Chennai got its name from chenni forest, says marine historian

Chennai: For a city which has more than 2,000 years of recorded history and more than 4,000 years of literary evidence, celebrating the 379th birthday is simply absurd, say historians and linguists.

On this day, when a major section of the population of the city goes on celebration mode for the foundation day of modern Chennai,  ‘News Today’ wants to throw light on the historical values of this city that is several millennia old.

“You know what, as many as 42 temples in the city, including Mangaadu temple, Vadapalani Aandavar temple, Parthasarathy temple are all more than 1,000 years old. There are a lot of Saivite and other Tamil religious sites in the city that were constructed in the eighth century or before,” says marine historian Orissa Balu. Having visited a lot of harbours across South East Asia, Balu said the trade history of Chennai is several thousand years old.

“There was a fishing and commercial port along the present Mylapore coast 2,000 years ago. Where there is a harbour, the influence of foreigners, too, would be high. That is why the area is still a mix of people from various descents. After the Aryan infusion, the Brahminical population saw a rise in the area,” claimed Balu.

He also quotes words like ‘bemaani’, ‘somaari’, ‘kasmaalam’, having origins from foreign and other Indian languages.

“All these words that are considered as current-day native Chennai words came to existence just because of the diverse ethnicity of the city,” he added.

However, Balu is not just stopping with the marine history of the city but also modern history.

“There is a claim that the word Chennapattinam was derived from the name of King Chennappa Nayakkar. But, the city got its name because of the Chenni / Chenna tree-filled forests along its coast. The Britishers bought around a 3-mile radius of this forest land and set up a harbour and later the Fort St George. And, this day is considered as the foundation day of the city,” Balu said, and added that the population of the city was at least three to five lakh even before the British bought the land.

On the literary side, Chennai is even older. “The city was a part of Aruvaanaadu, Thondainaadu and Kurumbanaadu during various periods of time. Predominantly Cholas were ruling the city and its present suburbs.

“When Pallavas, who initially worked as commanders and captains in Chola army and navy, were given the area, they made Kanchipuram their capital and started to rule it independently,” says Chirappalli Madhu, a linguist who works on the prehistoric literature of Tamil. Wherever Cholas ruled, they have had a Cholapuram.

“Apart from the banks of the Cauvery, if you see in Kanyakumari district, there is Cholapuram. Even on Chennai’s outskirts, we have a Cholavaram,” he pointed out.

In some early Sangam pieces of literature, Lord Muruga, depicted as the leader of war, is seen cruising on an elephant and not a peacock, he said.

“Many Murugan temples in the State have evidence of elephants used by fleets led by Murugan. And, one such temple is Vadapalani Aandavar temple. This is more than enough to say this area is as old as the pre-Sangam age,” he claimed.

As explained by Balu and Madhu, the present-day celebration does not do justice to the ancient city. Both historians say it is the 4,000-year tradition of Chennai that has to be celebrated – not a 3-century-old foundation day.


For his claim on Chennai’s name, marine historian Orissa Balu pointed to various other towns and villages in the region that are named after trees: “Be it Mangaadu, Panaiyur, Puliyanthoppu, and Nellikuppam, all got their name from the trees that were grown there.”