A walk at Fort St George for Madras Week 2023

Yet another Madras Day has come and gone. The celebrations have gotten bigger, though for a city of this size, the scope will always be far more than actual. But what is heartening is that over twenty years, Madras Day/Week/Month has come to stay. Does it really matter if it is July or August 22?

The Nayak’s Grant

One aspect of it alone remains unresolved – when did the British really come here? The basis for all such questions is the so-called firman which Damarla Venkatadri Nayak gave Francis Day in 1639. I use the term so-called because a Nayak never had the right to grant firmans, these being the prerogative of the Emperor, in this instance the Raya who was at Chandragiri. The grant, which is what it was, throws up more questions than answers. 

Earliest Copies of the Nayak’s Grant

Firstly, what we have on record are only copies of the original grant, and these date to 1690, 1695 and 1751. HD Love, the author of Vestiges of Old Madras (John Murray, London, 1913) says all three are endorsed by Andrew Cogan, the first Agent at Madras in 1639. That by itself is impossible as Cogan was dead by the 1660s. Which means we are at best dealing with a recreated document, the earliest version of which dates only to 1690. As we do not have the copy which the Nayak must have possessed and which was probably in Telugu, we cannot say for sure as to what the original land grant contained. 

July or August 22?

Secondly, the document, all three versions of it, mention the date as July 22, 1639. Even Francis Day’s covering letter is dated July 27th which is consistent with the date of the grant. It is Love who sows doubts as regards the date, for he says in a footnote that Day did not reach Madras from Armagaon until July 27th. If Day was here by July 27th why could the grant not be dated July 22nd? There was after all the Dubash Beri Thimmappa – he may have well been here beforehand and arranged the grant on July 22nd itself. Was the colonial in Love preventing him from giving possible credit to an Indian for negotiations?

A cursory reading of Indian history, especially regarding dealings with the Europeans will show that much of the ground work was done by Indian go-betweens from both sides, ending with a formal signing off by the men up top. This is true of the way Governments work even now. It is likely therefore, that the British may have obtained Madras in July itself.

Did the British really found Madras?

And can they be given credit for ‘creating’ Madras? No most emphatically. The grantclearly speaks of an existing town called Madraspatnam. And here again, we need to step cautiously. The word ‘town’ may well be an English interpretation of the word Patnam, which simply means a settlement, often associated with the sea. And so let us not run away with the idea that Madras was a bustling metropolis before the British came here. It was very likely a non-descript village. That however does not mean the British founded the city. 

Does a date really matter?

But does all this really matter? When we are given to celebrating Father’s Day, Mother’s Day, etc without a question, why not Madras Day? After all the city has given us much and the least we can do is to celebrate its achievements over the years. The event can also be an occasion to soul search and see how we can make this home of ours better. Madras Day/Week/Month simply helps us bring the city into focus, something we may forget otherwise in the pressures of daily living. 

This article appeared in The Hindu dated August 23, 2023 and can be read here – https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/chennai/july-or-august-22-and-does-it-matter/article67218716.ece

My book on Chennai can be ordered from here – https://sriramv.com/2021/12/27/how-to-buy-autographed-copies-of-chennai-a-biography-from-outstation/