Madras, India » City Info » History

Chennai has been an important contributor to the administrative, military, and economic centres since the 1st century. The Pallava, the Chola, the Pandya, and Vijaynagar, the prominent dynasties ruled over Chennai. Mylapore was a major port of the Pallava. In 1522, the Portuguese built a port called Sao Tome. It was named after the Christian leader of reforms, St. Thomas, who preached between 52 and 70 A.D.

Ellāḷaṉ statue in the premises of Madras High Court.
Photo credit: Flickr/Balu Velachery/ CC BY-SA 2.0

Madras acquired its name from Madraspattinam, a fishing village situated to the north of Fort St. George. There are various versions related to the origin of the name Madras. One theory states that the name Madre de Deus must be given by the Portuguese to the village when they arrived there in the 16th century. At the same time, historians believe that it is named after a prominent Madeiros family who declared the Madre de Deus as a sacred church in San Thome in 1575. This church demolished in the year 1997. On the contrary, the other theory says that the village is named after an Islamic college named 'A Madrasa' situated in the same area.

Similar to the versions of the origin of the name Madras, there are various versions related to the origin of the name Chennai. It was considered as a part of the empire of the Chandragiri's King, the period when the British arrived in 1639 A.D. Further, it was named Chennapattanam by the British when they acquired it from Chennappa Nayaka, the leader of Vijayanagar. In the Tamil language, the word 'Chenni' means the face and the Chenna Kesava Perumal Temple was thought of as the city's face. Therefore, some people believed that the Chennapattanam was named after the Chenna Kesava Perumal Temple.

In due course, the two towns Madraspattinam and Chennapattinam merged in the 17th century, i.e. the period when the British gained possession of the area. The united town was referred to as Madraspattinam by the British, whereas the localities preferred to call it 'Chennapattinam'.

During 16th and 18th centuries, Madras was ruled by Portuguese and Frenchmen. The arrival of the railway in India during the 19th century helped the city to connect with other crucial cities like Mumbai and Kolkata, which encouraged communication and trading in the surrounding area.

On 22nd August 1639, a small piece of land was purchased by the British East India Company, located on the Coromandel Coast in Chandragiri from Peda Venkata Raya, king of Vijayanagar. For trading projects, Damerla Venkatapathy being the ruler of the Vandavasi region, permitted the British to build a factory and a warehouse. The following year, the British built Fort St. George, which became a core part of the growing colonial city.

In 1746, the French under General La Bourdonnais, the Governor of Mauritius, ransacked the town and nearby villages captured the Fort St. George and Madras. The control once again went into the hands of the British in 1749 through the Treaty of the Aix-la-Chapelle. They then strengthened the town's fortress wall to defy further attacks from the French and other looming threats by Hyder Ali, the Sultan of Mysore.

Along with Tamil Nadu, the other northern modern-day states of Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka were conquered by the British in the late 18th century. This was the period when the Madras Presidency was established with Madras as the capital. Under British rule, the city grew into a major urban centre and naval base.

During World War I, German light cruiser 'SMS Emden' attacked an oil depot in Madras. This attack demolished the shipping lanes in the Indian Ocean, causing interruption to shipping. Madras was the only Indian city attacked during World War I.

After India gained independence in 1947, Chennai became the capital of Madras State. In 1969 Madras state was renamed as the state of Tamil Nadu.

In 2004, An 'Indian Ocean Tsunami' altered the coastline of Chennai permanently, killing many and leaving thousands of hundreds homeless.