Chennai (Madras), Tamil Nadu State, South India

Chennai and Madras: What is in a Name?

Inia Pandian

TAMIL TRIBUNE, November 1997 (1997-11-02)
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On July 17, 1996, M. Karunanidhi, Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, announced in the state assembly that the state capital Madras would henceforth be officially known by the name Chennai in all languages. Though the name Chennai has been used widely in both colloquial and written Tamil even before, the name Madras was used in English and other languages until then. What is the story behind the names Chennai and Madras?

The British acquired this area over three and a half centuries ago. It was a small coastal village at that time - a far cry from the sprawling metropolis of today. Venkatappa Naik (also known as Naik Venkatadiri) granted the area now occupying the St. George Fort to a British agent named Francis Day for free in August 1639. All that he wanted was that the British found a town there in the name of his father Chennappa Naik. So the British named the new town Chennapattnam ("Pattnam" or "pattinam" means "town" in Tamil). "Chennapattnam" changed to "Chennai" over a period of time.

What about the name Madras? There is more than one story about this.

I heard a very interesting explanation from a South African Tamil gentleman several years ago. (Yes, there are many Tamils living in South Africa for centuries. Many of you may know that Mahatma Gandhi toned his methods of nonviolent protest against injustice first in South Africa before he used it in India against the British rule. But, do you know that a South African Tamil lady named Valliammai was one of his top associates there? She worked with him well before Nehru, Patel and others.) This South African Tamil gentleman told me this explanation for the name Madras. The British agent Francis Day agreed to name the town Chennapattnam as Venkatappa Naik requested, and did call it so in Tamil. But there was an inside joke among the British. They thought that Venkatappa Naik was mad (stupid) giving away the land for free just to be named after his father. So they called the town in English "MAD RASA PATTNAM". ("Rasa" means king in Tamil.) In fact, it is called Medrassapatam in the 1639 deed of sale. It would seem that Medrassapatam is the British way of spelling Madrasapattinam (in the same way as they spelled Alwarpettai as Alwarpet, and Thirunelveli as Tinnelveli).

According to another explanation, the land was given to Francis Day by a man named Madarasen, head of a fishermen's slum, and the town was named after him. This explanation, however, has a hole in it. The 1639 deed of sale clearly states that Venkatappa Naik gave the land to Francis Day. Some conjecture that Medrassapatam and Chennapattnam were nearby areas and that Francis Day acquired the former first from Madarasen and the latter then from Venkatappa Naik; the name Medrassapatam was mentioned in the deed of sales as a reference point. Another point to note is that Madras was widely used in English (among the British at that time and then by everyone who learned the language) and Chennai was used in Tamil. This seems to buttress the South African Tamil gentleman's explanation. Whatever the origins of the names, Madras is now for the history books and Chennai is here to stay.


I live in Denver, Colorado, USA. I met a padre from a local church in our gym. We swim in the same pool. He once asked me about the name "Madras". He thought it came about because the British used this town to lock up all those who revolted against them. They called them "Mad Rascals", in short "Mad-Ras". I got curious and looked up for information on the Internet and found your article. I thought that I would send this story to you. I think it is interesting.

Sada Narayanappa
November 16, 2002

AUTHOR'S RESPONSE: Thank you Mr. Narayanappa. Your explanation is interesting and as good as the explanation given in the article. I do not think that Madras was ever a major detention center but it was the "headquarter" of British rule in the south and many rebels might have been imprisoned there.

(EDITOR'S NOTE: If you know of other explanations for the names Chennai or Madras, please send them to TAMIL TRIBUNE for possible publication.)

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