History is a fascinating subject as long as you take the basic precaution of not reading it from history books.
My grouse against history books stems from a valid point: Most of them are written by historians. Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing personal against them. It is just that if I want to read a history book I would rather have Rohinton Mistry written it than, er, S Muthiah.
I have brought up history here because August is pretty epochal for Madras. It is in August 1639, that the city is taken to have been born. Before Madras was born, the whole place, of course, existed as Madras (rimshot).
Seriously, Madras (Chennai) had been around for several centuries before. The sage-poet Thiruvalluvar is said to have lived in the area that we know as Mylapore way back in 1st century CE, a period about which we can say nothing certain except the fact that many interior parts of the area had no Metrowater connection then just as it is today.
Thiruvanmiyur is another place whose name figures in some very old texts. To be sure, Thirumylai (Mylapore) and Thiruvanmiyur would not have been part of the same city as it is now today, but would probably have existed as separate and distant villages, with the travel time between the two, in that pre-vehicle era, possibly being over an hour, slightly lesser than the time it takes now in this age of turbo-charged motors.
Anyway, much of the period that folks like Thiruvalluvar lived in is classified to come under ancient history. Ancient history, in general, covers the period about which you can practically say anything without needing to be accurate or factual or even meaningful.
For instance, you can say Kambar wrote the Ramayanam epic on his ipad and no one will call you a complete dolt. People will only take that as one more reason to buy the ipad.
Modern history, on the other hand, is about eras much nearer and that much more verifiable. I mean you cannot possibly spin an absolute yarn about some happening in 1600 and hope to get away because you still have people like Advani widely believed to be born in 1598, around.
Anyway, coming back to the year 1639, historians deem modern-day Madras to have born then. Why? Well, 1639, by all accounts, was pretty modern even for those times.
No, the real reason is it was then that Francis Day, an employee of the East India Company, acquired a piece of land from the local rulers, to build that one structure that symbolized the power of enterprise and also stood for stately elegance. The building, of course, was the Phoenix Mall.
Oops, what we meant was Fort St George, that true Victorian edifice, a sentinel of history carrying to this day a forbidding aura, mainly because entry to it continues to be restricted by the security personnel.
Francis Day chose to sign the official documents to acquire the land from the local rulers on the morning of August 22, 1639 as the wily Englishman was very much aware that by afternoon the Registrar’s office became pretty crowded and it was impossible for such a big deal to go through.
Once the land was acquired, the Brits, in a typical no-nonsense fashion, got down to work, which was to get the locals to do the actual work of building the fort while they went about ensuring that the history books recorded the whole thing as having been constructed solely by the Englishmen.
Thanks to the industriousness of the Britishers, the fort was fully ready by as early as 1644 and from then on till they left the shores, it was the supreme seat of English power in these parts, except for a brief period between 1746 and 1749 when the French managed to capture it taking advantage of the security chink that the all-important CCTV cameras were far from being invented.
Over time, Fort St George housed, among others, a church that gave the locals a major opportunity to practis their secularism, so that by the time the country became independent it (secularism) could come handy as a State policy.
The Britishers, with their keen sense for history and heritage, also made good space for a museum, which to this day has on display some rare artifacts that date back to their rule while the artifacts dating even further back and of real value have, of course, gone back to London.
Anyway, after Fort St George came up, the area around it began to grow in no time. It came to be called George Town based on the eponymous fact what was developing was a town.
This is broadly the history surrounding the birth of modern-day Madras.
The rest, as they say, is pure geography.