Chennai was born as a metropolitan city soon after the British negotiated a strip of land from the King of Vijayanagar to build the fortified city, Fort St. George, in 1640. Here temples and buildings built by the erstwhile royalty stand side-by-side with the gothic churches and Indo-Sarcenic architectural landmarks. Popularly known as “the Gateway to South India”, Chennai is the ever growing capital of Tamil Nadu, not to mention the largest city in the state. Shopping malls, IT companies, fine dine restaurants, educational institutes and big business houses make up its cosmopolitan façade that stands in striking contrast to a resolute and religious interior.
An important coastal town, Chennai has been recognized as an important administrative, military, and economic center since the 1st century CE. The city has been rules by many South Indian dynasties, including the Pallava, Chera, Chola, Pandya, and Vijaynagar dynasties. The Pallava kings established a mighty port at Pallavan, now a part of greater Chennai.
The first European settlers in Chennai were the Portuguese who established a port called São Tomé, named after St Thomas. One of the twelve apostles of Jesus, it is believed that St Thomas reached Chennai in the early years of the 1st century and preached to the indigenous fishing folk between 52 and 70 CE. Church records and local legend also says St Thomas was martyred here. Next to come here were the Dutch, who established their port near Pulicat.
The English were very late in recognizing the importance of Chennai, but when they did, they went all out for complete control. On 22 August 1639, Francis Day of the English East India Company bought a patch of land on the Coromandel Coast from the Vijayanagara King, Peda Venkata Raya in Chandragiri. The English were granted permission to built a factory, warehouse, and set-up their trading business. In 1640, they built Fort St George, which was to be the nucleus of their colonial designs in South India. The Company factories at Machilipatnam and Armagon (established in the early 1600s) were also brought under the control of Fort St George.
In 1746, the French led by General La Bourdonnais, the Governor of Mauritius attacked and captured Fort St George and the town of Madras, followed by widespread plundering of the city. In 1749, the British signed the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle and fortified the port and the town. They were increasing their defenses against Haider Ali, the Sultan of Mysore. By late 1700s, the British controlled most of the modern Indian states of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, and Andhra Pradesh. The entire region was declared a province and named the Madras Presidency. The city then developed as a major industrial and military base.
In the following years, Madras grew as an urban center with better links to the central regions as well as Bombay and Calcutta, the other two British Presidencies. However, there were some tragic years as well, specially the Great Famine of 1876–78 and the Indian famine of 1896–97, when more than a million lives were lost to starvation.
During the First World War, Chennai was the only Indian city to be attached by the Axis powers. On 22 September 1914, an oil depot was shelled by a German light cruiser, the SMS Emden.
Chennai had always been an important center for the Independence movement. In fact, the Vellore Mutiny of 1806 pre-dated the First War of Independence of 1857 by half a century! In 1887, the third session of the Indian National Congress was held in Madras and attended by 362 delegates. The Home Rule movement, founded by Annie Beasant was also started from Madras.
After India’s independence in 1947, Madras was declared the capital of Madras sate, later named Tamil Nadu in 1969.
The city is well-connected by regular state-run bus services. Regular suburban trains connect different parts of Chennai and are a preferred mode of transport of the locals. Cycle-rickshaws, auto-rickshaws and taxis are also easily available and can be either hired from designated auto-rickshaw/taxi stands or even be hailed while they run on the road. Tour and travel operators in the city also provide cab services with rates on an hourly, half-day and full-day basis. First-time visitors may find driving in Chennai a tad difficult as most city roads have one-way traffic.
Tourist Traps in the City
While hiring an auto-rickshaw, negotiate the fare with the driver beforehand to avoid any unpleasantness. The auto-rickshaws here are usually un-metered and even if they agree to switch on their meters, the drivers attempt to take a detour! In an effort to make traveling around Chennai more comfortable, the Tamil Nadu Tourism Board has come up with the facility of tourist-friendly auto-rickshaws, for which auto-rickshaw drivers need to register themselves and their vehicles with the Board. Metered taxis usually found in other metros are almost non-existent here; instead there are a number of call-taxis and cabs operated by local tour and travel operators who function at fixed rates.
Before entering a temple or any religious site, you are expected to leave your footwear outside, and dress appropriately. Locals relish food using fingers, so at most eateries you stop by you will have to ask for a spoon or fork.
Chennai is a place to shop for colorful silks, fresh flowers, spices, handicrafts and gold jewelry among others.
The city has its share of local markets filled with traditional knickknacks, from elegant silk saris and traditional dresses to musty book shops home to an impressive collection of volumes by Tamil Nadu’s legendary poets and novelists. Over the years, like any other metropolitan on the rise, Chennai too has sprouted sophisticated air-conditioned malls, where you can shop for world brands.
Spencer Plaza and CitiCenter malls are more popular. Khader Nawaz Khan Road in Nungambakkam is a great place to pick up chic designer stuff. T.Nagar is a Mecca for silk lovers; here you can find beautiful patterns and designs in traditional silk sarees and dress materials. At Auroville Boutique you can shop for one-off handicrafts from Pondicherry. Kalpa Druma is also popular for its range of handicrafts and antiques. Central Cottage Industries Emporium in Anna Salai is also a good place to buy traditional stuff at a reasonable price. If you wish to shop for gold jewelry, head to a gold souk where you can find ethnic to contemporary gold jewelry by a bevy of jewelers under the same roof.