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MADRAS Madras was founded in 1639 by the British East India Company as their mercantile gateway to South India. The modern city grew from Fort St. George, named after the legendary "soldier of Christ" who was regarded as the special patron of British soldiers. Francis Day and Andrew Cogan, the East India Company factors, purchased approximately 2 square miles (5 square kilometers) of the sandy fishing village of Mandaraz (Chennaipattinam) from the local governor of the South Indian Vijayanagar kingdom. In time it was to grow into a metropolis of roughly 66 square miles (170 square kilometers) with a population of over 7 million, the fourth-largest city of modern India.

Before coming under British control, Madras, or Chennnaipaatinan—from which the city acquired its present Tamil name, Chennai—had been a popular trading port in the spice and cotton trade, frequented by Portuguese and Dutch merchants in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Madras's primacy in maritime trade made it a contentious city among the European colonial powers. The French East India Company (Compagnie des Indes Orientales), founded in 1664, set up its headquarters a decade later at Pondicherry, about 85 miles (137 kilometers) south of Madras on the Coromandal coast. Thus ensued the Anglo-French rivalry for the control of the Carnatic kingdom, with its capital at Arcot on the Palar River, 65 miles (105 kilometers) southwest of Madras. Arcot played an important part in the Carnatic Wars that ensued between the French and British trading companies during the eighteenth century. Robert Clive, who later became governor of Bengal, captured Arcot from the French in 1751 with only a small force of about 500 British and Indian soldiers. This compelled the French to give up their siege of the British-held town of Trichinopoly (now Tiruchirappalli). The French and their Indian allies, numbering 10,000, then laid siege to Clive's forces in Arcot. Clive and his small army defeated the French. These and later victories broke French power in South India and gave the British a stronghold in that region. In 1780, Hyder Ali, the Muslim ruler of Mysore (modern Karnataka), conquered Arcot; however, in 1801, the British gained full control of the Carnatic region, including Arcot.

The British occupation notwithstanding, Madras retained its old traditions and rural ties: consequently, in spite of soaring population, the city has grown horizontally rather than vertically, retaining its rural character, its slow pace, and its traditional southern hospitality. The best British building effort is reflected in George Town. The strong and solid township contains many historical sites: Clive's Corner, Robert Clive's house; St. Mary's Church, inaugurated in 1680, the oldest Protestant church in the East; and the oldest British tombstones in India. Wellesley House was the residence of Governor-General Wellesley during his first active military duty. The legislative assembly and the secretariat of the Tamil Nadu government are built around what was Fort House, the home of the governors of Madras. The Fort Museum is a fine repository of artifacts dating back to the early British period. On the site of Fort St. George's first Indian town, which once housed the first lighthouse, now stands the splendid Indo-Saracenic buildings of the High Court and the Law College. Near the college was an old British cemetery; all that is now left of it here are a couple of tombs, including one of David, son of Elihu Yale. Near the High Court building is the city's second lighthouse tower, and the highest point in the court building, which once housed the third lighthouse. George Town is a warren of straight and narrow intersecting streets that developed as Madras grew. Today, it is the crowded commercial hub of the city. In the northern part of the city are to be found more traditional eighteenth-century homes. Rajaji Salai (North Beach) Road separates George Town from the harbor and, along one side of it, starting with the earliest British commercial house, Parry's, are several of the major commercial institutions in Madras, dating back to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, including Bentinck's Building (the British Collectorate), once the home of the city's first Supreme Court.

Among more modern British constructions in Madras is the Ripon Building, home of the Madras Corporation, the oldest municipality in India. This splendid white domed building, built in 1913 in Indo-Saracenic architectural style, foreshadows the British vision of New Delhi, and is a part of a large municipal complex that also includes parks and gardens, Nehru Stadium, Victoria Public Hall, and Moore market, a fascinating shopper's paradise. Not far away are the College of Arts and Crafts and the imposing headquarters of the Southern Railway, built in stone. Once the exclusive meeting place for Englishmen and Europeans, the eighteenth-century Pantheon Complex has since developed into the Connemara Library, one of India's best examples of fusion between Rajput-Hindu Jaipur and Mughal architectures. The Government Museum is another impressive British building.

The economic liberalization of the 1990s that helped spawn commercial culture in India has produced in the city theme parks—such as Kishkinta, MGM Dizzy World (mimicking Disneyland), Vandalur Zoo, VGP Golden Beach Resort, Crocodile Bank, and Muttukadu Boat House—shopping malls, fast-food restaurants, and other architectural icons of modern consumerism. Madras has joined Bangalore and Mumbai in the race to become the premier Indian city in information technology, attracting young professionals from around the country. Like its presidency cousins, Mumbai and Kolkata, Madras's burgeoning population is pushing the city's infrastructure to its limits. The income disparity between the young professionals and the old residents has created myriad social problems. Much like the British attempt to build a modern city in their own image, this generation's attempts to transform the old culture have resulted in incompleteness. Madras, or Chennai, with its respect for tradition and its search for continuity with the past, could never become an Anglo-Indian city in the manner that Kolkata could subvert British rule, or Mumbai could become the financial center of post-colonial India. Modern Madras, correctly understood, shares with its contemporary condition an underlying connection with its cosmological Tamil past.

Ravi Kalia

See alsoBritish East India Company Raj ; Urbanism


Broeze, Frank, ed. Gateways of Asia: Port Cities of Asia in the Thirteenth–Twentieth Centuries. New York: Kegan Paul International, 1997.

Lawson, Sir Charles. Memories of Madras. London: S. Sonnenschein, 1905.

Ramaswami, N. S. The Founding of Madras. Madras: Orient Longman, 1977.

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Madras (Chennai) had in 2004 a population of about 4.5 million and was India's fourth-largest city. Its location as a port is not at all ideal: it has a long straight beach beaten by a strong surf and lacks a natural basin for anchoring ships. Before an artificial harbor was constructed in 1911, ships had to anchor at sea, and many small boats were needed for loading and unloading them. Expert boatsmen made a living with this arduous work for centuries. Madras owed its growth to the English East India Company, which established its first outpost here in 1639. The English name Madras was derived from Madraspatnam, which referred to a village with an Islamic religious school (madrasa). Once other important Indian towns reverted to their ancient names in the 1990s, Madras was renamed Chennai in 1996, which reflected its old Tamil name. It is supposed to have been derived from Chennappah, the name of the father of the local landlords who in 1639 had granted land to the British, who then built Fort St. George at this place. In 1522 the Portuguese had established St. Thomé in Mylapore, which is now a part of Chennai.

The coast of this region had attracted international trade since ancient times. Roman ships sailed to Poduke/Arikamedu, about 100 kilometers south of Chennai near present Pondicherry. (According to lore, the apostle St. Thomas was killed and buried at Mylapore, near Madras.) The European East India Companies were mainly interested in the colorful printed cotton textiles produced in this area. The Dutch East India Company made a good business out of selling these textiles in other Asian countries and, eventually, marketing them also in Europe. The British followed this example, but in the eighteenth century they substituted cloth printed in London for that printed in India and imported white cotton cloth, mostly from Bengal. This was a setback for textile exports from Madras.

In the eighteenth century Chennai had a population of about 150,000; by 1816 it had grown to about320,000. In 1842 the first steamer reached Chennai from London, and in 1856 the city was connected to the rapidly expanding British-Indian railway network. This stimulated its growth as a commercial hub. In 1871 it had about 400,000 inhabitants, and in 1891 this number had increased to 450,000. At this time the value of exports via the port of Chennai also increased: it amounted to 64 million rupees in 1871 and reached 116 million rupees in 1891. By 1911 it stood at 240 million rupees. Bombay (Mumbai) exported about twice as much and Calcutta (Kolkata) nearly four times as much as Chennai in that same year; this clearly reflects the hierarchy of these three ports in India's colonial economy. After 1914 the sequence war-depression-war greatly affected this economy. It was only after the achievement of India's independence in 1947 that industrial growth became of greater importance in Chennai, which had so far been mostly an administrative and commercial center. Industries supplying the Indian home market (textiles, manufacturing of trucks and busses, etc.) rose while the port declined. India had copied the institution of the port authority with its own specialized labor force from the British precedent. Originally this was a good idea, because the speedy loading and unloading of ships requires some skills, but in independent India this labor force often went on strike or worked slowly, thus stretching turnaround times in Indian ports out of proportion. The port authority did not mind this; on the contrary, it profited from charging high demurrage fees. This, of course, discouraged shipowners from visiting Indian ports—they would only do so if they had to unload cargo right there. Transit business (breaking bulk) was lost to Indian ports. This also affected Chennai, whose port dwindled to insignificance when compared to nearby Colombo.

Chennai is the capital of the Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Under British rule it had been the capital of the huge Madras presidency. In independent India the principle of linguistic provinces finally prevailed: those who speak Telugu attained their own state, Andhra Pradesh, and the remaining part, which was for some time called Madras state, then changed its name to Tamil Nadu. Although Chennai was central to the Madras presidency, it is quite an eccentric capital as far as Tamil Nadu is concerned since it is located only 40 kilometers south of the border of Andhra Pradesh, but 650 kilometers north of the southern tip of Tamil Nadu. Several cities with more than 1 million inhabitants can now be found in the more central regions of the state, and Chennai has grown more slowly, decreasing the pressure of "metropolization."

SEE ALSO Bangladesh; Bengal; Calcutta; Cotton; Cowries; East India Company, British; Empire, British; Empire, Mughal; Gujarat; Imperialism; India; Mumbai; Rice; Spices and the Spice Trade; Tea; Textiles; Wheat and Other Cereal Grains.


Neild, Susan. "Colonial Urbanism: The Development of Madras City in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries." Modern Asian Studies 13, no. 2 (1979): 217–246.

Rothermund, Dietmar. An Economic History of India. 2nd edition. London: Routledge, 1993.

Dietmar Rothermund

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MADRAS (today Chennai ), city in S. India. Formerly known as Fort St. George, Madras was the first territorial acquisition of the English East India Company in 1639. In the last decades of the 17th century its diamond trade attracted Anglo-Portuguese Jewish merchants, who were allowed by the Company to establish a merchant colony which continued until the end of the 18th century. In the Madras corporation, established in 1688, the "Hebrew merchants" were represented by Jewish aldermen. Among the Jewish merchants prominent in the early days were Bartholomew *Rodrigues, Domingo do Porto, Alvaro da *Fonseca, Jacques *Paiva, Francis Marques, Isaac do Porto, Joseph d'Almanza, and Isaac Sardo *Abendana. In the 18th century many Ashkenazi Jews from London participated in the profitable trade, including Marcus *Moses and his family, Ephraim Isaac, the *Franks, and later the Portuguese family De *Castro and Salomon *Franco. The Jewish merchants in Madras were integrated into the English society and were on good social terms with several of the governors.

The fluctuating nature of the merchant colony apparently prevented the organization of a Jewish community and the only communal institution seems to have been a cemetery. Some tombstones still remain, but they have been transferred to a new municipal site in Madras called the "People's Park," the entrance of which bears a tablet inscribed in Hebrew Beit ha-Ḥayyim. Only 20 Jews were living in Madras in 1968. Unlike those of *Cochin, *Bombay, and *Calcutta, the Jews in Madras did not create any literary works. It was only due to the Christian mission that some Hebrew books were published there in the 19th century. A noteworthy Jewish literary event there was the publication of the Travels from Jerusalem… of *David d'Beth Hillel in 1832. In the early 21st century the Jewish community of Chennai consisted mainly of expatriates.


Fischel, in: Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, 3 (1960), 78–107, 175–95 (incl. bibl.); Roth, Mag Bibl, 106; H.D. Love, Vestiges of Old Madras, 4 vols. (1913); A. Yaari, Ha-Defus ha-Ivri be-Arẓot ha-Mizraḥ, 2 (1940), 98–99.

[Walter Joseph Fischel]

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Madras was founded by Francis Day of the English East India Company in 1639. It stood north of the Portuguese settlement of São Tomé on a strip of the Coromandel coast famous for its textiles. A fortification (named after St George) was built and became the headquarters of company activities. However, in the 18th cent. the Coromandel cloth trade declined and Madras was overtaken by Calcutta in company esteem. Fort St George was seized by the French in 1746 although subsequently returned. The city became the capital of a presidency in the 19th cent. but suffered economic stagnation. Its population in 1901 was 400,000.

David Anthony Washbrook

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mad·ras / ˈmadrəs; məˈdras/ • n. a strong, fine-textured cotton fabric, typically patterned with colorful stripes or checks.

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Madras Former name of the city of Chennai, se India.

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