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Chennai (சென்னை in Tamil), formerly known as Madras, is the capital of the state of Tamil Nadu and is India's fourth largest city.[1] It is located on the Coromandel Coast of the Bay of Bengal. With an estimated population of 7.60 million (2006), the 369-year-old city is the 36th largest metropolitan area in the world.

Chennai boasts of a long history from ancient South Indian empires through colonialism to its evolution in the 20th century as a services and manufacturing hub.


Ancient times

Chennai, originally known as Chennapatnam, was located in the province of Tondaimandalam, an area lying between Pennar river of Nellore and the Pennar river of Cuddalore. The capital of the province was Kancheepuram. Tondaimandalam was ruled in the 2nd century A.D. by Tondaiman Ilam Tiraiyan, who was a representative of the Chola family at Kanchipuram. It is believed that Ilam Tiraiyan must have subdued the Kurumbas, the original inhabitants of the region and established his rule over Tondaimandalam. Chennai is a city which has grown by merging numerous villages which are really ancient. The temples of Thiruvanmiyur, Thiruvotriyur, Thirvallikeni (Triplicane), Thirumyilai (Mylapore) have existed for more than 1000 years. Thiruvanmiyur, Thiruvotriyur and Thirumyilai are mentioned in the Thevarams of the Moovar (of the Nayanmars).

It is thought that the apostle St. Thomas had immigrated to India in 52 A.D. to preach the teachings of Jesus, and he preached from on top of a hillock, now called the St. Thomas Mount in the southwest part of the city. He was later said to be assassinated around the year 70 A.D. There is now a small museum and a Catholic church near a cave where St. Thomas was supposed to have lived. The surrounding area was called 'Chinnamalai'.

The Kapaleeshwarar temple in Mylapore was built by the Pallava kings in the 7th century

Subsequent to Ilam Tiraiyan, the region was ruled by the Chola Prince Ilam Killi. The Chola occupation of Tondaimandalam was put to an end by the Andhra Satavahana incursions from the north under their King Pulumayi II. They appointed chieftains to look after the Kanchipuram region. Bappaswami, who is considered as the first Pallava to rule from Kanchipuram, was himself a chieftain (of the tract around) at Kanchipuram under the Satavahana empire in the beginning of the 3rd century A.D. The Pallavas who had so far been merely viceroys, then became independent rulers of Kancheepuram and its surrounding areas.

The Pallavas held sway over this region from the beginning of the 3rd century A.D. to the closing years of the 9th century, except for the interval of some decades when the region was under the Kalabhras. The Pallavas were defeated by the Cholas under Aditya I by about 879 A.D. and the region was brought under the Chola rule. The Pandyas under Jatavarman Sundara Pandyan rose to power and the region was brought under the Pandya rule by putting an end to Chola supremacy in 1264 A.D. Pandya's rule over this region lasted a little over half a century followed by the Bahmini kingdom with the extension of Delhi Sultanate under Khilji dynasty especially under the rule of Alauddin Khilji. During 1361, Kumara Kampana II, the son of Vijayanagar Emperor, Bukka I conquered and established Vijayanagar rule in Tondaimandalam.

The Vijayanagar rulers appointed chieftains known as Nayaks who ruled over the different regions of the province almost independently. Damarla Venkatadri Nayakudu, an influential Padma Velama Nayak chieftain under the Vijayanagara King Peda Venkata Rayalu based in Chandragiri-Vellore Fort, who was in-charge of the area of present Chennai city, gave the grant of a piece of land lying between the river Cooum almost at the point it enters the sea and another river known as the Egmore river to the English in 1639. On this piece of waste land was founded the Fort St. George exactly for business considerations. In honour of Damerla Chennappa Nayakudu, father of Venkatadri Nayakudu, who controlled the entire coastal country from Pulicat in the north to the Portuguese settlement of Santhome, the settlement which had grown up around Fort St. George was named after him as Chennapattanam.

While the official centre of the settlement was designated Fort St. George, the British applied the name Madras to the combined town. Golkonda forces under General Mir Jumla conquered Madras in 1646 and brought Chennai and its immediate surroundings under his control. After the fall of Golkonda in 1687, the region came under the rule of the Mughal Emperors of Delhi.

Firmans were issued by the Mughal Emperor granting the rights of English East India company in Chennai. In the later part of the seventeenth century, Chennai steadily progressed during the period of the East India Company and under many Governors. During the regime of Governor Elihu Yale (1687-92), the most important event was the formation of the institution of a Mayor and the Corporation for the city of Chennai. In 1693, a perwanna was received from the local Nawab granting the towns Tondiarpet, Purasawalkam and Egmore to the company. Thomas Pitt became the Governor of Chennai in 1698 and governed for eleven years. This period witnessed remarkable development of trade and increase in wealth.

The present parts of Chennai like Poonamalee (ancient Tamil name - Poo Iruntha alli), Triplicane (ancient Tamil name - Thiru alli keni) are mentioned in Tamil bhakti literature of the sixth - ninth centuries.

Early European settlers

Modern Chennai had its origins as a colonial city and its initial growth was closely tied to its importance as an artificial harbour and trading centre. When the Portuguese arrived in 1522, they built a port and named it São Tomé, after the Christian apostle St. Thomas, who is believed to have preached there between the years 52 and 70. The region then passed into the hands of the Dutch, who established themselves near Pulicat just north of the city in 1612.

Arrival of the British

A plan of the Fort St. George and surrounding settlements

By 1612, the Dutch established themselves in Pulicat to the north. In the seventeenth century when the British East India Company decided to build a factory on the east coast they selected Armagon (Dugarazpatnam), a village around 35 miles North of Pulicat, as the site in 1626. The calico cloth from the local area, which was in high demand, was of poor quality and not suitable for export to Europe. The British soon realized that the Armagaon was not a good port and it was unsuitable for trade purposes. Francis Day, one of the officers of the company, who was then a Member of the Masulipatam Council and the Chief of the Armagon Factory, made a voyage of exploration in 1637 down the coast as far as Pondicherry with a view to choose a site for a new settlement.


Permission from Vijayanagara Rulers

At that time the Coromandel Coast was ruled by the Rajah of Chandragiri-Vellore,Peda Venkata Raya who was a descendant of the famous Rajas of Vijayanagar Empire. Under the Rajah, local chiefs or governors known as Nayaks, ruled over the different districts.

Damarla Venkatadri Nayakudu, local governor of the Vijayanagar Empire and Nayak of Wandiwash ruled the coastal part of the region, from Pulicat to the Portuguese settlement of San Thome. He had his head-quarters at Wandiwash and his brother Ayyappa Nayakudu resided at Poonamallee, a few miles to the west of Madras, and looked after the affairs of the coast. Beri Thimmappa dubash (Interpreter) of Francis Day was a close friend of Damarla Ayyappa Nayakudu. Beri Thimmappa Chetti migrated in the early 17th century to Chennai from Palacole, near Machilipatnam in Andhra Pradesh. Ayyappa Nayakudu persuaded his brother to lease out the sandy strip to Francis Day and promised him trade benefits, army protection, and Persian horses in return. Francis Day wrote to his Headquarters at Masulipatam for permission to inspect the proposed site at Madraspatnam and examine the possibilities of trade there. Madraspatnam seemed favourable during the inspection and the calicoes woven at Madraspatnam were much cheaper than those at Armagon (Durgarazpatam).

Raja Mahal Palace at Chandragiri from where Francis Day acquired permission from the King of Vijaynagara,Peda Venkata Raya

On 22 August 1639, Francis Day secured the Grant by the Damarla Venkatadri Nayakudu, Nayak of Wandiwash giving over to the British East India Company a three-mile long strip of land, a fishing village called Madraspatnam, copies of which were endorsed by Andrew Cogan, the Chief of the Masulipatam Factory, and are even now preserved. The Grant was for a period of two years and empowered them to build a fort and castle on an approximate 5 square kilometre sand strip.[2]

The English Factors at Masulipatam were satisfied with Francis Day. They requested Francis Day and the Damarla Venkatadri Nayakudu to wait until the sanction of the superior English Presidency of Bantam (in Java) could be obtained for their action. The main difficulty, among the English those days, was lack of money. In February 1640, Francis Day and Andrew Cogan accompanied by a few factors and writers, a garrison of about 25 European soldiers and a few other European artificers, besides a Hindu powder-maker by name Naga Battan, proceeded to Madras and started the English factory. They reached Madraspatnam on February 20, 1640; and this date is important because it marks the first actual settlement of the English at the place.

An old 18 century painting of Fort St George.

Francis Day, his dubash (Interpreter) Beri Thimmanna Chetti and their superior Andrew Cogan can be considered as the founders of Madras (now Chennai). They began construction of the Fort St George on 23 April 1640 and houses for their residence. This area came to be known as 'White Town'. When Indians came to live near it, this gave rise to another settlement. The Company called the new place 'Black Town', as the Indians here met its needs of cloth and indigo.

The grant signed between Damarla Venkatadri and the British had to be authenticated or confirmed from the Raja of Chandragiri - Venkatapathy Rayulu. The Raja , Venkatapathy Rayulu was succeeded by his nephew Sri Rangarayulu in 1642. Sir Francis Day was succeeded by Thomas Ivy. The grant expired. So, Thomas Ivy sent Factor Greenhill on a mission to Chandragiri to meet the new Raja and get the grant renewed. A new grant was issued in 1642 copies of which are still available. It is dated October - November 1645. This new grant signed in 1645 empowered the English to administer justice and gave them an additional piece of land known as the Narimedu (Jackal-ground) which lay to the west of the village of Madraspatnam. All the 3 grants are said to be engraved on gold plates that do not exist now.

The Fort St George became the nucleus around which the city grew. The Fort still stands today, and a part of it is used to house the Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly and the Office of the Chief Minister. Elihu Yale, after whom Yale University is named, was British governor of Madras for five years. Part of the fortune that he amassed in Madras as part of the colonial administration became the financial foundation for Yale University.


Village Year
chennapatnam 1639
Narimedu (area to the west of Madraspatnam) 1645
Triplicane 1672
Tiruvottiyur 1708
Kottivakkam 1708
Nungambakkam 1708
Egmore 1720
Purasawalkam 1720
Tondiarpet 1720
Chintadripet 1735
Vepery 1742
Mylapore 1749

1750s to 1947

The city of Madras in 1909
A view of the now busy Mount Road, in 1905
Map of Madras city in 1921

In 1746, Fort St George and Madras were captured by the French under General La Bourdonnais, who used to be the Governor of Mauritius. The French are then described to have plundered the village of Chepauk and demolished Blacktown, the locality across from the port where all the dockyard labourers used to live [3].

The British regained control in 1749 through the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle. They then strengthened and expanded Fort St George over the next thirty years to bear subsequent attacks, the strongest of which came from the French (1759, under Thomas Arthur, Comte de Lally), and Hyder Ali, the Sultan of Mysore (1767). The 1783 version of Fort St George is what still stands today.

The British were in complete control of the city, after a decade's feud with the French, they expanded the city by encompassing the neighbouring villages of Triplicane, Egmore, Purasawalkam and Chetput to form the city of Chennapatnam, as it was called by locals then.

In the latter half of the 18th century, Madras became an important British naval base, and the administrative centre of the growing British dominions in southern India. The British fought with various European powers, notably the French at Vandavasi (Wandiwash) in 1760, where de Lally was defeated by Sir Eyre Coote, and the Danish at Tharangambadi (Tranquebar). Following the the British victory in the Seven Years War they eventually dominated, driving the French, the Dutch and the Danes away entirely, and reducing the French dominions in India to four tiny coastal enclaves. The British also fought four wars with the Kingdom of Mysore under Hyder Ali and later his son Tipu Sultan, which led to their eventual domination of India's south. Madras was the capital of the Madras Presidency, also called Madras Province.

The development of a harbour in Madras led the city to become an important centre for trade between India and Europe in the eighteenth century. In 1788, Thomas Parry arrived in Madras as a free merchant and he set up one of the oldest mercantile companies in the city and one of the oldest in the country (EID Parry). John Binny came to Madras in 1797 and he established the textile company Binny & Co in 1814. Spencer's started as a small business in 1864 and went on to become the biggest department stores in Asia at the time. The original building which housed Spencer & Co. was burnt down in a fire in 1983 and the present structure houses one of the largest shopping malls in India, Spencer Plaza. Other prominent companies in the city included Gordon Woodroffe, Best & Crompton, Higginbotham's, Hoe & Co and P. Orr & Sons.

In 1906, the city experienced a financial crisis with the failure of its leading merchant bank, Arbuthnot & Co. The crisis also imperiled Parry & Co and Binny & Co, but both found rescuers. The lawyer V. Krishnaswamy Iyer made a name for himself representing claimants on the failed bank. The next year he organized a group of Chettiar merchants to found Indian Bank, which still has its corporate headquarters in the city.

Madras was the capital of the Madras Presidency and thus became home to important commercial organisations. The Madras Chamber of Commerce was founded in 1836 by Fredrick Adam, Governor of the Madras Presidency (the second oldest Chamber of Commerce in the country). The Madras Trades Association was established in 1856 and The Madras Stock Exchange in 1920.

During World War I, Madras (Chennai) was shelled by the German light cruiser SMS Emden. Resulting in 5 civilian deaths and 26 wounded. The crew of a merchant ship also destroyed by the Germans that night.

Post-independence (1947)

The Victory War Memorial
Map of Madras in 1955

After India became independent, the city became the administrative and legislative capital of Madras State which was renamed as Tamil Nadu in 1968.

During the reorganisation of states in India on linguistic lines, in 1953, Telugu speakers wanted Madras as the capital of Andhra Pradesh[4] and coined the slogan "Madras Manade" (Madras is ours) before Tirupati was included in Andhra Pradesh.[5] The dispute arose as the city had come to be inhabited by both Tamil and Telugu speaking people. Earlier, Panagal Raja, Chief Minister of Madras Presidency in early 1920s had suggested that the Cooum River be the boundary between the Tamil and Telugu administrative areas.[6] In 1953, the political and administrative dominance of Tamils, both at the Union and State levels ensured that Madras was not transferred to the new state of Andhra

Today, though a cosmopolitan city, the majority of residents in Chennai are native Tamilians. There are also a sizeable native Telugu, Anglo Indian and migrant Malayalee communities in the city. As the city is an important administrative and commercial centre, many communities such as the Bengali, Punjabi, Gujarati and Marwari communities and people from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar migrated to the city and have contributed to its cosmopolitan nature. Today, Chennai also has a growing expatriate population especially from the United States, Europe and East Asia who work in the industries and IT centres. From 1965 to 1967, the city was an important base for the Tamil agitation against the perceived imposition of Hindi, and witnessed sporadic rioting. Madras witnessed further political violence due to the civil war in Sri Lanka, with 33 people killed by a bomb planted by the Tamil Eelam Army at the airport in 1984, and assassination of thirteen members of the EPRLF and two Indian civilians by the rival LTTE in 1991. In the same year, former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated in Sriperumbudur, a small town close to Chennai, whilst campaigning in Tamil Nadu, by Thenmuli Rajaratnam A.K.A Dhanu. Dhanu is widely believed to be have been an LTTE member. In 1996, the Government of Tamil Nadu renamed the city from "Madras" to "Chennai" by DMK Government. The 2004 tsunami lashed the shores of Chennai killing many and permanently altering the coastline. The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) political party swept the municipal elections of October 2006.

Modern Chennai is a large commercial and industrial centre, and is known for its cultural heritage and temple architecture. Chennai is the automobile capital of India, with around forty percent of the automobile industry having a base there and with a major portion of the nation's vehicles being produced there. Chennai is also referred as the Detroit of South Asia. It is a major manufacturing centre. Chennai has also become a major centre for outsourced IT and financial services from the Western world.


The name Madras is derived from Madraspatnam, the site chosen by the British East India Company for a permanent settlement in 1639.

The region was often called by different names as madrapupatnam, madras kuppam, madraspatnam, and madirazpatnam as adopted by locals. Another small town, Chennapatnam, lay to the south of it. This place was named so by Damarla Venkatadri Nayakudu, Nayak of Wandiwash in remembrance of his father Damarla Chennappa Nayakudu.He was the local governor for the last Raja of Chandragiri, Sri Ranga Raya VI of Vijayanagar Empire. The first Grant of Damarla Venkatadri Nayakudu makes mention of the village of Madraspatnam. In all records of the times, a difference is made between the original village of Madraspatnam and the new town growing round the Fort. Thus it is probable that the village of Madraspatnam existed under that name, prior to the English settlement of 1639-40 and the site of Chennapatnam was that of modern Fort St. George. The original village of Madraspatnam lay to the north of the site of the Fort and within a few years of the founding of Fort St. George the new town which grew up round the Fort was commonly known to the Indians as Chennapatnam, either in deference to the wishes of Damarla Venkatadri or because the site originally bore that name. The intervening space between the northern Madraspatnam and the Southern Chennapatnam came to be built over rapidly so that the two villages became virtually one town. The English preferred to call the two united towns by the name of Madraspatnam with which they had become familiar with while the Indians chose to give it the name of Chennapatnam. In course of time the exact original locations of Madraspatnam and Chennapatnam came to be confused. Madras was regarded as the site of the Fort and Chennapatnam as the Indian town to the north.

The city was renamed Chennai in August 1996.


  1. ^ "Chennai". Retrieved 2009-07-27. 
  2. ^ S. Muthiah (2006-08-21). "Founders' Day, Madras". Hindu Times. Retrieved 2009-01-28. 
  3. ^ Chennai Corporation - Madras History
  4. ^ Narayana Rao, K. V. (1973). The emergence of Andhra Pradesh. Popular Prakashan. pp. 227. Retrieved 2009-08-07. 
  5. ^ A R, VENKATACHALAPATHY; Aravindan,Ramu (2006). "How Chennai Remained with Tamil Nadu". Chennai not Madras: perspectives on the city. Marg Publications on behalf of the National Centre for the Performing Arts. pp. 9. ISBN 8185026742, 9788185026749. Retrieved 2009-08-07. 
  6. ^ G. V., Subba Rao (1982). History of Andhra movement. Andhra Pradesh.Committee of History of Andhra Movement. Committee of History of Andhra Movement. Retrieved 2009-08-07. 


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  • Wheeler, J. Talboys (1861). Madras in the Olden Time, Vol II 1639-1702. Madras: J. Higginbotham. 
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  • Barlow, Glynn (1921). The Story of Madras. Oxford University Press. 
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