Origin and Foundation of Madras, (From Medurasapatnam to Madras), Saindhavi, Chennai, 2014, Rs. 300

Origin and Foundation of Madras     Many scholars have written about the history of Madras city. But they have never paid much attention or have paid scant attention to the origin of Madras. Generally they have relied upon the writingsof British scholars and administrators like H.D. Love, William Foster and Wheeler Talboys as well as on the 1820 accounts of Bundla Ramaswamy Naidu. Of course, S. Muthiah has the reputation of being the ‘chronicler of Madras city’. But an exclusive scientific and detailed historical study on the origin and foundation of Madras was still lacking. In order to fill this gap, this book has been produced after thorough research and enquiry in Madras and London.

     Before 1639, villages like Mylapore, Tiruvallikeni, Tiruvanmiyur and Tiruvottriyur existed. These villages have in the course of time become parts of Madras city. The old inscriptions found in the temples of these villages do not throw any light on the existence of Madras or Chennai before 1639. Besides, the Arab, Portuguese, Dutch, Danish, English and French travellers’ accounts as well as official records do not mention the existence of Madras or Chennai either as a port or town before 1639. There is also no mention of Madras or Chennai before 1639 in the extensive, ancient and medieval Tamil, Telugu and Sanskrit literatures. Therefore the logical conclusion is that Madras did not exist before 1639.

     English records tell us that the area which was given to them in 1639 by the Telugu Nayak Damarla Venkatappa was known as ‘jackal’s ground’ or NariMedu i.e. mound of jackals. The noted historian S. KrishnaswamiAiyangar had equated the whole of Medraspatnam i.e. the area lying between the Cooum and Ezhumbur (Egmore) rivers, given to the English as NariMedu. From the grant issued in 1639 to the English by Damarla Venkatappa, we know that Madras was first known as Medraspatam, where ‘patam’ stands for patnam i.e. coastal town and the syllable ras stands for ‘rasa’ or ‘raya’ which would mean king or chief. The remaining syllable med does not signify a person. However, we know that the place given to the English by Damarla was called NariMedu and it was situated on a ‘high plot” i.e. a rising ground or mound which in Tamil would mean ‘medu’(p. 111 in my book on Madras). All these syllables put together most certainly by Damarla himself had given birth to the name ‘Medurasapatnam’, which simply meant ‘chief’s town on the mound’. This Medurasapatnam seems to have been anglicised by Francis Day in the translation of the grant as ‘Medraspatam’, very much like Sadurasapatnam which became Sadraspatam to the English. It is noteworthy that in both the cases the letter ‘u’ has been dropped to anglicise the words. In the course of time Medraspatam acquired various forms like Madrasapatam, Madraspatam, Maderas, Madrass and finally Madras. So Madras is undoubtedly a pure Tamil word, with no colonial connotations or colonial hangover whatsoever. It is derived from the Tamil ‘medu’.

     There was no Madraspatnam or Madras before the arrival of Europeans. The site occupied by the English in 1639 was inhabited mainly by jackals and a few fishermen before their arrival. But after the implantation of Europeans, Madras changed in character. We find not just Englishmen settling in the area, but also Portuguese and people of Indo-Portuguese descent. However, the chunk of the migrants who settled in the area was Tamils and Telugus. The former were mainly labourers while among the latter there were a number of merchants. In the course of time we find Muslims both Tamil and Urdu-speaking settling in Madras. Thus Madras acquired a cosmopolitan character right from the beginning. But with the gradual absorption of various neighbouring Tamil villages, Madras became predominantly a Tamil city, with a strong Telugu minority.

     It is believed by some Muslims that Madras was derived from Madrasa, which means Islamic College. It all started with Col. Henry Yule who in 1886 claimed that there was indeed a madrasa in the Fort St. George site in 1639. However, we all know from the surviving English records including the 1639 grant that the area in which Fort St. George came up was just a sandy stretch of land with only jackals and a few fishermen living upon it. Neither Francis Day nor DamarlaVenkatappa or any other English factor or Telugu merchant had mentioned anywhere in their correspondence about the existence of this madrasa. So the contention that there was a madrasa at the site of Fort St. George when the English acquired it and that Madras was derived from madrasa needs to be relegated to the realm of fantasy. Besides, in 1939 another fantastic claim was put forward by a certain Marakkayar, that Madras was derived from MakhrasKuppam. He claimed that MakhrasKuppam was itself derived from MarakkayarKuppam or MarkarsKuppam, as there were a number of wealthy Marakkayars established on the Madras coast.He also claimed that Marakkayars as well as the Urdu-speaking Nawab Muhammad Ali Wallajah belonged to the same lineage of Hardat Ibrahim Khalilah, one of the Prophets. It is impossible to imagine that wealthy Marakkayar traders of Madras of such an illustrious lineage, if at all they existed, had chosen to inhabit in lowly kuppams or fishermen’s villages. Besides my recent researches have established that Marakkayars were actually descendants of Malayali Marakkar warriors and traderswho had migrated to the Sozhamandalam coast from the Malabar Coast.

     The claim that Madras had a Christian origin must be traced to the fantastic account of Bundla Ramaswamy Naidoo of 1820. He claims without providing any evidence that the original Madras site was acquired from one Christian fisherman called Madaresan. About a century later in 1927 Father Rev. A.M. Texeira of Madras claimed that Madras was derived from a wealthy Portuguese family called Madra. Later it was said that Madaresen was converted to Christianity by Madra and that is why he adopted the name of Madra by tamilising it as Madaresen. It was also said that Madras was derived from Madre-de-Dios (Mother of God) church established by the Portuguese. However, after enquiry we found that these claims were completely unfounded born out of the fertile imagination of its authors and was not based on any real evidence or historical reality. There is no indication in the Portuguese and other European records or travel accounts related to Madras or Mylaporeor in Tamil or Telugu literature or inscriptions of the period that Madras was named after Madaresanor Madre-de-Dios or some other Portuguese Christian like Madra or Madeiras. S. Muthiah simply reproduces Bundla’s account to explain the origin of Madras, which is no doubt erroneous.

     Scholars with a religious bent of mind like V. Raghavan in 1939 and N.S. Ramasawamy more recently have claimed that Chennapatam was derived from Chenna Kesava Perumal temple built in 1646. But records show that Chennapatna or Chennapatam was already in existence before the temple was built. When the Kesava Perumal temple was built by Telugu merchants in 1646, it rightly assumed the name of Chenna Kesava Perumal temple, as the temple was located in Chennapatam. Here ‘Chenna’ simply means fair. Therefore the view that Chennapatam has a religious significance becomes untenable. But unfortunately some with sectarian inclinations including a section of the so-called progressive media seem to think that Chennai has a Hindu religious significance and therefore it must be retained though the word is not Tamil.

     Besides, one should not forget that when the Europeans ruled India, they rarely imposed European names on Indian towns and cities especially the coastal ones. Instead they anglicised the Indian names so that it sounded English. Thus Mumbai became Bombay, Kolkata became Calcutta, Pandichery became Pondicherry, Tarangapadi became Tranquebar, Kannur became Cannanore and Tiruvananthapuram became Trivandrum. In the same way Medraspatam derived from ‘medu’ became Madras. Therefore the D.M.K. notion that Madras was a European name or it had colonial connotations is completely wrong. It was always a Tamil word, popularly used by the people of Madras and Thamizhnadu, since the foundation of Madras in 1639. If it had a European origin, the English factors like Francis Day would have been the first to note it as they had done in the case of Fort St. George.

     In the work on Madras, it has also been established that Chennai was a Telugu word derived from Chenna and Chennapatam. ‘Chenna’ meant ‘fair’ in Telugu. In Tamil it had no meaning. It has also been established that Chenna was not derived from Chennapa Nayak, the father of DamarlaVenkatappa. S. Muthiah following Bundla Ramaswamy Naidoo thinks wrongly that Chennai was derived from the name Chennapa Nayak, without providing the slightest evidence. In the genealogical list of the Kalahasti family prepared by Colin McKenzie in 1800, there is no mention of Chennapa as the father of Venkatappa. These facts were not known in 1996 when the D.M.K. decided to change the name of Madras to Chennai carried away by certain zeal. So there is room for supposing that what the D.M.K. did was a mistake committed in good faith. Mr. M.Karunanidhi like many others believed that Chennai was a Tamil word. He also seems to have believed like many others that Madras was a European word. Otherwise, he would not have accepted to change the name.

     It has also been established in More’s work on Madras that two Telugu merchants, Beri Timanna and Nagapattan have been instrumental in the founding of a temple for the Hindus settled in Madraspatam in 1646. The temple was named as Chenna Kesava Perumal temple. Neither Timanna nor Nagapattan have claimed anywhere that they had derived the name Chenna from Chennappa or ChennammaNayak. In any case it would be inappropriate to associate the name of God KesavaPerumal with Chennappa.But ‘Chenna’ in Telugu means ‘fair’. In Tamil ‘Chenna’ is meaningless. Besides it is appropriate to qualify God Kesava Perumal as ‘Chenna’ or fair. Trying to read a Tamil word in it 300 years after its foundation as C.S. Srinivasachari had done in 1939o or as some are continuing to do today by trying to derive Chennai from ‘Chen’ or ‘Chem’ is no doubt a historical aberration. It must also not be forgotten that there was a Chenna Kesava Perumal temple at Hampi, which was the capital of the Telugu Vijayanagar Empire. There is also a Chenna Kesava temple in Belur and a rural area of Bangalore is also known today as Channapatna. A former chief minister of Andhra Pradesh was also known as Chenna Reddy.

     Further in the English records that I have consulted, the Tamil ‘Chinapatam’, meaning ‘small town’ was first used by the Tamil settlers to signify the area. The Telugus in their turn used ‘Chennapatam’ to designate the same area. Chennapatam meant ‘fair town’ in Telugu. As the temple was located in Chennapatam, it was naturally called Chenna Kesava Perumal temple.In the course of time, the records prove that Chennapatam gains ascendancy over Chinapatam which gradually sinks into oblivion. Chennapatam became Chenna and it was tamilised further as Chennai in the course of time. It is a pure Telugu word. There is nothing Tamil in it, except for the form.

     In the Tamil Lexicon, the meaning of the word ‘Cennai’ has been given as ‘drum’ or ‘a brown coloured dog’. Otherwise, there is no word as ‘Chennai’ in the Lexicon. Therefore Chennai is undoubtedly not Tamil. Several Tamil and Telugu protagonists have contacted me and have even admitted in person that a mistake has been committed in good faith in renaming Madras as Chennai. They find it grotesque that the capital city of Thamizhnadu bears a Telugu name.

     Some even suggested that Chennai should be dropped by the present Thamizhnadu government led by Ms. Jayalalitha and the historical name of Madras so dear to many Tamilians should be re-instated as the name of the capital city of Thamizhnadu.