Chennai (formerly Madras; Tamil: சென்னை), is the capital of the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. With a population of 8.6 million (2011 census), Chennai’s urbanized area is the most populous in southern India and the fourth most populous in India. It is situated on the east coast of peninsular India.
Though Chennai traces its history to Fort St George and adjoining village of Madrasapatnam founded by the British East India Company in 1640, some residential districts of the city are older. The name Madras was changed to Chennai in 1997 by a special act of the Tamil Nadu legislature.
Chennai is well-connected by road, rail and air and is a staging point for tours to the 7th century Pallava temple of Mahabalipuram, an UNESCO World Heritage site, the Hindu temples of Kanchipuram, Sriperumbudur and Tirupati, the bird sanctuary of Vedanthangal and the Pondicherry ashram.
Chennai has an extremely hot and humid climate—especially in the month of May, and has heavy rains during monsoons (July to November). The worst of the heat can be avoided by visiting from November to February.
A coastal site that has been inhabited since the Stone Age, what is now Chennai was ruled by the Three Crowned Kings (the Cholas, Chera and Pandya dynasties) for most of its history. In medieval times, it came within the control of the Vijayanagara Empire.
Chennai is associated with one of the twelve apostles in Christianity, Thomas. He is believed to have gone to evangelise in India and died in Mylapore, today a neighbourhood of Chennai. The two modern suburbs of Chennai, St Thomas Mount and Santhome, were named in Thomas’ honour. In 1522, the Portuguese came to the area, built a port and accordingly named it São Tomé after Saint Thomas.
Chennai the modern city was founded by the British East India Company in 1639. The company purchased the land from the local Nayak or chieftain on 22 August 1639, which is why Chennai nowadays celebrates its birthday every year on 22 August. It was one of the British East India Company’s first outposts in India. The company built Fort St. George which is now the administrative and legislative seat of Tamil Nadu state. Over time, George Town absorbed many nearby boroughs and grew into becoming the current metropolis of Chennai.
In 1996, the Tamil Nadu government changed the name of the city from Madras – the name adopted during British rule – to Chennai, which it says is the original name of the city.
The name Madras comes from Madraspatnam, which is what the British called the site when they settled here. Its origin is uncertain. Tradition suggests that a fishing village near to the location of the British settlement was called Madraspatnam. Others think that the early Portuguese voyagers may have called the area Madre de Sois after an early settler, or Madre de Deus after an early church (of St. Mary).
Chennai is derived from Chennapatnam, a name with almost equally uncertain origins. Tradition has it that Chennapatnam was the name of a fishing village near the location of Madraspatnam. However, it is not clear if the village was there beforehand or grew up around the British Madraspatnam settlement.
As the settlements grew, the location of Chennapatnam and Madraspatnam became confused as the two settlements merged into a single town.
Under British rule, what was then Madras gradually became an important administrative centre and was linked to the other big cities by rail, including Bombay and Calcutta. Madras was the capital city of the Madras Presidency, a subdivision that governed the areas of South India under direct British control. Upon India’s independence, the city continued to be the capital of Madras State. After many of India’s states were renamed and reorganised on the basis of language, Chennai became the capital of the state of Tamil Nadu.