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Making history with Chennai/Madras/None of the above

August is the month Chennai which was Madras which was Chennai which was something else was born, which is still doubted by some researchers.

This is the beauty of history. It’s verily the subject which authoritatively records dates, places, people and events thereof that need not be true at all.

Since facts and truths have never been associated with this column, this week we will turn our focus on this quaint city, and its many histories.

Chennai or Madras? This is a question that will forever haunt all those who are sensitive to history, by which we mean people who have a lot of time to waste.

The place that encompasses the city as we know it now was once owned by a gent named Damarla ‘Chennappa’ Nayakudu.

This conclusively proves two things: 1) The Telugu domination of this place is far older than many of us believe. 2) The Telugus had funny names even then.

Anyway, one look at the name Damarla Chennappa Nayakudu will lead to the most obvious historical question: Why has Balakrishna or Chiranjeevi not used this name for any of their movies till now?

One school of thought has it that Chennai owes its name to this Damarla Chennappa Nayakudu while there are sections that believe that Chennai stems from the local Chenna Kesava Perumal Temple.

In the future, there is a good scope for a historic treatise trying to prove that this Chennappa chap and the Chenna Kesava Perumal temple got their names from the fact they were from Chennai.

As experts keep telling us, history is a dynamic thing.

As far as Madras goes, the name is said to originate from Madrasapattinam, which historians are still debating whether it was a fishing hamlet (near Fort St George) or a latter day crappy Tamil movie. There is clear anecdotal evidence for the latter in the form of many irate film-viewers including yours truly.

The changing of Madras to Chennai has resulted in many historical confusions, chief of them being the one faced by our Hindi-speaking brethren who maybe now feeling:  First they told us it’s wrong to classify Kannadigas-Telugus-Malayalis as Madrasis. Now they tell us that even Madrasis are not actually Madrasis.  ‘These Madrasis are crazy, yaar,’ they must doubtless be saying.

The founding father of Chennai/Madras is said to be the Englishman Francis Day, and Chennaiites fondly perpetuate his historical legacy by calling every other male: ‘Day’ (local spelling ‘dei’).

Apart from the English, Chennai has had Portuguese, French and Dutch attacks and invasions (in myriad forms) in the 16th and 17th centuries. And Chennai was the only Indian city that the Germans shelled during World War I.  But for some historical reason, the bulk of local politicians don’t remember any of these relatively recent invasions, but seem to have an unerring memory of a seeming attack by the Aryans, that may or may not have happened several eons ago.  No doubt Tamil Nadu is known as a State that is steeped in history.

The Brits may have left the shores of this enigmatic city, but their unmistakable contributions are still evident in the many historic buildings that carry the stamp of that Indo-Saracenic style of architecture —- an effective but opulent style that is truly conceivable only when you loot the public.

Another of the lasting influences of the Britishers can be seen in the two main railway stations — Egmore and Central —- whose architecture dates back to the 1850s, with the queue for the all-important Tatkal tickets dating even older than that.

Marina Beach. For long, it used to be believed that it was the longest beach in the world. But people who have a habit of cross-checking facts said that there are other beaches that are bigger in length than the Marina.

It’s then the State governments here got down to work on how to bring back the lost glory to the Marina.  And they came up with a simple but mighty effective solution:  Locating the samadhis of former Chief Minister Annadurai and M G Ramachandran on the sands of Marina. Now the greatness is back to the beach. Today, Marina is officially the world’s longest beach that has two cemeteries on it.

Triplicane Clock Tower, another British construct, another proof that the authorities whoever they are, can be trusted to come up with some structure that will one day be detrimental to smooth traffic flow.

One look at the tower today, you will realise how much the authorities value its historicity:  The clock seems still stuck on the time that the Englishmen left this shore.

Yes, walking through the lanes of Chennai is like walking through the pages of history  —- highly suffocating, that is.


  • Anonymous

    You forgot to mention another relic from the British Raj… The deposed chief minister who is the ideal choice to be named a historical monument (can we call him a heritage balding)! 

  • MN

    Oooh.. Singara chennai ai ipdi kalaasiteengale.. Idhai mattum madurai karaikudi pakkam ketaanga na sandhosha paduvaanga.. lol..

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