Pondicherry Becomes Pondicherry!

Pondicherry Map circa 1705

A year ago, the Government of Pondicherry joined the unfortunate trend of Hindufying the names of Indian cities, formally changing the name to “Puducherry.” This renaming was seen as a repudiation of the colonial past, and played well to the politics of the right-wing Hindu nationalists. Leave aside the fact that the place had been called “Pondicherry” since the late 17th Century.

I am delighted to report that the Government of Puducherry has now partially reversed course, all for the better. “Puducherry” will remain the designation of the Union Territories — those four non-contiguous bits of India, colonized by France rather than Britain, collected together for the purpose of non-statehood governance withn India’s republican structure. The name “Pondicherry” will once more refer to the wonderful town in which we make our home, which is also the capital of the Union Territories of Puducherry. Got it?

A couple weeks ago, in a comment to an article about the Hindufication of Indian place names, I wrote: “Pondicherry then, Pondicherry now, Pondicherry forever!” I guess I was prescient, as well as obstinate.

12 Responses to “Pondicherry Becomes Pondicherry!”

  1. 1 Ritwik Banerjee 6 November 2007 at 2:08 am

    What on earth is “hindufication”? And why, oh why, is Puducherry a Hindu name? If you called it an Indianization of the name, I would have understood. But this, I do not comprehend! The name is not Sanskrit, the name is not an allusion to any Hindu God or Goddess or ritual. Can you please explain “Hindufication”?

  2. 2 mbjesq 6 November 2007 at 5:06 am

    You raise an interesting issue, which perhaps you should take up with the likes of the BJP, Shiv Sena, VHP, and other right-wing political movements that have used the renaming of cities to advance their distictly Hindu nationalist agenda. I suspect, however, that rather than doubting the Hinduism of the exercise, they would simply settle on new names with even stronger religious connotations.

    I also suspect that the honest among the Hindu nationalists (an oxymoron?) would readily admit that the renaming of cities, even if not with strictly religious names, constitutes Hindufication in the most basic, blinkered, nativist sense. By reverting to, or coining indiginous Inidan names, the ancient, pure, non-religiously-diverse India is evoked.

    In the case of “Puducherry”, the link with Hinduism is tenuous. The word is Tamil, meaning “new village” or “new colony”. According to proponents of the renaming in 2006, the name was used “in ancient times,” whatever that means. To the right, which uses these stupid revisions to engender populist sentiment among Hindu nationalists, “ancient times” clearly refers to pre-Islamic India.

  3. 3 Ritwik Banerjee 6 November 2007 at 6:32 am

    So, any idea what Pondicherry was called after pre-Islamic rule and before colonization of India?

    By the way, Islamic rule should not affect Pondicherry because it was never under the Mughal empire (expect perhaps a very short occupation by Aurangzeb lasting a maximum of fifteen years ….. I don’t remember the exact dates!)

  4. 4 mbjesq 6 November 2007 at 12:45 pm


    Thanks for your thoughtful posts.

    I’ve looked for a reference for the so-called “ancient times” designation of “Puducherry”, but have come up dry. This is an interesting question. I’ll be home next month, and can poke around. Someone may know. Or it may be that the reference was every bit as fabricated as “Mumbai” was in its way.

    I think you are right about Islamic rule not reaching Tamil Nadu, and particularly not Pondy. The Vijayanagar empire was the bulwark against Muslim invasion from the north from the early 14th Century until about the time the French colonized Pondicherry. Its demise was coincidental to, and not causally related to the arrival of the French.

    I think the French were in control of Pondy for several years before Aurangzeb began his onslaught in the Deccan.

    In any event, I meant the term “pre-Islamic” to suggest “religiously mixed”, rather than “under Islamic rule.” Hindu nativism looks to a (perhaps mythical) past and (utterly delusional) future of non-diversity. Islamic rule is long-since history in India; and yet the Hindu nationalist instincts are as virulent as ever.

    If my bias isn’t already clear: I have no use for the Hindu nationalist right. I believe that, with very few exceptions in today’s world, cultural diversity is a strength of society and bigotry is a curse.



  5. 5 Ritwik Banerjee 6 November 2007 at 11:15 pm

    I agree with you in that cultural diversity is strength. But …
    but, but …

    If Puducherry is not a religious word, why do “right-wing political movements that have used the renaming of cities to advance their distictly Hindu nationalist agenda” play a role in the renaming of Pondicherry?

    the ancient, pure, non-religiously-diverse India” : Why is ancient India not religiously diverse? Unlike any other part of our world, even nihilism was an accepted religion in ancient India (their philosophy was called cArbAk darshan).

    Finally, I would like to say that for a country where close to 80% of the population is Hindu, nationalism and Hinduism are bound to have a considerable overlap. There is nothing unnatural about it. I am not saying it’s good or bad, but “not unnatural”.

    And another point to note:

    The rate of conversion to Islam in India is now higher than ever before. Muslims constituted 11% of the Indian population in 1990. In the last fifteen years, their numbers have risen to 16% (2005 census). The virulent instincts of Hindu nationalism are clearly not working! India as a country is not a Hindu nationalist country. Several aspects of the political arena show this. Four out of the six candidates for the post of Vice President were Muslims. Now, THIS is unnatural for a country with a staggering Hindu majority.

    The notion of myth that you raise is another interesting point. Many of the texts were labelled as mythical stories by British Indologists who knew less than jackshit about this country and Sanskrit. Puranas have often been labelled as mythical texts. One of the oldest Puranas, called mArkandeya purAna described Asia in astounding details that include descriptions of rivers like Ob, Yenisey and Lena in Russia. Is that myth? It also says that the earth is not a perfect sphere but is slightly flattened at the top and bottom. Is that myth too? I know I cannot prove my point with mere examples. I plan to write a post in my blog regarding the demystification of myth in these texts. Will send you a link then.

    Sorry for making this comment tremendously long!

  6. 6 mbjesq 7 November 2007 at 11:26 am


    I’d have to kick your ass for your long comments, if only they were not thoughtful and interesting. So instead, I have to engage them.

    As I read you, we have no disagreement other than I am describing the Hindutva right as it sees itself and as its populism actually operates, whereas you are trying to bring a level of thoughtfulness and logic to their program (I should say, their “pogrom”) which gives them far too much credit.

    I agree that the Indiafying of place names with nonreligious signifiers is a less effective strategy for Hindu nationalism than to call them by Hindu names. We could drop a note in the RSS suggestion box. But if you look at who the proponents of the renaming schemes they are not your average “I love my India!” patriots; they are Hindutva goons.

    We also do not disagree on the religious diversity of ancient India — or ancient anywhere, for that matter. Following the spread of Hinduism throughout the subcontinent, there was probably less diversity then than now; but as a general principle, you are right. This is exactly why I referred to the Hindutva myth of ancient religious purity. Again, you confuse their delusion with reality.

    I was not using the term “myth” to refer to the stories which comprise the Hindu narrative itself. As an atheist, I have no more regard for the crazy shit that goes on in the Ramayana than I do for the notion of the virgin birth of Jesus, the parting of the Red Sea, the creation of the world by Amaterasu, or any of the other mumbo-jumbo that passes for religious truth. As a lover of literature, I am equally enamored of these same things. If most religious folks were not as dogmatic and ill-informed, I’d guess my love of the allegory would probably predominate. As it is, my repugnance for all-things-religious pervades.

    Finally, you raise the interesting fact of rising conversion away from Hinduism – and this is not just to Islam, of course. Christianity is on the upswing, and Buddhism is making quite a comeback. Does this contradict the notion of virulent Hindutva? Not at all. There is nothing particularly appealing or worthy of emulation in this hate-spewing, insular ideology. It is hardly surprising that it would engender as much counter-push as attraction. But the principal reason for conversion away from Hinduism lies within Hinduism itself: the persistence of casteism. Let’s leave aside that the indelible Indian instinct for social hierarchy has perniciously imported pseudo-casteism into the religions of conversion; on paper, at least, the fastest ticket out of a low caste life would appear to be a rejection of the religious system fostering casteism.

    I think that’s everything on your laundry list.



  7. 7 narayan 22 July 2008 at 10:41 pm

    There is a lot of theorizing here that wanders off and doesn’t address the naming issue. One of the more readable books that informs me of the Coromandel coast (read Cholamandalam) is S.Muthaiah’s “Madras Rediscovered” (East West Books, Chennai, 2004). Muthaiah has pages on the origins of the name Madras. That name, eventually chosen by the English, is happily close to some local traditions predating the East India Company. Here’s what Muthaiah says of Pondicherry :
    “Martin, who had been sailing home with de la Haye’s fleet and who found himself unwittingly a captain during the San Thomé siege, had, towards the end of 1673, sailed south from San Thomé and obtained a grant from the Governor of Gingee, Sher Khan Lodi, representing the Sultan of Bijapur, for a strip of land he called “Phulcheree” (Poo-cheri ? or Puducheri ?). Returning to San Thomé, he led a party of Frenchmen to his newly acquired village just before the Fort’s surrender. And around the village he built protective walls – and so was born Pondicherry in 1674.
    “Pollecheree or Pulicheri – village of tamarind trees; Phulcheree or Poocheri – village of flowers; or just plain, simple, unglamorous Puduchcheri – new village, the French bastion has remained Pondicherry to English speakers to this day. But in Tamil, ever since Madrasis can remember, it has been Puduchcheri. Could it be that Martin’s land grant was for an unnamed stretch of land where he built a new town? But could it also have been that he cultivated the land around here so well – as some records have it – that his town came to be called. by some, the town of flowers? Whatever the reasons, the earlier names seem to make much more sense than the much later Pondicherry – whose meaning is obscure, but whose existence has enabled France’s impress on India to remain to this day.”
    Francois Martin was one of the Directors/Factors of the Machilipatnam factory of the French East India Company. Machilipatnam was Anglicized to Masulipatam. Vijayanagara and Aurangzeb have no place in the discussion; the Coromandel coast belonged to Bijapur and Golkunda.
    K.A.Nilakanta Sastri, “A History of South India” (Oxford Univ Press, 1975) cites “The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea” (~75 AD) which calls the port of Pondicherry / Arikamedu by the name Poduca.
    It would be barbaric to suggest, as does the unrefereed and silly Wikipedia, that there is a “renaming controversy” in reverting back to names that non-Anglophone South Indians have used all along. For example, my parents always said Bengluru when speaking Tamil, Kannada or Telugu, but invariably Bang-lore when speaking English. And it was always Chennapatna to my village grandmother, but Medras to my city grandmother. As for the city-state in question, people have always said Pondy, which, unfortunately, was, in my student days, Indian slang for a pornographic book. It is also irksome that a Patel and a Bannerjee should have such vaunted opinions on South Indian place names when they should know that Baroda and Calcutta were never the preference of non-Anglophone Gujeratis and Bengalis.
    To depend on the Internet, schoolboy histories, and on one’s prejudices is to commit the Texas Sharpshooter’s Fallacy. You can find that explained in Wikipedia.

  8. 8 narayan 22 July 2008 at 10:56 pm

    P.S. How lame is Wikipedia! The Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry (I am addressing Anglophones, aren’t I?) was redesigned and built by the Japanese American architect George Nakashima (1937 onward), a major professional accomplishment. Wikipedia, on Nakashima, doesn’t even mention his sojourn and work in Pondicherry.

  9. 9 swetha 24 July 2008 at 8:50 pm

    Just thought I’d mention that although this “hindufication” may have been connected to the nationlistic movement elsewhere in india (i’m not really clear on those issues), I doubt that its the case behind the name changes in Tamil Nadu. I believe that both the change to madras and pondy is more likely related to the dravidian movement by the largely atheistic DMK government.

    If anything they’ve always been very critical of the hindu nationalists.

  10. 10 Joan 29 September 2012 at 8:38 pm

    Does anybody know what happened to Capt Francois Martin, where he went after India and where/who his descendants are?

  11. 11 Manu 7 May 2013 at 10:56 pm

    ‘Localization’ would be a better term than ‘Hinduization’. Also, I don’t think there is anything wrong in shedding colonial past. I don’t think any country will proudly display that they were ruled by foreign imperialists.

  12. 12 mbjesq 10 May 2013 at 11:49 pm

    Localization would also be a better concept than Hinduization; but that would be a generous euphemism for the motivation. I completely agree that shedding the mark of colonialism is a worthy aim; and this is demonstrably part of the plan in many of the re-namings. But not in the case of Pondicherry, or Bombay for that matter.


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