If you were from the Telugu country, you called it Chennapuri. If you were from Tamil country, you called it Chennapatinam or Madrasapatinam. The British found it easy to call it Madras. Then in the renaming spree after independence, it was re-christened Chennai.
There were ancient cities in Tamil Nadu before the British made their appearance. Madurai and Puducheri (Pondy) were well known in Roman times. The great port of Poompuhar has disappeared. Mamallapuram (Mahabalipuram) is no longer a port, although the old lighthouse survives. The Tamils had forgotten their maritime traditions by the time the British came. There has been a lot of debate about the British Empire and what good it did. There can be no two opinions on the cities they set up by the sea which have developed into some of the great metropolises of the world. Hong Kong, Singapore, Calcutta, Bombay and Madras come to mind.
Madras Beach and Fort St. George, 1797
In 1639, Francis Day acquired the deed from the local Vijayanagar Nayak for a stretch of no-man's beach for the British to trade in cheap cloth in peaceful surroundings, after their dismal experience in Masulipatnam. There, they got cloth in plenty, but not peace. The little stretch of beach which they named Madras was the starting point of their great Indian empire.
Madras is three hundred and sixty seven years old. I was born in Madras seventy nine years ago, grew up in Madras, had a major part of my schooling in Madras, went to college in Madras, started my career in Madras, and worked most of my life in Madras except for some breaks, have built my house in Madras and am likely to end my life in Madras. I have seen Madras grow into Chennai, and have seen changes in my lifetime, not all of them for the good. I have seen a small town grow into a thriving metropolis. I thought I should write about this for my grandchildren.
I like Madras, but am not an admirer. I will be using various names for the city as it comes to me. The stretch of sandy beach from Tiruvattiyur in the north to Tiruvanmiyur in the south, studded with Pallava temples, hot and humid for most of the year, sometimes blessed with balmy sea breezes, has become Madras - Chennai. The temples are still there, and the sandy beach remains, in truncated form. The year-end monsoonic cyclones continue to hit the city. It is as hot as ever.
For the British, the sea was in their blood. Seashores and harbours, even inhospitable ones, were their lifeline to trade. For them, Madras was not such a bad place.
By the time I was born in 1928, the tumultuous period in the history of Madras was over. The Carnatic wars were over. Hyder and Tipoo were only a bad dream. The fact that the French had occupied Madras for some time was forgotten. Nobody now believes that a battle took place in Madras. The only excitement was an explosion in oil storage tanks in North Madras. Emden, the German submarine fired a few shells at Madras during World War 1.This was duly commemorated by a plaque in the wall of the High Court. Looking at Madras of the late twenties it was difficult to imagine that this unpretentious town started an empire.
The record of Madras in the early years was impressive by any standards. It was a rich trading center with a cosmopolitan crowd of people from various parts of the world who came to trade and make money. They made fortunes.
I will mention a few of the people who left their mark in the early days of Madras. The details of their achievements have been documented extensively in books and articles. It is however important to have them at the back of our minds if we are to appreciate the evolution of Madras into a great metropolis of
St.Thomas, the apostle is said to have preached near Madras and to have been buried near the beach in Mylapore. Mylapore was referred to as Myarphon by Ptolemy and as ‘Myura Sabdha Pattinam’ by the Buddhists and Jains. This is a reference to the peacocks which are said to have been there in abundance. Peyalwar, one of the Vaishnanvite Alwars was born in Madras. The saivite saints Tirugnanasambandar and Appar used to visit the Mylapore temple. Vayila Nayanar. a saivite saint, was born in Mylapore. From saints, to soldiers and administrators, we have Robert Clive, who took the first steps in the founding of the British Empire; Arthur Wellesley, whose military experience here helped him to defeat Napoleon in
Waterloo; Warren Hastings did his first stint in Madras before going to Calcutta to become the Governor General.
Then there are the merchants who came, made their fortune and left their mark. Coja Petrus Uscan, the Armenian, was well known for his munificence. He was responsible for the Marmalong Bridgeacross the Adayar in Saidapet. Elihu Yale, after a stint as governor, made a fortune as trader. After his return to his native Wales he was persuaded to give a donation to a college in Connecticut.The college was named after him and has become Yale University. There were Hebrew traders in Coral Merchant Street in Muthialpet. In the 19th century Thomas Parry started a firm which grew into EID Parry. John Binny set up a business which became Binny and Company. Parry and Binny were responsible for starting flourishing enterprises in Madras and neighboring areas.
Lastly on the intellectual front we have two giants on the scientific front. C.V.Raman, educated in the
Madras Presidency College, and who won a Nobel Prize in Physics. Then we have the self-tutored Ramanujam who is still talked about in Mathematical circles all over the world.
At the end of the nineteen twenties Chennapuri had forgotten its boisterous beginnings, shaken off the effects of the World War, got used to the fact that Calcutta and Bombay had overtaken it, and settled down to a sedate existence. It took the depression years in its stride. It became inward-looking and started to do something about its social legacies. It began rediscovering its music and dance .It was a very much an English outpost but started taking pride in its heritage.
Mylapore Temple, 1906
To be continued.....