Today is Madras Day, an annual festival that commemorates the founding of the city of Madras (now Chennai) in Tamil Nadu. 22nd August 1639 is the widely agreed upon date for the purchase of the village of Madraspatnam or Chennapatnam by East India Company factors Andrew Cogan and Francis Day from Damerla Venkatapathy, the viceroy of the Vijayanagar Empire. There has been some debate as to whether the deed of purchase was dated 22nd July or 22nd August, the latter being widely accepted. The motives of the celebrations have sometimes been criticized by academicians and state government organizations who feel that it gives undue importance to the city’s colonial heritage. Nonetheless the celebrations are popular and growing.
The first recorded celebration of the founding of Madras was its tercentenary commemoration in 1939. Unlike later anniversaries, the celebrations were officially sponsored by the British government and a special tercentenary commemoration volume was issued with essays on the different aspects of Madras city written by leading experts of the time. An exhibition of pictures, portraits, maps, records and coins was inaugurated by Diwan Bahadur S. E. Runganadhan, the Vice-Chancellor of Madras University, and there was a short-play writing competition as well. The 350th anniversary in 1989 was celebrated with the opening of a commemorative monument titled “Madras 350” built in the Classical Style by Frankpet Fernandez at the junction of the Poonamallee High Road and the New Avadi Road. Other major events included the commissioning of a book by S. Muthiah titled Madras — The Gracious City by the Murugappa Group which also organized the first Madras Quiz which has continued to the present day.
Modern Chennai had its origins as a colonial city and its initial growth was closely tied to its importance as an artificial harbor and trading center. When the Portuguese arrived in 1522, they built a port and named it São Tomé, after the Christian apostle St. Thomas, who by legend is said to have preached there between the years 52 and 70. The region then passed into the hands of the Dutch, who established themselves near Pulicat just north of the city in 1612. Both groups strived to grow their colonial populations and although their joint populations had reached about 10,000 when the British arrived, they remained substantially outnumbered by the local Indian population.
By 1612, the Dutch established themselves in Pulicat to the north. In the 17th century when the English East India Company decided to build a factory on the east coast and in 1626 selected as its site Armagon (Dugarazpatnam), a village around 35 miles (56 km) north of Pulicat. The calico cloth from the local area, which was in high demand locally, was of poor quality and not suitable for export to Europe. The English also soon realized that, as a port, Armagon was unsuitable for trade purposes. Francis Day, one of the officers of the company, who was then a Member of the Masulipatam Council and the Chief of the Armagon Factory, made a voyage of exploration in 1637 down the coast as far as Pondicherry with a view to choosing a site for a new settlement.
At that time the Coromandel Coast was ruled by Peda Venkata Raya, from the Aravidu Dynasty of Vijayanagara Empire based in Chandragiri-Vellore. Damarla Venkatadri Nayaka, local governor of the Vijayanagar Empire and Nayaka of Wandiwash (Vandavasi), ruled the coastal part of the region, from Pulicat to the Portuguese settlement of San Thome. He had his headquarters at Wandiwash, and his brother Ayyappa Nayakudu resided at Poonamallee, a few miles to the west of Madras, where he looked after the affairs of the coast. Ayyappa Nayakudu persuaded his brother to lease the sandy strip to Francis Day and promised him trade benefits, army protection, and Persian horses in return. Francis Day wrote to his headquarters at Masulipatam for permission to inspect the proposed site at Madraspatnam and to examine the possibilities of trade there. Madraspatnam seemed favorable during the inspection, and the calicoes woven there were much cheaper than those at Armagon (Durgarazpatam).
On 22 August 1639, Francis Day secured the Grant by the Damarla Venkatadri Nayaka, Nayaka of Wandiwash, giving over to the East India Company a three-mile (4.8 km) long strip of land, a fishing village called Madraspatnam, copies of which were endorsed by Andrew Cogan, the Chief of the Masulipatam Factory. The Grant was for a period of two years and empowered the Company to build a fort and castle on about 2 sq miles (5 km2) of its strip of land.
The English merchants at Masulipatam were satisfied with Francis Day’s work. They requested Day and the Damarla Venkatadri Nayaka to wait until the sanction of the superior English Presidency of Bantam in Java could be obtained for their action. The main difficulty, among the English those days, was lack of money. In February 1640, Day and Cogan, accompanied by a few merchants and writers, a garrison of about twenty-five European soldiers and a few other European artificers, besides a Hindu powder-maker named Naga Battan, proceeded to the land which had been granted and started a new English factory there. They reached Madraspatnam on 20 February 1640.
Day and Cogan can be considered as the founders of Madras/Chennai. They began construction of Fort St George on 23 April 1640 and houses for their residence. Their small fortified settlement quickly attracted other East Indian traders and as the Dutch position collapsed under hostile Indian power they also slowly joined the settlement. By the 1646, the settlement had reached 19,000 people and with the Portuguese and Dutch populations at their forts substantially more. To further consolidate their position, the Company combined the various settlements around an expanded Fort St. George, which, including its citadel, also embraced a larger outside area surrounded by an additional wall. This area became the Fort St. George settlement. As stipulated by the Treaty signed with the Nayak (local administrator), the British and other Europeans were not allowed to decorate the outside of their buildings in any other color but white. As a result, over time, the area came to be known as ‘White Town’.
According to the treaty, only Europeans, principally Protestant British settlers were allowed to live in this area as outside of this confine, non-Indians were not allowed to own property. However, other national groups, chiefly French, Portuguese, and other Catholic merchants had separate agreements with the Nayak which allowed them in turn to establish trading posts, factories, and warehouses. As the East India Company controlled the trade in the area, these non-British merchants established agreements with the Company for settling on Company land near “White Town” per agreements with the Nayak. Over time, Indians also arrived in ever greater numbers and soon, the Portuguese and other non-Protestant Christian Europeans were outnumbered. Following several outbreaks of violence by various Hindu and Muslim Indian communities against the Christian Europeans, White Town’s defenses and its territorial charter was expanded to incorporate most of the area which had grown up around its walls thereby incorporating most of its Catholic European settlements. In turn they resettled the non-European merchants and their families and workers, almost entirely Muslim or of various Hindu nationalities outside of the newly expanded “White Town”. This was also surrounded by a wall. To differentiate these non-European and non-Christian area from “White Town,” the new settlement was called “Black Town.” Collectively, the original Fort St. George settlement, “White Town” and “Black Town,” were called Madras.
During the course of the late 17th century, both plague and genocidal warfare reduced the population of the colony dramatically. Each time, the survivors fell back upon the safety of the Fort St George. As a result, owing to the frequency of outbursts of racial and national violence against the Europeans and especially the English, Fort St George with its impressive fortifications became the nucleus around which the city grew and rebuilt itself. Several times throughout the life of the colony, the Fort became the last refuge of Europeans and their allied Indian communities from various savage pogroms initiated by several Indian rulers and powers, which resulted in the almost complete destruction of the town. Each time the town (and later city) was rebuilt and repopulated with new English and European settlers. The Fort still stands today, and a part of it is used to house the Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly and the Office of the Chief Minister. Elihu Yale, after whom Yale University is named, was British governor of Madras for five years. Part of the fortune that he amassed in Madras as part of the colonial administration became the financial foundation for Yale University.
The city has changed its boundaries as well as the geographic limits of its quarters several times, principally as a result of destructions of the town by surrounding Hindu and Muslim powers. For instance, Golkonda forces under General Mir Jumla conquered Madras in 1646, massacred or sold into slavery much of the Christian European inhabitants and their allied Indian communities, and brought Madras and its immediate surroundings under his control. Nonetheless, the Fort and its surrounding walls remained under British control who slowly rebuilt their colony with additional colonists despite another mass murder of Europeans in Black Town by anti-colonialists agitated by Golkonda and plague in the 1670s. In 1674, the expanded colony had nearly 50,000 mostly British and European colonists and was granted its own corporate charter, thereby officially establishing the modern day city. Eventually, after additional provocations from Golkonda, the British pushed back until they defeated him.
After the fall of Golkonda in 1687, the region came under the rule of the Mughal Emperors of Delhi who in turn granted new Charters and territorial borders for the area. Subsequently, charters were issued by the Mughal Emperor granting the rights of English East India company in Madras and formerly ending the official capacity of local rulers to attack the British. In the later part of the 17th century, Madras steadily progressed during the period of the East India Company and under many Governors. Although most of the original Portuguese, Dutch, and British population had been killed during the genocides of the Golkonda period, under the Mughul protection, large numbers of British and Anglo-American settlers arrived to replenish these losses. As a result, during the Governorship of Elihu Yale (1687–92), the large number of British and European settlers led to the most important political event which was the formation of the institution of a Mayor and Corporation for the city of Madras. Under this Charter, the British and Protestant inhabitants were granted the rights of self-government and independence from company law. In 1693, a parwana (warrant) was received from the local Nawab granting the towns Tondiarpet, Purasawalkam and Egmore to the company which continued to rule from Fort St. George. The present parts of Chennai like Poonamalee (ancient Tamil name – Poo Iruntha alli), Triplicane (ancient Tamil name – Thiru alli keni) are mentioned in Tamil bhakti literature of the 6th – 9th centuries. Thomas Pitt became the Governor of Madras in 1698 and governed for eleven years. This period witnessed remarkable development of trade and an increase in wealth resulting in the building of many fine houses, mansions, housing developments, an expanded port and city complete with new city walls, and various churches and schools for the British colonists and missionary schools for the local Indian population.
The idea to celebrate the birth of the city every year was crystallized when journalists Shashi Nair and Vincent D’Souza met S. Muthiah at his residence for coffee. It was based on the success of another event called Mylapore Festival which D’Souza had been organizing every year in January. It was decided by the trio to start celebrating Madras Day from 2004. According to them, “the primary motive of celebrating the new Madras Day was to focus on the city, its past and its present.” The idea initially started off with about five events in 2004 but grew gradually. The second in 2005 had events throughout the week. In 2008, there were 60 events. In 2007, a commemorative postal cover was released by Chief Postmaster-General of Tamil Nadu Circle at a function at Fort St George as a part of the Madras Day celebrations, thereby inaugurating a tradition that continued through later celebrations. The 2010 celebrations lasted over a week, and some extended into the following week as well. Since then they have continued to grow.
Outside of south Asia, Indian restaurants frequently feature Madras curry, and supermarkets sell Madras curry powders and pastes. To a degree this is a misnomer, and the designation is for foreigners only. Madras curries are quite varied in their ingredients and spices. Still, modern Indian cooks do resort to such mixes when they are in a hurry. Chennai is locally better known for its street food.
You’d do well to buy a plane ticket than to try to make it at home, although I have been moderately successful when I have been able to get the right ingredients. When I lived near Slough (then in Buckinghamshire) in the 1960s, there was a substantial south Asian immigrant population there with a large food market catering to their cooking needs. I was a constant visitor.
Dosa, crepes made with a fermented urad dhal (black lentils) and rice batter, are common street food which you can make at home with reasonable success (and a lot of experience). This site does a better job than I can to explain the process with detailed descriptions and pictures.