55 different languages reside here and that Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, French and English are the five official languages certainly raises eyebrows. In spite of this linguistic plethora, there is no confusion but absolute harmony. Call it Unity in Diversity. There are very few streets in the town not sanctified by the precincts of a temple, a church or a mosque. Many temples here are ten centuries old and a few churches date back to the end of the 17'h century. Festivals are recurrent; people from all religions regardless of their caste and creed join the celebrations, and thereby spread a festive mood all around. In fact there is no such place in India where religious harmony is so natural.
Pondicherry is oval-shaped witii parallel streets cutting each other at right angles. The long canal street, that runs from north to south was constructed on purpose to separate the Black town lead to the promenade, via the White Town. The promenade, one of the finest in the whole country, is 1500 meters long. It is an irresistible attraction for the young and the aged alike. At the southern tip of the promenade stands the statue of Monsieur Dupleix, the greatest French Governor of Pondicherry whose majestic presence reminds the natives that he was once the king of their land.
Further to his back is the port with a new pier, a 284 meter-long sturcture in concrete. At the northern tip of the promenade is the old Distillery. Midway on the promenade stands the 4.25 meter tall statue of Mahatma Gandhi flanked by eight exquisitely hewn monolithic pillars facing the sprawling Gandhi Maidan, where the statue of Jawaharlal Nehru stands. Facing the waves of the Bay of Bengal is the Town Hall, once known as 'Hotel de Ville' and 'Mairie'. To its left is the War Memorial erected by the French to honour the Pondicherry soldiers who died in the First World War.
The 200 year old 'Raj Nivas', the official residence of-the Lieutenant Governor; the 'Cercle de Pondichery' where the moneyed and the people of alien cultures drink, gamble and dance; the Assembly Hall that remained shut for years together but is now in full swing; the General Hospital and the Maternity Hospital, that are heavily crowded round the clock, and the 'Chamber of Commerce' are so lined up on three sides as to form the Government Square or Park. Some charmingly chiselled pillars brought from Gingee to Pondicherry after the capture of its Fort in 1751 adds beauty to the the Park. At the centre of the Park, formerly the 'royal Garden', stands a small surprise. Surprising indeed, for it is a monument built not in honour of a queen or of an empress but of a harlot. The fact that Napoleon III, Emperor of France, who reigned during the later half of the 19th century, was responsible for erecting this building to commemorate a 16"' century harlot adds to our curiosity. The harlot belonged to Pondicherry. Her charitable nature had made direct supply of water to the town possible.
The 'Alliance Francaise', dedicated to die propagation of the French language and culture in Pondicherry and the 'French Institute founded by Dr J. Filliozat, the Indologist, devoted to research on Indian culture with its scientific and technical section continue to do commendable service in promoting Indo-French cultural relations. The statue of Joan of Arc, the variety of buildings modelled on French architecture and the streets named after historic personages of Pondicherry bring to mind fading memories of yesteryears. The mansion of Ananda Rangapillai, the Chief Dubash to the French Governor Monsieur Dupleix, built sometime in 1733 is the best specimen of Indo-French architecture. Pondicherry remains unique in numbering the doors of houses in every street. Odd numbers on the one side and even numbers on the opposite side make it easier for'any stranger to locate the house he is in search of.
The French archaeologist Prof. Jouveau-Dubreuil used to say that he had reasons to believe that the Ashram of Agastya was situated on the very spot where stands today the main building of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram. To Sri Aurobindo, one-time National leader,, Pondicherry was something more than a political asylum. It was here he did his Integral Yoga and wrote his literary and philosophical works. With the advent of a French lady, Madam Mirra Richard, later known as the Mother, who had followed the same spiritual path on her own. Sri Aurobindo started his Ashram to train others in his comprehensive and world-accepting system of spirituality. The samadhi that houses the bodies of Sri Aurobindo and the Modier, in the main premises of the Ashram, is always decorated widi a wide variety of flowers in charming patterns hundreds of devotees visit this holy place every day. During the Darshan days of the Ashram, the entire city is packed with pilgrims from all parts of the globe. The Ashram, a mini-township with its sprawling estate of 120 buildings, hums with activities as work is an offering by the Ashramites to the Divine.The 'Sri Aurobindo International Centre of Education' imparts knowledge to some 600 students from the kindergarten to the higher levels of learning in a number of Indian and foreign languages. Handmade paper of high quality, perfumes, incense-sticks, embroidery, batik and marbled clothes are among a variety of things which the different units of the Ashram produce.
Mahakavi Subramania Bharathi, was another-political refugee in Pondicherry, From here through .the medium of his glowing and evocative songs on Mother India he inspired the freedom movement in Tamil Nadu. The Government of Pondicherry has not only honoured him with a statue but also preserved his house at Easwaran Koil Street as a national monument, where he lived and preached the religion of love. Poet Bharathidasan, known as 'Paventhar' or 'King of Songs', is another eminent son of the soil. Facing the 'Cercle de Pondichery' is his statue and the house he lived in at Perumal Koil Street has been converted into a memorial. Statues of political leaders and social reformers like C.N. Annadurai, E.V. Ramasamy Naicker and Dr. Ambedkar make rheir presence felt here.
While the 160-years old Botanical Garden, situated at the junction of West Boulevard and Lal Bahadur street, preserves a large variety of plants collected from all over India and abroad, the Pondicherry museum displays the findings of Arikamedu, priceless Chola Bronzes and sculptures, glimpses of the French heritage, specimens of modern and traditional handicrafts, paintings, armouries, wood catvings and rare books and journals that were once printed in this 'Seat of learning'. The Pondicherry Central University with the appointment of a Vice-chancellor is equipping itself to begin its great function of imparting knowledge and wisdom.
The three famous cotton mills here provide employment to thousands of labourers and their cotton products are in great demand overseas. Agriculture is the main occupation of the people of Pondicherry. The Agricultural Department has an active engineering wing. Equipped with power drills, anti-compressors and welding plants it looks after the irrigation facilities. Attention is paid to promote the production of groundnuts, rice and sugarcane. The Department of Animal Husbandry takes a number of steps to improve the bovine breeds. Fishermen are given loans and subsidy and are encouraged to obtain mechanized boats. The newly set up sugar mill has started production.Agro-based industries,marine-based industries and cotton-waste based industries are in the offing. Owing to the too-difficult-to-solve problem of unemployment, graduates are encouraged to start small-scale industries of their own. The Industrial Estate advances loans for enterprising young men. Streets named after two most prominent political leaders of India-Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru-are the two fashionable shopping centres of Pondicherry.