Madras' 384th anniversary: The making of Madras

The writer and documentary filmmaker Kombai S Anwar talks about the evolution of the celebration
A view of the old Mount Road  | Express Photo
A view of the old Mount Road | Express Photo

CHENNAI: Modern-day Madras is a city that is developing but still stands high, upholding its roots and traditions. It is a place where history resides in every nook and corner reminding us of a mixture of cultures.

According to Kombai S Anwar, writer and documentary filmmaker, Madras is an intellectually stimulating place where people respect each other’s views. As the city celebrates its 384th anniversary, Anwar interacts with CE and takes us through the city’s establishment, achievements and Madras Day celebrations.

Through the history lanes 

People living in the city should own the place. It was this idea that led to the creation of the Madras Day events. Anwar says, “Historian S Muthiah, journalist Sashi Nair and publisher Vincent D’ Souza put forward the idea of celebrating the city in all its glory and founded the Madras Day 19 years back. Later, they were joined by three others — journalist and editor Sushila Ravindranath, journalist and website entrepreneur Revathi R and entrepreneur and writer-historian V Sriram.” 

A view of the old Parrys Corner
A view of the old Parrys Corner

Muthiah never thought of Madras Day as a corporate event but one where all the residents come together and hold events talking about the history of the city, conduct walks, and celebrate the stories that run through the veins of Chennai. “Muthiah didn’t want anyone to be left out. He asked everyone to give lectures and organise walks for the Madras Day events. As a result, inclusiveness spread through the event,” shares Anwar who worked with Muthiah during the 2000s. 

Admitting that the interaction with Muthiah changed his understanding of the city, he says, “Until then, I had no idea that the Arcot Nawabs had a palace which was built in the late 1760s.”

Madraspatnam to Chennai

The founding day of Madras is considered to be August 22, 1639, as it was on this day a land where Fort. St. George stands today and was transacted by the East India Company. “From 1639 to 1670s, the area of Madras was restricted to Fort St George. During that time, the Mughals took over and started acquiring more land. Areas like Nungambakkam were added to the map of Madras and the city started expanding. In the 1740s, it was barely a couple of villages,” says Anwar.

Chindratripet was also added as the need for textile trade arose. The Mughal rulers continued to rule over the fort till the death of Tipu Sultan. “During the 1760s, The Nawab of Arcot also decided to go to Madras for safety and built his palace in Chepauk. A lot of the North Indian population, Urdu-speaking Muslims also migrated during this time to Chennai making it a diverse place in terms of ethnicity. In 1801, when the third Nawab of the Wallajah dynasty died, the British took over not only Madras but also the Carnatic regions. Madras started expanding. What is known as Broadway today was a levelled hill. By 1857, when the last Nawab died, the whole of the Carnatic region went under the British,” says Anwar.

With other developments, the city’s transport also progressed. Buckingham Canal was built and it linked Cooum, Adyar and even areas in Mahabalipuram. The sea-facing road next to Fort St George was called Madras Road and slowly roads expanded. Madras Railway was established in 1845 and the first main line between Madras and Arcot started in 1853 and became operational in 1856. Till about the mid-19th century, Chennai received water from local shallow wells and tanks. Fraser, a civil engineer who visited Madras, forwarded a proposal to the government to tap the Kortalayar River which is situated about 160 km northwest of Chennai and it was accepted.

Clockwise: Rajaji Hall; The widened Napier Bridge, also known as Iron Bridge; People waiting for the bus opposite Higginbothams Book Store on Mount Road on a rainy day; Purasawakkam Bridge.
Clockwise: Rajaji Hall; The widened Napier Bridge, also known as Iron Bridge; People waiting for the bus opposite Higginbothams Book Store on Mount Road on a rainy day; Purasawakkam Bridge.

As the city grows, buildings come in. Speaking of educational institutions, Anwar says, “Madras Christian College was initially situated in Parry’s Corner. Later when the authorities wanted to expand, they changed it to Tambaram. Then with the introduction of suburban trains, the transport to Tambaram also became an easy task.”

The Justice Party came to power in the early 19th century. After Independence, industrial paths were also built — like Guindy Industrial Estate, and Ambattur Industrial Estate. In the 1990s, the talks on renaming Madras to Chennai started. On July 17, 1996, the city was officially renamed Chennai.

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