In the course of many recce visits to Pondicherry in search of old structures, Francis Wacziarg and Aman Nath came across the house on 17 Rue Romain Rolland. It had been occupied since 1952 by the Department of Education. During the days of the French, the building was called the ‘Instruction Publique’ – the board still sits above the entrance door. The Department was about to vacate the building as it had been declared unsafe.
The house was formally acquired in October 1998 and when the restoration started, a few ceilings and arches had to be rebuilt to their original style as they indeed were about to collapse.
Rue Romain Rolland is in the heart of Pondicherry and was earlier called Rue des Capucins after a monastery that once existed off the street. (A church by the same name was commissioned in 1707).
The history of Pondicherry is closely associated with the trade that developed in the 17th century. Founded in 1664, the Compagnie des Indes Oientales – the French answer to the East India Company – was given the rights to trade with India by Louis XIV, King of France. The first settlement, a ‘factory’, was Surat, followed by the ‘loges’ of Tellichery and Calicut on the Malabar coast. The ‘comptoir’ of Pondicherry was to become the ‘flagship’ of French presence in India from 1675. A port was constructed, and by 1691, the population touched 20,000. Dupleix, the Governor from 1742 to 1756, ushered in an era of prosperity for Pondicherry but also of wars that led to the eventual destruction of the city in 1761. Thereafter, the town was to change hands several times, between the Dutch and the British, but always for short periods and the French remained at the main influence till 1954.
The mansion which houses the Hotel de l’Orient dates back to the late 1760’s when Pondicherry was rebuilt. In the course of restoration a hand-written inscription “H. RUDIER 1809” was found in the room named ‘Masulipatam’, thus indicating that the house was inhabited by a French family at the time. French occupation continued for the next two centuries, and the mansion was bought from the Sinnas family who had acquired it in 1952.
The aim of the restoration process was to recreate the 18th century aura. Wherever possible, the old Chettinad plaster was retained; the red oxide flooring was repaired in parts but not replaced. The bathrooms had to be modernized and an interesting finish on the walls was experimented with – a mix of white cement that gave the walls a shiny patina which went with the restored look. Many of the wooden beams had to be changed as the original ones had been eaten by termites. The paint on the ceilings was left untouched. The wooden planks on the high doors and windows with shutters, louvers and caned panels were retained or replaced by new panels made of old wood.
The rooms – now all air-conditioned – have been named after former French possessions: Masulipatam, Surate, Calicut, Gingy, Balassore, Cassimbazar, all names of ‘loges’ and ‘factories’. The suites have been named after the better known French areas: Mahe, Yanaon, Chandernagor, Karikal. In each room an object symbolizes the region in which the French-occupied town was in.
The courtyard, in the centre of the property, links the street with the dining room and serves as a stage for cultural performances too.