Pondicherry and Its Architecture

Updated: Feb 11

Once a French colony in India, Pondicherry is a union territory in the Southern part of India bordering the state of Tamilnadu. Facing the blue bay of Bengal, this city is unique in its architectural character and a remarkably well preserved built heritage.


A street view in French town, Pondicherry.


Sage Sri Aurobindo walked the earth here and left an everlasting impression on a city that is rendered with beautiful french colonial Architecture. Sri Aurobindo was a spiritual leader and attracted disciples from around the world. Mirra Alfassa who was a french lady and an artist was drawn to the teachings of Sri Aurobindo and settled in Pondicherry. After the death of Sri Aurobindoin 1950, Mirra took the reins of the spritual mission- the Aurobindo Ashram and was called Mother by the followers. When in 1954 French left their last colony in India for good, they made a very interesting move . Rather than handing over most of their administrative buildings to the Indian Government, they chose ot hand them over to the Sri Aurobindo Ashram. This is perhaps the reason why French architecture in the city remained preserved in an excellent condition. It was also due to the efforts of Mother, who was a visionary and understood the value of Architecture which is evident in her teachings. She was a spiritual leader who tried to fuse mordanity with the spiritualism. No wonder, Indian subcontinent's first modern building was commissioned by Sri Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry! Golconde House (1937-45) was a designed as a guest house for the followers of the Ashram. Tokyo-based Czech architect Antonin Raymond was invited to design the project. The building, even today is one of the finest example of the Modern movement. Mother also initiated the work for the place for the global community, a city based on the vision of Sri Aurobindo in 1968. The city is known is Auroville and is around 10 KM from Pondicherry. Today Auroville is considered to be a place where Architecture is being reinvented in terms of materiality and sustainable design solution! Sri Aurobindo and Mother left an ever lasting impression on Indian Architecture then it is generally acknowledged.

Pondicherry was planned in two quarters, The one facing the Bay of Bengal was for the french and the another was for the native Tamilians. These two quarters were divided by the canal. The french quarters were built with french sensitivities in terms of its planning and Architecture. Buildings were designed with European expressions leaving no scope for native references. French quarter had bungalows on large plots and had Institutional buildings. Today, this part of Pondicherry is a tourist's delight. It provides out of the world experience to the visitor due to its European street character and its French Architecture. Buildings here are very well preserved and many are now converted into heritage hotels to accomodate keen tourists. Most of the French institutional buildings now under the care of Sri Aurobindo Ashram and are well preserved in its character and building condition.


Devision of questers in Pondicherry (French Town)

Isometric view of a typical French bungalow.

Typical plan and a section of a French Bungalow

Elevation of a typical French Bungalow.


The Tamil quaters where the natives lived represents a totally opposite urban grain. It has raws of houses on the streets which are meeting at right angle. Houses here have a unique character which is a result of the french influence on native Tamil Architecture. The internal planning of the house is very traditional in nature allowing people to live as per their customs and traditions, but the facades of these houses were designed with greek columns and arched windows to present a colonial touch. It may exhibits the native people's urge to please their colonial masters. The house where the external columns are of greek design, courtyard inside is surrounded by the traditional wooden column! This is a unique situation where two different architectural expressions were used for to cater to different needs in a same residential space!


Ground floor plan of a Frenco-Tamil House.

Cross section a Frenco-Tamil House.

Isometric view of a Tamil Vernacular house in Pondicherry.

These unique houses are now termed as Franco-Tamil houses. We documented such houses and a street to understand their architectural character and to make sense of how they come into being and what they represents. This short article is a part of the conclusions we derived from our study. This is an ongoing research . One cycle of this study was conducted in collaboration (Related Study Programme) with the students of Raman Bhakta School of Architecture in Bardoli, Surat, Gujarat. For further details you can mail us on research.urbanarch@gmail.com