Dr. G.J. Sudhakar and Mrs. Sudarsana Choudhury

On 30th September 1996, the capital of Tamilnadu and one of the major cities of India, Madras was christened as Chennai. This sudden change of name of Madras, which has been in existing for the past three hundred and fifty-seven years certainly draws our attentions. The purpose of this paper is to find out the origin of the term Chennai.



As early as 1st March 1640, the first stone of Fort St. George was laid on the site given by the Naik of Poonamallee, Damarla Venkatapathi to the English. The new town that grew up in and around the Fort was called Chennapatnam by the Indians. What could be gathered from the available records of the period 1639-45 was that a subtle difference was maintained between the village of Madraspatam which lay to the north of the Fort and the new town which was quickly coming up in and around the Fort called Chennapatnam. The space intervening these two places was rapidly developed, so the two distinct utilities virtually became a single town. Thus, the need for a single designation was felt. The English preferred to call it Madraspatam because they were familiar with this name from the beginning and it was also mentioned in the original grant. But the Indians preferred to call it Chennapatnam. In course of time, the actual location of Madraspatam and Chennapatnam came to be confused and even reversed.

In the Mackenzie Manuscript, there was a paper on the acquisition of territories at Madraspatam by the English between 1639 and 1763. Here, it was said that Madraspatam was the original site of the Fort and the Chennapatnam lay to the north of the Fort comprising the villages of Muthialpettah and Pogadalpettah. The name Chennapatnam also occurs in the confirmation of privileges by Nawab Nekham Khan in 1672. He distinguishes Madraspatam from the Fort and the town of Chennapatnam. But the earliest reference to Chennapatnam in the official records could be found only in 1652. However, it was found earlier in a private grant of 1646 relating to an endowment of Chenna Kesava Perumal Temple at Madras.

According to Anandaranga Vijaya Champu, a famous Sanskrit work written in 1752 by Srinivasa, the name Chennapatnam was a contraction of ‘Chennakesavapatam’. In other words, the name was derived from the Chenna Kesava Perumal Temple. But this cannot be accepted. In the grant of April 1648 by Bed Thimmanna, it was said that he built the Chenna Kesava Perumal Temple. Again B. Ramaswami Nayudu in the ‘Memoir on the Revenue System of Madras’ in 1820 said that his ancestor Berry Thimmapa built Chenna Kesava Perumal Temple and Chenna Malleswara Temple in the early years of the British settlement. If these two sources are accepted, then the settlement of Chennapatnam and Chenna Kesava Perumal Temple came up almost simultaneously. It is unlikely for a settlement to adopt the name of a new temple. The temple should have gained strong foothold and popularity before the settlement around comes to be known by the name of the temple. Again, on the same matter, B. Ramaswami states that the name Chennapatnam was derived from Chennappa Naidu, the father of Damarla Venkatapathi, the Naik of Poonamallee.


One of the most common theories regarding the name Chennapatnam is that Damarla Venkatpathi and his brother Ayappa, who were instrumental in granting the new settlement to the British, requested them to name the new settlement after their father Chennappa Naidu. But, in the original grant, there is no reference to this. This story is not referred to in any official English records. Neither Day nor Cogan makes this statement. It occurs only in later documents. The earliest of these writings was ‘Relation of several passages since the founding of the town of Madraspatam’ written by Chambers, who was the Agent between 1658 and 1662.

In the Telugu poem ‘Ushaparinayam’ by Ankabhupala, it was said that the people of Pralayakaveri, the Dutch of Pulicat, were incessantly fighting with the people of Mylapore, the Portuguese of Santhome. So, Ayyappa founded the town of Chennapatnam in order to separate them. This suggests the prior existence of Chennapatnam, since the town could have been set up only when Avyappa held power that is prior to 1643.

From all the information available, it can be assumed that the name Chennapatnam or Chennai was derived from Chennappa Naidu. The natives perhaps preferred to call it Chennapatnam out of respect to him. But the English preferred to call it Madras. So it cannot be said that the British named it Chennapatnam, accepting the request of Damarla Venkatapathi. In the original grant, there was no mention of any request by the Nayak to name the new settlement after his father. There was also no reference to the name Chennapatnam. It was only referred to as Madraspatam. However, it is a fact that the town that grew up around the Fort came to be known as Chennapatnam among the local people. And so far as the different theories regarding the name Chennai is concerned, the derivation from the name Chennappa Naidu seems much more acceptable.


  1. Srinivasachari C.S., History of Madras.
  2. Love, Henry Davison, Vestiges of Old Madras, (Vol.I), published for the Government of India, London, 1913.
  3. Muthiah S., Madras Discovered Affiliated East-West Private Limited, 1980.
  4. Ramaswami N.S., Fort St. George, Tamilnadu State Department of Archaeology, 1980.
  5. Ramaswami N.S., The Founding of Madras, Orient Longmans, 1977.


This article has been taken from the Journal of Indian History and Culture, September 1997, published by
C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar Institute of Indological Research, Chennai.

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