This is an article that I wrote for Frontline during Madras Week this year. It was titled Growing in Fits and Starts

Current Chennai Map
Current Chennai Map

Chennai that was Madras now extends from Minjur to Sholinganallur, an urban agglomeration of 1,177 sq km. Of this, the area under the city’s corporation is 426 sq km, which it has divided into 200 wards or divisions, grouped under three zones. The civic body controlled around 176 sq km as late as 2011 when the biggest leap was made – the addition of 42 small local bodies including nine municipalities, eight town panchayats and 25 village panchayats into city limits. This increase is the last in a series of sporadic jumps that our city has made, in its growth over 375 years.

Though Chennai traces its origins from Fort St George in 1639, several pockets of what comprises the city today have a far older heritage. The region as a whole is considered a classic ground of early Paleolithic culture of South India, Pallavaram in being particularly rich in finds. Traces of Iron Age culture have been found in Egmore and the Red Hills. From the Sangam period onwards we have continuous references to villages in the area – Mylapore/Tiruvallikeni, Tiruvottriyur, Mangadu, Poonamallee, Kunrattur, Madhavaram, Nungambakkam, Tambaram and others featuring regularly in inscriptions.

However, it cannot be denied that in August 1639, what was recognised as Madras or Chennapatnam (but lets not get into that controversy) was just Fort St George – originally 100 sq yards in area, with a factory or warehouse in the middle. By 1640, around 300 weavers families were settled just outside this ‘fort’, giving rise to Black Town, which is however not to be confused with the present day Town which was then a couple of hamlets further north. By 1674, there were 118 houses within Fort St George, and 75 outside of it, in old Black Town.

The British were not content with just their Fort and Town. There were continuous representations to the powers that be, and there were several of them then, for the granting on rent one village or the other in the neighbourhood. The ancient settlement of Tiruvallikeni was the first, being leased to the East India Company in 1672. During the tenure of Elihu Yale as Governor (1687-1692), Egmore, Purasawalkam and Tondiarpet were taken on annual lease from Zulfikar Khan, the representative of the Moghul Emperor, Aurangzeb.

The first reliable map of Madras was drawn between 1707 and 1710, on the orders of Governor Thomas Pitt, whose fortune made here would later ensure that two of his descendants became Prime Ministers of England. Pitt’s map shows several recognisable features – the fort had acquired a new Governor’s House, the core of which is today’s Legislative Assembly and Secretariat. The church of St Mary’s built in 1678 is visible. More importantly, it shows that old Black Town had spread to where the High Court now stands. The two hamlets further north are clearly marked Muthial Peta and Peddanaigue Pete. The Island is another feature. This was created by making a cut in the North River, a stream that is now part of the Buckingham Canal. Work on it began in 1696 and when completed, it encompassed the Company’s Garden and a second house for the Governor. Pitt it is said enjoyed the great outdoors and so acquired another house, this one in the distant village of Guindy, thereby marking the first steps towards the present day Raj Bhawan there.

While the map was being drawn. the English had added to their portfolio by renting Tiruvottriyur, Nungambakkam, Vyasarpadi, Kathivakkam and Sathangadu. All the rented villages were by 1720 made over to the English by way of a grant. An important development in 1717 was the settling of weavers in an exclusive area demarcated for them – Chinna Tari Petta or Chintadripet. Nestling in the arms of the Cooum, it was selected because of the presence of several trees, carefully tended by Dubash Sunkurama who is commemorated in a street name here after the land was forcibly taken away from him. The first planned colony of the city, Chintadripet is of a fishbone pattern – a straight spine that cuts across the peninsula with streets branching away from it. All the streets slope down to the river thereby ensuring natural drainage. Unlike Black Town and the other villages in the area, segregation based on caste was strictly forbidden in Chintadripet, a first step towards a cosmopolitan life. Two years after Chintadripet was founded, Governor Joseph Collet set up another weaver’s village near Tiruvottriyur. It was named Colletspettah after him and is today known as Kaladipettai. A grant in 1742 added Vepery, Periamet, Pudupakkam, Ennore and Sadayankuppam to the Company territories.

To be continued