A review of the Institute Français de Pondichéry, Pondicherry, India.
The Institute Français de Pondichéry (IFP), also referred to as simply the French Institute, is an academic gem in the heart of the French colonial city of Pondicherry, India. With its historic and quiet interior, proximity to the restaurants and attractions of city, and a library overlooking the Bay of Bengal, the French Institute is worth visiting for its grounds alone. However, the real draw of the IFP is its world class research facilities, with coverage ranging from ecology and the social sciences to studies of Sanskrit and Tamil epigraphy. Its libraries and archives are fantastic and refreshingly easy to access. For those interested in Sanskrit and Tamil manuscript sources—especially concerning South Indian Shaiva religion—the manuscript collection is not to be missed. The IFP’s library also houses difficult to find secondary material and textual editions. An added and often underutilized archive is the vast store of photographs of temples and temple architecture of South India.
Getting to the French Institute rarely causes any problems, although it is sometimes confused with various other French schools and landmarks in the city. Street names in the French Quarter are generally well-known, so to avoid confusion be sure to give its address as 11 Rue St. Louis. It is easily reached on foot from the center of Pondicherry, which provides many easy opportunities for lunch and accommodation. For those wishing to stay on the grounds, there are a few air-conditioned guest rooms available for a reasonable price on the premises, but priority is given to researchers affiliated with the French Institute. Those interested should contact the IFP well in advance.
Library hours are 9:00 AM to 1:00 PM and 2:00 PM to 5:30 PM, Monday through Friday, and 9:00 AM to 1:00 PM on Saturday. The Institute is closed for both Indian and French governmental holidays so plan ahead on timings. Visitors must sign in at both the gate and the library. It is also recommended to arrive early to consult the catalogs and handlists for the various collections so that the staff has plenty of time to prepare orders. Although the IFP has taken the lead in creating digital databases on its archival holdings, it still pays to set aside some time to look at the physical catalogs, especially for the holdings in the photography and manuscript archives.
The IFP holds an impressive range of materials across a range of disciplines and materials. Here I will concentrate on three of the most important: the manuscript collection, the photography archives, and the library itself. However, it should also be noted that the institute is very active in social sciences and ecology (again concentrating on South India). The maps of the various biospheres of South India are especially fascinating.
To turn to the archives themselves, the French Institute holds one of the most important collections of South Indian palm leaf manuscripts in the world. The collection includes over 8,187 palm leaf bundles, 360 paper manuscripts, and 1,144 modern transcriptions of older manuscripts carried out for the IFP. While these manuscripts, written in Sanskrit, Tamil, and Manipravalam, come from every system of pre-modern Indian knowledge, over half concern themselves with the theistic tradition known as Shaiva Siddhanta. In 2005, UNESCO recognized the Shaiva Manuscripts of the IFP as a “Memory of the World” collection. This collection is further enriched by the 1,662 palm-leaf bundles in the collection of the Ecole français d’Extreme-Orient. Consisting of texts from the Tirunelveli district in the far south of Tamil Nadu, this collection centers on Vaishava religion and preserves a number of unpublished texts.
Research scholars who travel to the IFP can make digital images free of cost on the premises. The photographs must be made under the supervision of the staff and a digital copy of the photographs must be given to the Institute. Researchers wishing to photograph the manuscripts must take pictures of the entire bundle, not just single texts and cannot reproduce the images without written consent of the IFP. An online database of the paper manuscripts at the IFP is available and a hand-list can be consulted on site.
In addition to the vast manuscript collection, the IFP is also home to one of the largest and most important collections of photographs of South Indian sites. With more than 136,000 photographs, the collection highlights temple art and architecture. The photographs are 6 cm by 6 cm, printed from black and white negatives. The photographs are cataloged according to both place name and subject matter. The card catalog holding this information is kept on site, but a digitization project which will encode more information about the photographs is currently underway. More information about the categorization of the archives and a list of the contents can be found here (http://www.ifpindia.org/Categorisation-of-Photo-Archives.html).
The library itself is a beautiful place to spend the day reading. It is a treasure trove of difficult to find South Indian publications, including South Indian textual editions and periodicals. In addition to contemporary journals, the IFP houses complete sets of rare Tamil journals such as Eluttu and Manikkudi. The collection also includes rare books on various historical subjects. The “French Settlements” collection (known in French as “Etablissements français en Inde”) is especially important for its wealth of material on early French engagements with South India. The entire collection is cataloged in a multiscript (roman and devanagari) database. The helpful staff will bring selected material to the reading room for consultation. The many publications of the IFP are also for sale through the library.
With the breadth of available material, the ease of access, and the pleasant atmosphere, the IFP repays the researcher handsomely for time spent here. Those interested in the history, religion, architecture, literature, and philosophy of South India can surely benefit from the Institute Français de Pondichéry.
Department of South & Southeast Asian Studies
University of California, Berkeley
Image: Photograph of Institute Français de Pondichéry, by author.
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