Feature Archive

Feature Archive: The National Archives of India Records Centre, Puducherry

Each month, a postgraduate student or an early career researcher shares their experiences of using a particular archive. The overall aim of this section is to create a database of the different archives available to those working on French and Francophone studies that will be of help particularly to students just starting out in research.

Lenny Hodges is a third year PhD student at King’s College London, who works on the French Compagnie des Indes in the first half of the eighteenth century. Here he talks about using the National Archives of India Records Centre in Puducherry.

Puducherry, formerly known as Pondicherry, but often called Pondy by locals, is an ex-French colony on the south-east coast of India. Previously the capital of the Etablissements Français dans l’Inde, the town was ruled by the French until 1954 when it was transferred to the Republic of India. These five Etablissements, originally acquired by the French East India Company in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, were small trading enclaves that hung on through the rise and fall of the British Empire in the subcontinent. Today Pondicherry remains an important site of French culture and learning, and for the small but growing number of scholars interested in the history of French India, the town is certainly worth a visit. In the distinctive warm yellow of Franco-Indian colonial architecture, one can find the Institut Français de Pondichéry, the Ecole française d’Extrême-Orient, as well as the Lycée français. The Institut Français boasts an impressive library with many books and journals that are very hard to find even in France, and it has a very friendly and welcoming staff. For historians, however, the most important draw will likely be the National Archives of India Records Centre.

These archives contain documents from the seventeenth to the twentieth century written in French, Tamil and English. A word of caution when consulting published archival inventories of the colonial period – a substantial amount of the collection was removed by the French before transferral, and is now kept in Aix-en-Provence. In spite of this, there remain a number of series in which a researcher can hope to make some interesting finds, provided they are able to navigate the often-confusing catalogue. For instance, during my own trip in May 2016, I was able to consult eighteenth-century judicial records from Chandernagore, a French East India Company town in Bengal. These fascinating documents shed light on the early history of the town’s colonial governance, yet confusingly they were inventoried as Tribunal de la Chaudrie, an indigenous court in Pondicherry of a later date. Another series which is something of a lucky dip is the wonderfully-named Eighteenth Century Documents. This series has the benefit of a catalogue, but others are apparently lacking such rudiments. The documents themselves, especially in the Chaudrie series, were often damaged or blackened, and sometimes impossible to read. A very short overview of the different series available can be found on the archives’ webpage. In general, the nineteenth and twentieth centuries are better represented, with a strength in judicial sources.

For those who are not Indian nationals who wish to visit Pondicherry archives, it is important to plan your trip very far in advance. During my stay in May 2016 I was able to access the archives with a tourist visa, letters of introduction from my university as well as from the British Deputy High Commission, and my passport. While some researchers I have spoken to reported having to obtain a research visa, which can be an extremely lengthy process, I understand that only a tourist visa should be necessary for access. Since policies can change, however, it may be worth emailing the director of the archives some months in advance to confirm what is required. As a British national flying into Chennai, obtaining a letter of introduction was a relatively painless process. It costs about £50 and a meeting can be booked in advance. For other foreign nationals this may be a more complicated operation, and again it may be worth contacting the relevant embassy beforehand. For Indian researchers, only a letter of introduction from a sponsoring university is required.

Pondicherry is a popular tourist destination and researchers should not have a problem finding a place to stay. There are a number of guesthouses connected with ashrams that offer cheap and clean accommodation. For the brave, bicycles and motorbikes are a popular means of transport, but India’s hectic roads may not be for everyone, and an autorickshaw or tuk-tuk, is a cheap and speedy alternative. It is worth mentioning here that the archives are in fact located in a suburb of Pondicherry called Lawspet. Lawspet is apparently named after Jean Law de Lauriston, a governor of the town and nephew of John Law, the famous Scottish statesman whose ambitious reorganisation of France’s finances and trade led to the Mississippi Bubble of 1720.

In more practical terms, this means researchers staying near the town centre (where most of the hotels and guesthouses are) will have a 20-minute drive to get to the archives. The archives are not especially well-known, and I was told they receive no more than around five foreign researchers a year. On the first visit, therefore, it may be useful to print out a map with the archives shown for your autorickshaw driver. This might help avoid an arduous search around the backstreets of Pondicherry asking bemused passers-by for directions. It is essential to arrange with your driver to return to pick you up once the archives are closed, otherwise you will have a long walk till you reach a busy enough road to hail an autorickshaw. More generally, once you get into the habit of visiting the archive daily the drivers are very obliging and helpful. I think I paid 300 rs. for the round trip which seemed fair. Official opening hours are Monday to Friday, 9:15 to 17:45, but in practice this can vary. As to be expected, public holidays and festivals will mean closures.

Another consequence of the archives being rather out of the way is that there are few cafes or restaurants nearby. There is a simple vegetarian canteen on Airport Road. Google maps claims it is a mere ten-minute stroll, but in the oppressive heat of May I remember it as something like a twenty-minute slog. I generally opted to pick up a plastic tiffin tray on the way, often from Saravana Bhavan. Although I never tired of the delicious South Indian cuisine, it must be said that it is best eaten hot, and lunchtime was regrettably not quite the occasion to look forward to. Access to a kitchen permitting, more discerning researchers might wish to prepare something themselves in advance. The staff at the archive all seemed very keen to help. The director, Mr Murugesan, was very friendly and generally available for my requests and queries. However, not all the staff speak English, and sometimes there were not the staff available for things like photocopying. For this service you can do no better than Mr Kuppan, who made excellent copies of the large, bound records I was working with. The rate per page is Rs. 3 for Indian scholars and Rs. 6 for foreigners. If you have a lot to copy it is worth making sure you leave plenty of time. You can expect one delivery of about ten records a day, and since photography is not permitted this was more than enough to keep me busy, and staff were relaxed about leaving records out overnight for the next day. The reading room is an unassuming classroom in which I worked alone for the whole time I was there, with only a few birds who tapped on the windows for company. The fans attached to the wall kept me reasonably cool, but would also occasionally blow papers around.

Thank you very much for this detailed post, Lenny!

Lenny Hodges is a third year PhD student at King’s College London, supervised by Dr David Todd and Professor Richard Drayton. He works on French Compagnie des Indes in the first half of the eighteenth century. His research examines the Compagnie as a vehicle for state-making in the Indian subcontinent.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *