Mairie (Town Hall), an impressive historical French-styled building, Puducherry, India finally restored

Restored structure. the Mairie (town hall), Puducherry, India.

"Memory is the treasure house of the mind wherein the monuments thereof are kept and preserved"..............Thomas Fuller.

The union territory of Puducheery (also known as Pondicherry or Pondy), the neighboring territory of Tamil Nadu, South India, was once a well known French Settlement just like Chandanagar (French name Chandernagor) city  near Kolkata of West Bengal and is  well known for buildings and bungalows built in Indo-French architecture. As a matter of fact French India had  five principal (Chef-lieu) communes -  Pondichéry, Chandernagore, Karikal, Mahé and Yanaon.   


The well-planned coastal city  of Puducherry was the hub of commerce during the French rule  in the 19th and early 20th century.. When the French left Puducherry  for good, they left behind  a host of French-styled buildings of varied designs. Particularly, in the French quarters, there are many such buildings  that carry the legacy of French rule. The Puducherry state carrying on the French culture  and heritage,  even the police men wear French-styled uniform  in Puducherry, Karikal districts and other territories under its administration. During the British colonial rule, the French   continued to retain the settlement  despite several wars with them. The hostility between these two colonial powers  had  persisted since the time of East India company rule. 

Location map, Pndycherry state,

Mairie in ruins, Puducherry.

Not withstanding the fact  the French established colonies in India  way back  in the 17th century itself, only toward the end of the 19th century they introduced  civil administration. A French Metropolitan Decree, dated 12 March 1880 adopted a six-year term of office for Mayors (Maire), municipal councilors (Conseil Municipaux) and commune panchayats (Communes). Thus French India has seen a French system of municipal administration. Being an effective administrative machinery in French India, it had several distinctive and efficient  features. The French civil administration stood apart and  served as a role model for hassle-free administration in French India. This city hall (Maiie), considered a symbol of the French colonial power, provided a premise for the registry office, and especially for the mayor. 

Mairie, Puducherry in the early 2010s  prior to 2014

Mairie, Puducherry, original building

The Mairie, Puducherry, India. prior to 2014

Among the impressive buildings built in French style,  the Mairie (meaning Town Hall in French) on Goubert Avenue (beach road) is worthy of mention. Built in 1870-71, this iconic structure  facing the Bay of Bengal had been in a state of neglect and disuse  for a long time  and collapsed  on 29 November 2014. to the dismay of heritage lovers.  The restoration work actually began in October 2016   when the work was in progress a part of the building that was supposed to be strong collapsed while the workers were away. Because of protests from various quarters over the poor up keep of this and other buildings,  the state government  began the restoration work  in 2017 and   the project  that was funded by  the World bank progressed slowly.  The restoration of this building that served as the  administrative  and political landmark  was  at last completed in 2020 after considerable delay. It was dedicated to the nation by the Indian PM Modiji  a few days ago on his visit to the city.

The Mairie, Puducherry,

Above image: It is a good example how innumerable impressive heritage monuments disappear across India. Reasons: Lack of interest in maintaining  historical monuments  and sheer carelessness on the part of administration both at the state and central levels.. Puducherry,  once  served as a role model for  preservation and heritage conservation in India and across Asia in the early 1960s,  now lost the stature for various reasons, one being political. Many newspaper articles, especially The Hindu and The Times of India, Indian Express   sadly noted that  many buildings, steeped in history,  had been lost through neglect. In the case of Puducherry, despite a UNESCO award,. many such building are slowly dying, one among them is  the iconic French-era Mairie, or Hotel de Ville (Town Hall).  At stake is Pondicherry’s French  Heritage’ and legacy..............................

The structure was  too weak  to face the fury of  incessant  NE retreating monsoon rains in 2014 and  the it caused the collapse.  Very much affected were  central part and major portions on the northern side, including rooms on the ground and first floor of the building. However,  the four walls and southern portions survived  with cracks.  Soon after the collapse of this unique structure, there arose a necessity  for the government agencies to evaluate all the  French heritage structures in Puducherry. Both the heritage experts and the government agencies had  swung into action  and made concerted efforts to save the the town hall building and the remaining iconic structures at the earliest.

Restoration work in progress. The Mairie, Puducherry, India.

The restoration work stalled for a while on account of disagreement over the right   choice of construction materials  for the building. The crux of the matter was traditional construction materials  had to be used in the  new structure to retain the heritage value and splendor. The heritage experts from the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) and other agencies and the Government  finally arrived at a reasonable agreement over the use of  conventional method to rebuild Mairie.

The INTACH’ experts gave preference to  lime mortar and ‘Madras-terrace roof’ technique  as the  the traditional methods give better life than the modern RCC structure that may last 40 or 50  years where as the PWD, Govt. of Pondicherry  recommended .reinforced cement concrete (RCC) and cement mortar and cement plaster. Further, the  the INTAH engineers wanted to stick to original drawings to rebuild the structure, using the original materials and construction techniques  as followed in the past.  The  cost of the project  Rs.15 crore  was funded by the world bank.

According to PPH ( The People for Pondicherry’s Heritage, a citizens’ body) , the  Congress-led coalition government was  now  taking steps  to construct a RCC look-alike of the Mairie despite knowing that it  was  possible to reconstruct it using traditional methods. The old features include on the eastern and western façade of the building  arcaded entrance with a verandah on high plinth accessed by a broad flight of steps in dressed granite and   colored galleries on the first floor and a large ceremonial hall with wooden flooring,

One of the biggest administrative buildings for more than 100 years, it was classified under A Grade for its heritage value and B Grade for its architectural, cultural and  streetscapes significance.. Since 1870-71, no major restoration work has been carried out. .It is among the other historical sites like Light House, Customs House and French Consulate on the Beach road  the Mairie  served as the office of the municipality offering services marriage registration, etc. besides holding public functions. It also served as the local assembly in the 1880s, but also saw the first-ever democratic exercise during 1871 to 1900, much before the first general election was held in British India.