Monday, August 22, 2011

To you Madras, Happy 372nd birthday - part -II

Madrasa pattinam - A sandy fishing village of the Bay of Bengal some 3 and half centuries back is today a eight million populated Chennai, this Coramandal queen celebrates its 372nd birthday today.

This southern metropolis on the Coromandel Coast combines the best of technology and the rich core of Indian tradition. With each succeeding generation, the port city has added more layers to its unique identity, building a promising future from a proud legacy.

The hallmark of a successful city lies in its ability to preserve the old (some call it conservative, i call it individuality) while constantly adapting itself to the new. Chennai’s success in commerce has allowed it to afford its citizens all the modern conveniences of a world class city. The modern glistening city is filled with malls, resorts, highways and high-tech offices that co-exist peacefully with the deep rooted cultural values of its people. With its two facets equally alive and vibrant, Chennai reigns as the queen of the Coromandel. This city has a lovely history as it changed various hands and now to the genesis of chennai.

History post Alert
Early settlers
Ancient Chennai lay in the province of Thondaimandalam, which stretched between Nellore and Cuddalore, with its capital at Kancheepuram. The region contained the ancient villages of Thiruvallikeni (Triplicane), Thirumayilai (Mylapore), Thiruvanmiyur and Thiruvotriyur, all integral parts of modern day Chennai. St.Thomas, the apostle, is said to have preached here atop a hillock, now called St.Thomas Mount, between the years 52 and 70 CE. The relics of the Saint, interred in the San Thome church near Mylapore, are believed to possess miraculous healing powers.

The earliest European settlers in the region were the Portuguese, who built a port and named it São Tomé (modern day Santhome) after St. Thomas. The port subsequently passed into the hands of the Dutch, who established themselves at Pulicat, north of the city, in 1612. The British East India Company arrived soon after and established a Calico Cloth factory in Armagon, a village 35 miles north of Pulicat, in 1626.

It was around this time that Francis Day, an agent-in-charge of the East India Company’s Calico Cloth shop in Armagon, set off on an exploratory mission down the coastline in search of a region that produced better cloth for trade. In 1637, he selected a three-mile sandy strip of land south of Armagon, to start his new factory. The area contained the fishing village of Madraspatnam, and in the words of Day, produced “excellent long Cloath and better cheape by 20 percent than anywhere else”. Local gossip at the time however, seemed to suggest that Day’s selection of Madraspatnam was influenced by the location of his mistress in the Portuguese settlement of São Tomé nearby, in order that “their interviews might be the more frequent and uninterrupted”! Irrespective of Day’s actual reasons, his decision was supported by Andrew Cogan, his superior officer and chief of the factory at Masulipatnam. And so, on August 22, 1639, Day secured the lease of the three mile strip of Madraspatnam from Darmarla Venkatadri Nayakudu, the local governor of the Vijayanagar Empire.

On April 23, 1640, with the assistance of his interpreter (dubash) Beri Thimmappa Chetti, Day began the construction of Fort St. George, the first British fortress in India, and the nucleus around which modern day Chennai grew. The Fort still stands today, and houses the Legislative Assembly of the state of Tamil Nadu. The Fort, together with the houses built for British officers constituted ‘White Town’, while labourers, dyers and weavers settled into ‘Black Town’ nearby. By 1750, the neighbouring villages of Narimendu, Triplicane, Kottivakkam, Nungambakkam, Egmore, Mylapore and several others were annexed by Francis Day’s successors through grants approved by the Nayaks of Chandragiri.

The Origin of Madraspatnam
The origin of the name of the little fishing village of Madraspatnam remains a mystery to this day. Though the name sounds alien to the Indian ear, it was not coined by the British. Legend has it that the village was named after Madarasan, the chieftain of the village, whose banana grove was chosen as the location of the fort. Many historians however attribute the name of the village to the church of Madre de Deus, located in the Portuguese settlement of San Thomé, nearby. Another theory is that the village was named after a Muslim madrasa or religious school that was said to have existed in the region.

While the original tract of land allocated to Francis Day did contain the village of Madraspatnam, another village called Chennapatnam lay to the south of it, named after Damarla Chennappa Nayakudu, the father of Damarla Venkatadri Nayakudu. Based on land records of the time, it is probable that Fort St. George was built in Chennapatnam, though the two villages rapidly merged together soon after. The English continued to call the united villages Madraspatnam, while the locals chose to call them Chennapatnam. In 1746, Fort St. George and Madras were captured by the French under General La Bourdonnais, but was returned to British power three years later, through the treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle. Now in full control of the city of Chennapatnam, as it was known by the locals then, the British established a naval base and built a harbour. With Madras as their administrative centre, they fought several wars, notably with the French at Wandiwash, with the Danes at Tranquebar and with the Kingdom of Mysore, led by Hyder Ali and his son Tipu. By 1780, the British had gained dominance over vast portions of Southern India and established the Madras Presidency with its capital at Madras.

Colonial Centre
The city became a major centre for trade between India and Europe by the end of the 18th century. Elihu Yale, after whom Yale University is named, was the British Governor of Madras for five years and established Yale University using the fortunes that he amassed while in colonial government service here. Thomas Parry set up one of the country’s oldest and most respected mercantile companies here in 1788. John Binny established the famous textile house Binny & Co in 1814. Spencer and Co, Asia’s largest departmental store at the time, was established in 1864. Several other notable British companies joined suit, leading to the formation of the Madras Chamber of Commerce, the Madras Trade Association and finally, the Madras Stock Exchange in 1920.

Madras remained the administrative centre of the Madras Presidency even after independence. State reorganisation followed, and it continued as the capital of Tamil Nadu. Attracted by its booming commerce, many trading communities migrated to the city from all over the country. Artisans, musicians, dancers and craftsmen from the corners of India flocked here as well in the early part of the 20th century, and the city is now regarded as a major centre for the arts in the South. Madras was renamed Chennai in August 1996, after the village of Chennapatnam, in deference to local sentiment. Today apart from the various IT companies,  it is home to many Global and Indian auto majors like BMW, Ford, Hyundai,Mitsubishi, Nissan Ashok leyland, TVS for which reason it is nicknamed 'Detroit of Asia'.

Now for a visual tour,

An illustration of Fort.St.George in the early days(courtesy: dinamalar)

                                    Built in 1504, the Santhome Church rests on the tomb of the Apostle St. Thomas

                     Named after the Governor General of India, Lord Rippon, the Rippon building was built in 1913. 
                                                        It houses the offices of the Chennai Corporation

The Madras High Court was one of the three High Courts in India established by Queen Victoria in 1862, and is the         highest judicial body in Tamil Nadu.

                                                           Today's neon drenched chennai

                                             the beautifully lit Napier bridge( courtesy: The hindu)

 The majestic 150 year old chettinad  palace on the adyar estuary, many film shootings take place here, at present the home of  Raja muthiah's family.( photo courtesy: wikipedia)

My wish list for chennai is to see the beautifully lighted napier bridge, the full moon lit mahabalipuram shores, the chettinad palace (from close quarters) and the heritage site Dakshinachitra, the last one despite my many attempts evades me. Don't go there on a   tuesday which is a weekly off.

Happy Birthday Madras/Chennai. May you celebrate many more 372's without losing your identity.

                                          Do be a part of Madras day by being here or here.

history and remaining photos courtesy: the best of chennai.


  1. kadisi varaikkum amy fotovay podaathathaal..intha postai naan purakanikiren

  2. Lovely... :-)
    nice to see another post on Chennai..btw, do u live in Chennai? are u attending any of the Madras day events?

  3. Well presented. I am from Kottivakkam. I do not know if present and earlier kottivakkam are same.Visiting Santhome church is on my wish list.

  4. Enjoyed reading it.
    I have tended to pass through it en route to Sri Aurobindo Ashram in Puducherry [did that last year] - so it was nice to read more details of the place and its history.

  5. @ gils - LOL.. amy photo kidaikkalai so climaxla vara doraiamma foto okaya/ podattuma? :D

    @ Aarti - :)No I don't live in chennai but wish I could attend events like chennai sangamam, madras day,mylapore festival, dec kutcheris and all those stage dramas etc.

    @Chitra - thank you:) yes, you'll like Santhome. It's a beautiful piece of architecture.

    @KalpanaS: :) Next time Discover chennai, you'll like it.

  6. What a fascinating couple of posts and such great photos. You do realise I'm now totally intrigued as to the origins of the name Madraspatnam.

  7. Very late to come here. Thoroughly enjoyed both the posts on Chennai. A wonderful write up.