Between marginality and universality: present tensions and paradoxes in French colonial cultural heritage, civilizing mission, and citizenship in Puducherry, India

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Combining historic and ethnographic approaches, this article analyzes the current production of colonial heritage in Puducherry, the former capital of French India. The aim is to explore the tensions and paradoxes that manifest themselves in postcolonial processes of marginalization and universalist claims surrounding the production of colonial heritage. Practices of heritage conservation and awareness have a colonial as well as postcolonial history of civilizing mission and claims to universal values, which create tensions in which some perspectives and positions are universalized, while others are marginalized. Importantly, this field extends beyond that of heritage itself to encompass a larger set of universalizing claims on cultural, moral, aesthetic, and political values. Puducherry, as a marginal colony of what in the context of India was a marginal colonial power, presents an interesting case of double historic marginalization and resulting postcolonial dynamics, as elements of this marginality recur in the present production of its heritage. A history of claims for universal values remains at play in the production of Indo-French colonial heritage surrounding Puducherry; although the dynamics of who is making claims on such values change in the postcolonial context. The ongoing processes of heritage conservation and attempts to produce “heritage awareness” about the Indo-French heritage of Puducherry show how this heritage not only concerns issues such as political independence, social memory, tourism, economic and urban development, but also turns on conceptualizations of citizenship and heritage as civilizing mission, caught up in historically changing patterns of post/colonial relations and identities.


Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)45-67
Number of pages23
JournalHeritage and Society
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 3 Apr 2018


  • Civilizing mission, universalism, marginality, citizenship, heritage awareness;, colonial heritage, French India, Puducherry