The sun city – Madras aka Chennai

I went home for an extended weekend and boy, was it hot ! So, amidst Kollywood and Kancheepuram sarees, the topic of discussion moved from the weather to the recent spate of real estate prices . While catching up with some friends, I gathered the latest buzz word was Chennai day or Madras Day which was to hit the city next month. It has been decided by the historians and the media that the city was born in the month of August and hence it has to be celebrated . Good to know that we celebrate the city. I for one, always celebrate the fact that I was born in Chennai or Madras as it was called then . But ignorant as I was (or probably am) I started researching on the history of this city and this is what I came up with ..But before that , here is a disclaimer – My apologies as I am not an esteemed historian , so , all my facts and figures may not be correct . I am just another individual interested in the history of my hometown , the way I see it

In the 17th century, most of the parts of modern day Chennai or Madras were either villages or settlements controlled by the local chieftains or the Europeans. The area was apparently ruled by the chieftains or Nayaks who were serving under the Vijaynagar empire. The British had just entered India and were looking for a suitable premise for their East India Company and I read that the Chieftain, Damarla Venkatadri Nayakudu under the aegis of the Vijaynagar king Peda Venkata Rayalu gave a grant – a piece ” waste land” to the British . They set up Fort St George here and the settlement came to be called Chennapatna in the honour of Damerla Chennappa Nayakudu, father of Venkatadri Nayakudu . Madraspatnam which lay further away was combined and the British shortened it to Madras with Fort St George forming the nucleus of the city.

Now I quote from Wikipedia –
“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…..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 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.”

So much for Madras Day . Yes, it is historic to a certain extent and I do think the British have done their bit to develop roads , build buildings and promote education..Otherwise , I wouldnt have studied in a convent school and won medals for my Queen’s English .

Personally , I have nothing against the celebration or the historic impact of August 22 or the colonial aspect . I like Fort St George and I must say that my forefathers like anyone else chose to live closer to the “White town ” than to say, Mylapore or Triplicane..which are villages added , sorry acquired later by the British . However what probably saddens me is the fact that all the hype starts and ends with British history of the city and one doesnt even what to look further beyond . And what we decide as history is probably nothing compared to the cultural heritage of this city and its various settlements and hamlets put together .

For instance ..

1.The city as its known today has had its share of royal dynasties from the Cholas, the Pandyas, the Pallavas, the Nayaks, the Vijaynagar kings, the Nawabs, the Sultans, the Moghuls and finally the British .

2.It is said that the temples of Thiruvanmiyur, Thiruvotriyur, Thirvallikeni (Triplicane), Thirumyilai (Mylapore) have existed for more than 1000 years. They are mentioned in the Thevarams of the Moovar ..Agreed that they are all villages added to the city, but they are now thriving suburbs , right in the heart of the city .

3.The Kapaleeshwar temple in Mylapore was built in the 7th century and was probably once a Pallava port

4.The settlement at Santhome was controlled by the Portuguese and it was believed that St Thomas had visited the area today known as St Thomas Mount way back in 50 AD

And probably there is more if I keep reading and digging…and my simple question is why only colonial history when there is so much more to celebrate ?

I request all of you to participate in this discussion and let me know what you think ..and do join in the celebration.Im going to be celebrating as well as this is not just about my city or its history, but it is an integral part of me .


  1. Maria Sondule 9 July, 2008 at 18:16 Reply

    It’s really cool that your city is celebrating! Probably they don’t celebrate other stuff like you said because they didn’t in the beginning, and people like their traditions.
    You could have a celebration of your own though if you wanted to.

  2. mitr_bayarea 9 July, 2008 at 22:03 Reply


    I too have heard of this Madras day and thought this was something new that has been started to recognize the city. A great post on the history of Madras. As you rightly mentioned, some of the temples are more than 100 years old, one such temple is Marutheeswarar temple in Thiruvanmiyur.

    I am with you on the thought that Chennai has so much of colonial history. What makes it better than other cities is that it has a unique blend of the cultural, ancient and modern aspects. The Kapali temple also exists in Mylapore where the Spanish bar Zara in Radhakrishnan Rd. has now come up. I thoroughly cherish my beloved Chennai with all its plus and minuses.

  3. Sivaram Kannan 9 July, 2008 at 23:05 Reply

    Hi L,

    To my knowledge whatever you have written is true.
    More to add
    1. Thiru’Vanmaiyur’ – is the believed to be the birth place of Valimiki. There is a valmiki temple right in the middle of ECR in thiruvanmayur.

    2. Thirumayilai, when referred in Thevaram, is considered to be on the shores, which some experts think right on the place where Santhome Church stands now.

    I am could add couple of more, but am stopping with this. Though these topics have been on private circle, good that you bought it here in your blog.

  4. Anu 10 July, 2008 at 01:29 Reply

    Home sweet home! Sigh! Thanks for the history update, I didnt know most of those details though I lived in Santhome and mylapore most of my life.
    I think the British impact was more on uniting the settlements and thats why its celebrated so much. But I do agree that the actual indian cultural vein of Chennai – the temples are least celebrated. The madi’s of the temples an integral part of history are ignored because they are not written up in the school history books, like the british invasion was. If schools can have yearly trips to Mahab’s as part of education plan, there should be one to the local historical spots to igrain the ignored stories early on in children, so these can be celebrated too

  5. Priyank 10 July, 2008 at 04:13 Reply

    Good topic to discuss. Just like you, I love celebrations and the thought of having a Chennai day is really cool.

    Why stop at colonial times? Well, the current system of governance that we follow comes from the colonial times. Prior to that there were a number of villages and not a centralized system. The British consciously developed infrastructure for the growth of this city specifically. That gives the city its flavor. Finally, Indians are -generally- known to be fascinated by anything ‘white’, while at the same time being ignorant and at time ashamed of our own history.

    The temple exists since 1000 years, but recorded history more or less began only from colonial times. What existed prior to that will be hard to prove, and I am sure that descendants from various castes and lineages will start claiming things they think their forefathers did. We have enough of that.

    Those are my views!

  6. lee 10 July, 2008 at 13:02 Reply

    agree that we have more reason to celebrate that one…..let me check
    our list,jan-chennai celebrates tennis,chennai sangamam,feb-the city gears for valentines,march-year end discounts,april-may-june-mango season,summer film releases.
    July-august-sept-festival seasons from ganesha,krishna,amman,oct-nov,diwali,dasara and big ticket movie releases,Dec-karnatic kutcheri buzz,christmas,new year and more tennis chennai open.

    we dont stop at it,cricket,test matches,ipl or galli we just need an excuse.

    one more occasion to get nostalgic i dont mind……..we have more page 3 editions in the city to make the most of it…cheers

  7. vishesh 10 July, 2008 at 13:11 Reply

    lol namma madarasu πŸ™‚ till date i have never been inside the fort…always wanted to,but the fact that i live in the other side…ok now Tnagar is the centre i guess,has never helped….The other day i found out that all the land registrations show the names of the “villages” which the land belongs to…lol…

    we have a national park within us πŸ™‚

    we have the theosophical society πŸ™‚

  8. prerna singh bindra 10 July, 2008 at 14:38 Reply

    SAdly, I have never been to chennai-and you make it come alive. I agree with you-but that is not only refelctive of Chennai-or Madras-that we only celebrate the colonial times.–that refelcts in our attitute in most places, or fields-the other extrme being miscplaced patritioc fervour that raises its ugly head and ususally manifests itself in chasing away non-locals..also i wish beyond celebrations-we would really look at preserving, and care for our collective heritage.


  9. indicaspecies 10 July, 2008 at 15:28 Reply

    You’ve won medals for your Queen’s English? That’s lovely to know. Congratulations Lakshmi. πŸ™‚

    Ah. About Madras. Unfortunately, I have not had an opportunity to go to Madras, though I’ve reached a few corners of India, including borders of Pakistan and China.

    Good post Lakshmi. There’s a saying that colonialism is like “shakar ki churi” (knife of sugar), may be sweet, nevetheless is a knife. One good thing about British raj that I can think of was abolition of (or at least an attempt to abolish) some social evils like sati. Discussions on the topic of advantages and disadvantages will go on. There will not be an end to criticisms of the British government, or for that matter even on some of the not-so-popular rulers of the past. Jingoism will continue.

    Let there be a day to celebrate Madras Day. Let’s celebrate freedom – in its true sense feeling liberated from within, and not just admiring lit buildings and waving flags. Life is meant to be celebrated, ain’t it? πŸ™‚

  10. Lakshmi 10 July, 2008 at 19:21 Reply

    Maria – Yes, its very cool that my city is celebrating and so am I..I only hope and wish that this celebration gives us an understanding of the history indepth

    Aaarti – Ive seen the site a long time ago..would love to read your comment and your post

    Mitr – You just said it ..”it has a unique blend of the cultural, ancient and modern aspects.” wouldnt it be great if we celebrate in this spirit and thanks for the information that you have added to this post .Chennai Day should not ideally be lost as an is relatively new, and one wishes the cultural significance is still there

    Sivaram – I am all for the celebration ..and I do hope its just not restricted to just a few ..thanks for the additional info on the post .

    Matt – Madras is a great city, and its hot – its a week long celebration and Im going to be there as well another good reason for you to be there..India by the way is a country with different climatic it will be pouring heavily in one state while the sun will be in all its glory in another..up north, you could be freezing as well ..:)

    Anu – The British have definitely done their bit in developing the city …and now that we are celebrating, should be not celebrate the city as a whole..not just a part of it ! The cultural vein like you correctly pointed out- not many are even aware of events like these should be a platform for them as well

    Priyank – To a certain extent, what you are saying is true ..however in Chennai’s case I beg to differ. The contribution of the British is immense , but Chennai’s identity today lies in its cultural ethos and some of this is documented as well..So a celebration needs to include the local culture as well..after all, thats more intrinsic than inherited

    Cuckoo – Im not a designated historian, nor qualified to be one πŸ™‚

    Indrani – Completely with you on this..all aspects are equally important

    Shrinidhi – πŸ™‚ yes, its very much namma ooru ..

    Lee- Exactly my point..that this should be reduced to just another event catering to the page 3 editions πŸ™‚

    Vishesh – Welcome to backpakker and I can sense the divide ..though I belong to madras than anywhere else..

    Prerna – thanks so much for putting it in this perspective..the attitude is the issue, and sadly, we still have the hangover and we prefer to ignore our own cultural heritage..after awareness comes conservation , I agree

    Celine- Another great perspective..thanks..I believe that this post is not about the merits of British governance..There are great adavantages there and I have no doubt about it..My issue like you said is that if it becomes another event , pandering to the tastes of a few and catering to the elite then it will lose its significance….what Im trying to say is that on a day like this, a celebration needs to involve a city and its cultural ethos and heritage..

    Ropi – Im not so sure I understand that ..

  11. Anonymous 10 July, 2008 at 20:09 Reply

    Chennai had great role to play in India Independence movement, congress was started by Theospists based in chennai( Adyar).

  12. *~*{Sameera}*~* 11 July, 2008 at 03:03 Reply

    Your post took me back to Chennai,the place I call my home no matter where I go,even though I am not based from there.Sigh!

    As for Chennai Day,it’s a recent trend.I remember when I was in my final yr PG two years back,artists of the “Chennai Sagamam” had performed at our university and many places around the city.It was one spectacular show!Though the date maybe based on the British Raj,the celebrations are very much traditional.

    Something about the spirit of Chennai always haunts me,be it the shores of the Marina or the streets of Pondy Bazaar or the lush greenery of Kilpauk(my area :P) or the bickering auto guys or the quaint coffee houses like Amethyst and Mocha…the list is endless!

    I had gone to the Kapaleeshwar temple long back,it is truly one of a kind.

    Climbing St Thomas Mount on foot is such a lovely experience,isn’t it,transports one to another era.And the view from the top,awesome!

    Thanks for this deeper insight into the history of good old Chennai πŸ™‚

  13. Mridula 11 July, 2008 at 11:39 Reply

    I didn’t know about the Madras Day till I read it here.

    What do you feel? Is this celebration a gimmick or is there some substance behind it?

  14. Lakshmi 11 July, 2008 at 11:44 Reply

    Anon – Thanks for adding the piece of information..appreciate it..Chennai has had many credits and this is one of them

    Stephanie – Im glad Im able to share a bit about my hometown

    Anil – Thats the Marina Beach..I think you should the city now..I call it the city in transition..It is changing , but retaining its origibal flavour, unlike most of the cities today..hope that stays on

    Sameera -Im so happy to know that Chennai is home to you as well..your comments brought back nostalgia ..even though I stay 350kms away from home and go there at least twice a month,I miss home. i stayed near kilpauk for 2 decades years before shifting to Alwarpet for the last five years, but my parents still live near Kilpauk

    Mridula -Its a mix of both, but my concern is that it should not become another page 3 gimmick..they started this a few years ago and now its become an annual event and I do hope it becomes a platform to conserve the city’s heritage

  15. Shantanu 11 July, 2008 at 20:48 Reply

    Lovely pic of the boats. I have been going to Chennai frequently lately, but never had time to venture out to the coast. Nice history lesson too!

  16. Jeevan 11 July, 2008 at 21:03 Reply

    To tell it was not more a decade people started to celebrate Chennai Day and I let know only few years back. I see the positive thing about the celebration is our people able to aware of the history back of the creation of the city they live.

    thanks for remembering this day buddy πŸ™‚

  17. Lakshmi 11 July, 2008 at 23:13 Reply

    Peevee – Glad you liked it..The celebration is a month away

    Shantanu – Thanks..Go down the ECR sometime till mahabalipuram and Pondy if you have the time

    Jeevan – Yes, it does create awareness of the history, but would like people to know more about it

  18. Revathi R 12 July, 2008 at 10:22 Reply

    Yes, the celebrations did start a few years ago – in 2004, on the 365th birthday of the city.

    If you had been following the events at the celebrations, you might be knowing that they are all voluntary events by different groups.

    Reading sessions, talks on the heritage of Chennai, docu films on the city, multimedia presentations on places of historical importance by school children – all these go to say that the celebrations go beyond the colonial history.

    Two groups of school children – one from North Madras and the other from Mylapore – explored each others place by hosting them and taking them around their area in the city.

    Even a kutcheri celebrating the Madras composers was part of the celebration a year ago – bringing the songs on Tiruvanmiyur and Tirumayilai with anecdotes.

    A reading session of Tamil writings on Chennai ended with a Mylapore Kuravanji in Bharatanatyam last year.

    For those who read more on Madras and know more about the city, there is a quiz to participate held every year on this occasion!

    Yes, Madras or Chennai, you call it either way, is a mixture of heritage and culture of the native villagers (of Tiru Alli keni, Tirumayilai, Ezhumbur, Tiruvottiyur, Tiruvanmiyur and so on…) as well as colonial.

    But Madras Day is a day to celebrate the city!

  19. Lakshmi 12 July, 2008 at 12:42 Reply

    Maduraiveeran – Welcome to backpakker. Good to know you have a connect with Chennai as well..The history of Mahabalipuram is much older than Chennai..You can read about it in my Mahabalipuram post

    Wendy – South India and Chennai, being a cultural capital is a must visit. August is a good time to be there to catch the celebration !

    Revathi – Welcome to backpakker and thank you so much for the elaborate comment and the various activities. It is so heartening to know that a lot of activities go beyond the colonial flavour and I stand corrected in my perspective then. I do hope the media highlights all of them..yes, its a time to celebrate

  20. Bhuvana 13 July, 2008 at 11:22 Reply

    Hmm… tru that our education abt Chennai’s history begins with the British setting up their presence here …. and yes, we do need to delve deeper into this city’s rich past and showcase the same – I for one do know we have a past beyond the colonial time period, but am sadly unaware of the details… and would love to know more… and of coz it needs to be packaged attractively and disseminated to capture people’s interest.

    We also need to go beyond the posturing of “retaining local identities” by rechristening our cities from the Anlgicised version to the local monikers. That reeks more often a political strategy than any real move towards preserving cutltural heritage.

    Chennai sangamam is a good initiative but perhaps a more varied and structured program to hilite the city’s culture is needed? Mylapore Times comes up with a good show in Mylapore along with some dedicated sponsors and volunteers – then again we need better infrastructure to host these events so that people who are sworn off such events, for lack of better facilties and management, do attend and contribute.

    I’d like to think of myself as someone who can settle in any place… but somehow if it were to be only Chennai, I can’t think of any place other than Alwarpet, where I currently live, I would rather be in…

    hmm yes… let us continue to appreciate that our city has much more to offer than colonial history and celebrate its rich cultural past….

  21. Anonymous 17 July, 2008 at 02:57 Reply

    just when work is hectic on a Tuesday..this blog reminds me of my home town (Triplicane)…I need a vacation –home sweet home!!

  22. dharmabum 23 July, 2008 at 19:21 Reply

    i think its the case not just with madras, but we’ve simply been obsessed with the british – probably an indicator of the kind of impact – social, cultural and political they had on us. even our history books talk predominantly of british history!

  23. flowergirl 24 July, 2008 at 09:03 Reply

    I dont think the celebrations centre around British history really. A lot of the happenings, happen around Kapali kovil, for example. The Marundeeswarar temple similarly has various community events for Madras day.

    The date is like a birthday for the British settlement, but the celebrations are a recognition of all that is Madras and Chennai. There are Carnatic music walks, know your trees event, and quizzes, which all go beyond the Brits.

    So maybe the writer should not be carried away by the selection of the date of this event?! Its probably just a convenient peg to celebrate the city.

  24. sushi 18 July, 2009 at 19:53 Reply

    I agree with ‘flowergirl’. Please check the Madras week celebration calendar when it comes out in mid-August – you will find a wide variety of subjects being discussed. Please verify your facts

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