March of Madras

The colonial city now called Chennai turns 375 on August 22. A survey of its growth and transformation from the time Fort St. George came up.

Published : Aug 20, 2014 12:30 IST

An aquatint of the Fort Square inside Fort St. George by Thomas Daniell, preserved at the Fort Museum.

An aquatint of the Fort Square inside Fort St. George by Thomas Daniell, preserved at the Fort Museum.


AUGUST 22, 2014, will mark the 375th birthday of Madras, whose modern history begins on August 22, 1639. On that day, Francis Day, a factor of the English East India Company, received a grant from Venkatadri Nayak of Wandiwash, who ruled the region under the Vijayanagara empire, to build a fort on a tongue of land on the seafront between the Cooum river in the south and the “Elampore river” in the north. When the first stone of the Fort was laid on March 1, 1640, the seeds of Madras, the first city of modern India, were sown.

Madras appeared on the stage of world history when the French attacked Fort St. George in 1746, captured it from the English and held it until 1749. Also in 1746, a small contingent of French troops on the banks of the Adyar river, aided by artillery fire, chased away several thousands of sepoys of the Nawab of Carnatic. Egmore, in the heart of Madras, saw some deadly action, too. To quote the late N.S. Ramaswami: “In the 18th century, Hyder Ali’s cavalry ranged over it and in the previous century, the Dutch sacked it” ( Indian Express , June 13, 1983). San Thome was also a seat of war, but in much earlier times. In 1558, Ramaraja, the Vijayanagara ruler, led a big army to San Thome and crushed the Portuguese forces after he heard that Portuguese Franciscan friars had destroyed several Hindu temples in San Thome and Mylapore.

Pioneering role Madras was a pioneer in several fields. As S. Muthiah, the passionate chronicler of Madras, is proud of saying, it was in Fort St. George in 1664 that India’s first Western-style hospital was established. That led to the founding of the General Hospital in 1835. The founding of the Governor’s Bank in 1635 led to modern banking. The first municipal corporation outside Britain was set up in Madras in 1688 when Elihu Yale was the Governor of Fort St. George. “In the 1670s, Governors William Langhorne and Streynsham Master instituted the rules of governance and record-keeping in Fort St. George and laid the foundations for today’s government formalities,” says Muthiah in his article titled “Pioneering Contribution of Madras”, published in 1993 in a volume titled Aspects of Madras: A Historical Perspective , which was edited by G.J. Sudhakar. It was in Madras that India’s first Western-type school, St. Mary’s Charity School, was established in 1715. The founding of the first Government Survey School, that is, the first institution for technical education east of Europe, was in Madras in 1794. The Survey School burgeoned into College of Engineering, Guindy.

The monumental scientific expedition called The Great Trigonometrical Survey, led by William Lambton, began from a church in St. Thomas Mount, Madras, on April 10, 1802. When it was completed, the shape and size of India was known. It revealed the Himalayas as the tallest mountain range in the world. Michael Topping established the first astronomical observatory in India in 1792 in Madras. The genesis of the Indian Army was in Cuddalore and in Madras after Major Stringer Lawrence raised a native infantry regiment to repulse the French attacks in the late 1740s on Fort St. David in Cuddalore. Muthiah has recorded in Madras Rediscovered that the “first rail track in India was laid for demonstration purposes near Chintadripet Bridge in 1836”. As Muthiah says: “By the time the second half of the 19th century came along, there was little left for Madras to introduce in India. But it continued to make its contribution. There was Indo-Saracenic to be left for architectural posterity in many parts of the country through the efforts of Robert Chisholm and Henry Irwin….”

How it all started After receiving his “firman”, the document of authorisation from Venkatadri Nayak and his brother Ayappa Nayak to build a fort, Day left for Masulipatnam to persuade Andrew Cogan, his superior and the Agent of the East India Company from now on) there, that his decision to build a fort was sound. Cogan readily accepted the idea.

What first led Day to that strip of land on the beach in July 1639 was the availability of “excellent long cloth and better, cheaper by 20 per cent, than anywhere else”, including at Masulipatnam, then the rich emporia of the kingdom of Golconda. The English had already established a “factory” or a warehouse in 1611 at Masulipatnam to store the area’s famous “painted cloth”, cotton fabric with hand-painted designs. Trade in painted cloth was very lucrative and several European countries sailed the high seas to scout for sites on India’s eastern coast where they could buy and store painted cloth, and then export it.

Before the arrival of the English at Masulipatnam, the Portuguese were at San Thome in Madraspatnam in 1522, the Dutch at Masulipatnam in 1605 and at Pulicat, and the Danes at Tranquebar in 1620. The French founded Pondicherry after the English had settled in Madras in 1639. The Dutch were also at Sadras, 60 km from present-day Chennai, where weavers made excellent cloth. The English were already in Surat in 1599.

N.S. Ramaswami, in his book The Founding of Madras , first published in 1977 by Orient Longman, says: “This cotton cloth, which carried elaborate designs, was unique of its kind in the century. India was still ‘the only country in the world which could dye vegetable fibre (that is, cotton, as distinct from linen) in fast and luminous colours, so that when the fabric was washed, these colours increased rather than diminished in beauty and subtlety. Moreover, such Indian fabrics had the additional advantage of being extremely cheap in terms of contemporary trade values.’” The hand-painted cloth was made at many centres on the east coast, but Masulipatnam was preferred for its finish. Its bright colours resulted from a mordant extracted from the madder plant, which grew near the mouth of the Krishna river.

At Masulipatnam, the English had to face not only the harassment by officers of the Golconda ruler but also the hostility of the Dutch. The English bought an old fort at Armagon (present-day Durgarayapatnam in Nellore district) and rebuilt it, but no cloth was manufactured at Armagon. Besides, the local Nayak harassed the English there. The Dutch did not allow the English to settle at Pulicat.

So Day was hunting for a site on the eastern coast where cotton textiles were manufactured. During his first landing at Madraspatnam on July 27, 1639, he met Venkatadri and Ayappa, weavers and painting artists, and was happy to find that cloth was cheaper in Madras by about 20 per cent than elsewhere on the east coast. He received the firman to build a fort there, in August that year.

Chennapatnam and Madraspatnam already existed to the north and the south of the site respectively. Venkatadri and Ayappa had set up a small town a few years earlier and named it Chennapatnam, after their father, Chennappa. Venkatadri’s brother-in-law was the Vijayanagara king Venkata III.

Whence Madras? There are several theories about the origin of the name Madraspatnam, later shortened to Madras. The most plausible one is that it was named after a wealthy Portuguese family, Madra by name, which had settled at San Thome in the 16th or 17th century. The Madra family rebuilt the St. Lazarus Church at Mylapore in 1637. A tombstone in the church found in 1927 says in Portuguese that it was “the grave of Manuel Madras and of his mother, son of Vincente Madra and of Lucy Brague” and that “they built this church at their own expense in the year 637” [1637].

Professor K.V. Raman, former Head of the Department of Ancient History and Archaeology, University of Madras, asserted: “Madras was a term used only after the Portuguese and the British came here. Earlier, it was a [loose] conglomeration of villages such as Mylapore, Triplicane, Egmore, Thiruvottiyur, Thiruvanmiyur, and so on. Madras city, as a nomenclature, obtained only after these villages joined together and came under European influence.” Cogan and Day dismantled the fort at Armagon and sailed out in Eagle , which was accompanied by Unity . It was a motley group which sailed in the two vessels, comprising 25 soldiers, factors, writers, a gunner, a surgeon, a carpenter, smiths, and so on—all of them Europeans, including the English and the Portuguese. Nagabhattan, the Company’s gunpowder maker, was perhaps the sole Indian. They arrived on February 20, 1640, at Madraspatnam. Thus was laid the foundation of the British Empire.

It, however, was not smooth sailing for Day after the first stone for building the fortified warehouse was laid on March 1. The Company was reluctant to finance the building of the fort. “Spending considerably out of his own pocket, Day built on this barren stretch of no-man’s sand fortifying walls that enclosed a 100 yard by 100 square,” says Muthiah, in his article titled “City begat by Fort St. George”, published in The Hindu on April 30, 1990. “And within those walls, he erected a warehouse and 15 thatched houses. When that work was completed in April 1640, Andrew Cogan, Day’s chief and the Company’s Agent on the Coromandel, christened the tiny settlement, on St. George’s Day, April 24, Fort St. George,” adds Muthiah.

The first building to come up inside the Fort was Fort House, which was the Governor’s residence. It had a dome which has not survived. A “White Town” came up inside the Fort where English and Portuguese traders lived. A “Black Town” came up outside, north of the Fort, where artisans, craftsmen and traders lived. St. Mary’s Church, the country’s first Protestant Church, was built inside the Fort in 1680 (or 1678). The Fort House was pulled down in the 1690s and a new one built. It houses the Tamil Nadu government’s Secretariat and the Assembly now.

“During the 17th and 18th centuries, Madras began to grow within and outside Fort St. George, with the acquisition of several adjoining villages,” says P.S. Sriraman, Superintending Archaeologist, Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), Jodhpur Circle, who authored the ASI-published pamphlet “Fort St. George”. “Early in the 18th century, the ‘Grand House on Charles Street’, Clive’s house, was built. A 1710 map shows a mint, a hospital, a storehouse and a town hall (next to St. Mary’s). Besides, it indicates the names of the roads within the fort and in the Black Town. A parade ground was added….”

Sriraman says: “From 1756 to 1763, hectic construction saw the fort to its present shape…. In its final form, Fort St. George spreads over 42 acres… and has three principal gates, the two Sea Gates and the Wallajah Gate and St. George’s Gate, and a few minor gates. These gates were strengthened by bastions, ravelins and lunettes. A wet ditch was excavated all round. The walls were casemated (a vaulted chamber built in the walls) and cisterns were built to support about 6,000 men with water supply. The entire construction was done at a cost of Rs.7,700,000 at that time. Of course, this expenditure was not without its share of controversy.”

G. Maheshwari, Superintending Archaeologist, ASI, said the organisation’s Chennai Circle has prepared a plan to restore Last House on Snob’s Alley in Fort St. George. A portion of Last House was in ruins. Indian Institute of Technology Madras will help the ASI in restoring Last House, which has a beautiful carved, wooden staircase inside. The conservation effort will be true to the original plan and elevation of the structure, she said. Cement will not be used.

Amid war and strife When Day began building the fort in 1640, war alarms were ringing everywhere in the region. The Vijayanagara empire was on the decline. Venkata III died in 1642 and was succeeded by Sriranga III, who ruled from 1642 to 1649. There was intense rivalry among the various Nayaks, who were the governors of the Vijayanagara kingdom. The Nayaks had their own private militias. Venkatadri commanded 20,000 sepoys. The Turks had invaded south India in the 14th century and the Sultan of Golconda in the 17th century. The Maratha warrior Chhatrapathi Shivaji and his forces were marching through Madras in 1740.

N.S. Ramaswami says in his Founding of Madras : “The fortunes of the Englishmen at Fort St. George were subject to the political changes on the eastern coast, which were considerable. The region passed first from Vijayanagar to Golconda and thence from Golconda to the Mughals. At every change, the English had to have their privileges confirmed. Fort St. George was involved in an uphill struggle for quite some time in its early career.” A letter from Fort St. George written to the Company directors in London talks about the “country being all in broils….”

Despite this turbulent situation, for several decades after the construction of Fort St. George began in 1640, the British were interested only in trade. The Fort was used as a warehouse for storing textiles, timber and so on. At best, it was a fortified garrison.

French attack But the French attack on Fort St. George in September 1746 shook the British. The war between England and France in Europe had its fallout in Madras. Although an English naval squadron sent to India reached the Coromandel coast and it could have attacked the French settlement of Pondicherry, whose Governor was Francois Dupleix, it did not do so. But de la Bourdonnais, the French Governor of Bourbon in Mauritius, had no such compunction. He came to the aid of Dupleix. De la Bourdonnais’ fleet appeared before Fort St. George on September 3, 1746, and shelled it from the sea. “Governor Morse [of Fort St. George] and the garrison surrendered. The formal surrender took place on September 10th,” says Vedagiri Shanmugasundaram, in his article titled “History (1600-1900), published in Madras, Chennai: A 400-year Record of the First City of Modern India .

Dupleix carted away merchandise, stores, bullion and ordnance valued at Rs.2 million to Pondicherry. Even the highly polished black pillars of Fort House were taken to Pondicherry. Later, the English brought back the pillars and used them when they rebuilt Fort House. The French destroyed much of Black Town.

The Nawab of the Carnatic, Anwaruddin, the suzerain of both the English and the French merchants on the east coast sent an army under his eldest son, Mahfuz Khan, to confront the French occupiers of the Fort. A small contingent of the French soldiers beat back the Nawab’s army.

Shanmugasundaram says: “When the English lost Madras, Fort St. David (Cuddalore) became the seat of their presidency. Dupleix launched several attacks against it but failed to take it. Meanwhile, the war in Europe had ended with the signing of the Aix-la-Chapelle. Soon afterwards, Madras was to be restored in return for Quebec (Canada). The rendition of the city to the English took place on August 21, 1749.”

The French occupation of Fort St. George convinced the British that they should raise a strong army of their own and that they should fortify Fort St. George in an impregnable manner. Major Stringer Lawrence, who had successfully defended Fort St. David, raised a regiment of native soldiers in Cuddalore and Madras, which metamorphosed into the Indian Army. Soon Robert Clive came into the picture. Meanwhile, the British systematically set about strengthening Fort St. George. Hostilities erupted again. Comte de Lally, the French Governor General of India and a soldier himself, besieged Fort St. George in December 1758. The siege went on for 67 days. The French lifted the siege when a British fleet arrived in Madras. The Fort was in ruins again after the siege. The Company started restoring it with ramparts, bastions and ravelins. The work was completed in 1783 when the Fort’s present shape was reached.

Mysore Wars Then, the Mysore Wars broke out. Hyder Ali, the Mysore ruler, attacked Madras. His army defeated the combined forces of the English, the Nizam of Hyderabad and the Marathas. Hyder Ali’s army looted San Thome and other villages. Hyder Ali audaciously dictated a treaty within the walls of Fort St. George, by which he gained a lot of territory.

With the death of Tipu Sultan, son of Hyder Ali, in the fourth Anglo-Mysore War in 1799, there was no more any threat to the British in the Indian subcontinent. The British subjugated the local rulers by playing them off against each other and extracted from them the right to collect taxes. For instance, the Nawab of Arcot bestowed upon the English the right to collect revenue from his subjects. Soon, the English found that this was more lucrative than trading in painted cloth, timber or spices!

As Fort St. George grew, and Chennapatnam and Madraspatnam expanded, the three got integrated to become Madras. This involved the British acquiring a number of villages, including Mylapore-Triplicane, using threats, chicanery and blandishment.

Shanmugasundaram says in his “History (1600-1900)”: “As a consequence of Governor Yale applying for additional possessions as free grants, conditional grants were obtained in early 1693 from the Mughal emperor for the villages of Egmore, Purasawalkam and Tondiarpet. The three villages were the earliest acquisitions after Triplicane and the four came to be known in the records as ‘the Old Towns’. In turn, the Governor leased out these villages for an annual rent to the Company’s Chief Merchants.”

In 1708, the Mughal Nawab Daud Khan handed over Thiruvottiyur, Nungambakkam, Vyasarpadi, Kathiwakkam and Sattangadu to the British by a firman. They were called “the five New Villages”. When Daud Khan later demanded, during the Governorship of Edward Harrison from 1711 to 1717, the return of these five villages, “a gift of 400 bottles of liquor to Khan was found so acceptable that not only was the grant of the villages confirmed but 40 acres of land near St. Thomas Mount was given in addition for the construction of a garden house”. Mylapore, San Thome, Triplicane and Egmore came under the English fold.

An ancient lineage The history of Madras, however, is not limited to just 375 years. It has an ancient history going back to the beginning of the historic period, that is, the Tamil Sangam age (the first century B.C. to the third century A.D.). Sangam works refer to Mylapore. In his book The Early History of the Madras Region , K.V. Raman says: “Mylapore was a port. It has been mentioned by Roman geographer Ptolemy as Mylafa. In the first century A.D., Mylapore was an important commercial centre, attracting foreign traders.” Tamil Sangam literature has mentioned Mylapore as Mylarpil. “Triplicane came under Mylapore. Importantly, it was not merely called Triplicane but Mylapore-Triplicane,” Raman said. Mylapore and Triplicane are noted for their Kapalisvara and Parthasarathy Swamy temples.

R. Nagaswamy, former Director, Tamil Nadu Archaeology Department, attested to the importance of Mylapore in the Madras region. “During the period of the Pallava ruler Nandivarman III [regnal years A.D. 844-866], Mylapore was a port town. The Tamil work, Nandikalambagam , composed anonymously in praise of him, calls Mylapore a port town. Nandivarman was in fact called ‘Mylai kaavalar’, that is, the ruler of Mylai,” Nagaswamy said.

After the first phase of the Sangam Cholas’ rule in the Madras region in the first century A.D., first under Karikala Chola and later by Tondaiman Ilam Tirayan, Madras was under the Pallavas from the fourth century A.D. to the 9th century A,D. “The earliest inscription to be found in Madras is at Pallavaram. It belongs to the Pallava ruler Mahendravarman I [regnal years A.D. 600-630],” said Nagaswamy. Mahendravarman I inscribed 67 titles or cognomens or birudas that he assumed in a Siva temple that he carved out of rock at Pallavaram. The inscription is in the Pallava-Grantha script. The language of the inscription is mostly Telugu and some titles are in Sanskrit and Tamil. The inscription commences by mentioning his name, “Sri Mahendravikrama”. Some of his colourful titles that were inscribed are Mattavilasah, Chetrakari, Vichitra Chittah, Kalahapriya and Lalitankura. The Siva temple in the rock-cut cave is now a dargah.

The second phase of Chola rule in the Madras region was under the imperial Cholas, from around A.D. 900 (Aditya Chola) until the end of the Chola empire in A.D. 1285. Akin to Mylapore, Egmore (Ezhumur) has an interesting history of about 1,000 years. Two inscriptions in the Parthasarathy temple at Triplicane mention “Ezhumur”, said Nagaswamy. The earlier one, dated A.D. 1309, belongs to the Pandya king Kulasekhara Pandya. It talked about “Ezhumur nadu” which fell under “Puliyur kottam” (divison) of “Jayamkonda Chola mandalam”. It mentioned how “Ayanpuram kizhavan” (the chief of the Ayanpuram village, which is the present-day Aynavaram) sold land to raise funds to provide for offerings to the deity of the Parthasarathy temple. The second inscription, belonging to the Vijayanagara period of the 16th century, also spoke about how Ezhumur came under “Puliyur kottam” which, in turn, fell under “Jayamkonda Chola mandalam”.

But Egmore’s 18th century history, after it came under the Company’s control, is not so sedate. “Square mile for square mile, Egmore is the part of Madras which has seen more war and contention than any other,” says N.S. Ramaswami in his article “Fighting Egmore”, in his column “Coral Strand” that appeared in Indian Express on June 20, 1983. “Among its unwelcome visitors, sword in hand, were the French, the Dutch and the Mysore troops of Hyder Ali. It has been plundered, farmed out, fought for and [it] overenjoyed the doubtful joys of a ‘metta’ or a toll station.”

Indeed, Egmore was both a seat of war and a health resort with a “fine air”. The Company built a minor fort, called a redoubt, in Egmore. The redoubt had a unit for making gunpowder. A choultry, built earlier, had a guardhouse added to it. This choultry was to be a health resort for the sepoys of the Company—it was to provide “a great relief to the poor soldiers when sick and contribute to saving their lives”.

Soon, the British built a Pantheon, or public assembly rooms, in Egmore. Many garden houses came up. Nagaswamy said “the most important point is that the British had a vision” when they systematically developed the infrastructure required for Madras. For instance, “the British built a railway station, a museum, a library, a theatre, a zoo and a record office, all at Egmore”. The small zoo at Egmore featured two tigers. While Dr Edward Balfour was the founder of the Government Museum in Egmore, Dr F.H. Gravely gave it a proper shape.

Fort and away With flourishing trade and a strong army, Madras boomed. The Englishmen left the Fort to build for themselves bungalows away from the sea, on Mount Road and Poonamalee High Road, and at Egmore, Mylapore, Adyar and Guindy. Egmore was the favourite. Wealthy Indians lived in Luz. These bungalows, known as garden houses, had “high colonnades, projecting open porticos, open corridors and triangular pediments in front”. As William Hodges, who visited Madras in 1781, observed: “The English town, rising from within Fort St. George has, from the sea, a rich and beautiful appearance…. The buildings consist of long colonnades with open porticos and flat roofs and offer to the eye an appearance similar to what he may conceive of a Grecian city.”

Madras had castles too: Brodie’s Castle and Leith Castle. Brodie’s Castle was built by James Brodie, an “outstanding civil servant” of the Company, on 11 acres assigned to him in 1796. It is a beautiful bungalow, built on the banks of the Adyar river, on Greenways Road. It is now home to the Tamil Nadu Music and Fine Arts University. Leith Castle, situated in San Thome, was built by James Leith, another civil servant of the Company. It is a private residential house now.

This is how Steen Bille found Madras when he visited it in 1845:

“One can drive and ride as one will. The roads are excellent, one flies one’s way; the air we breathe is balmic and invigorating. We can drive past one villa after another and all are situated in beautifully laid-out and well-kept parks and gardens.”

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