Ancient Chennai Walk Through Temples

Walk through ancient Chennai with Pradeep Chakravarthy. The author of “Thanjavur: A Cultural History”, Pradeep Chakravarthy has written multiple books which impart life lessons from Indian History and Philosophy. In this podcast, Pradeep Chakravarthy gives a walkthrough of ancient Chennai. Temples, legends and lores about Chennai are unforgettable and simply surreal!

Etymology of Chennai

Chennai was the land of traders. It attracted Telugu speaking cotton traders to the ancient Pallava Port. This land was known as Chennapatna, which meant “Beautiful” in Telugu. Although there are many theories, there is no concrete evidence of the origin of the name “Madras”.

It is said that the Nawab of Arkaut was in need of a monetary sum to support the expenditure of his kingdom. In order to raise funds, he started selling pieces of land to the British. Soon the British collected all the villages and rose the Port city of Madras or Chennai.

Ancient History of Chennai

The earliest signs of habitation was found in the Pallavaram region of Chennai. Robert Bruce Foote, found Paleolithic stone tools in this region in the early 20th century. These tools date back to 4000 or more years and gives an interesting insight to the continuous inhabitation of Chennai.

Another site of archeology is the ancient river of Tamraparni. Mentioned in the Puranas, Mahabharat and Ramayan, South India’s oldest Bronze image of a goddess was found in this river. 

The Medieval Ages

In the days of the Pallava and Chola rule, a temple was the centre of activity. The presiding deity was worshipped as the King and the Temple was a palace. This instilled a sense of community amongst the people of a village. For example, The Kodambakkam Shiva Temple was the district headquarters during the Chola Period.

The oldest existing temple of Chennai is the Velachery Saptamatrika temple, dating back to 5th century CE.

Sadly, other than temples, there aren’t any existing monuments built by the Pallavas, Cholas or Pandyas. Kings in those days preferred to stay in temporary wooden palaces. Only written records, such as on the walls of the Mylapore temple that go back a 1000 years exist. One of the them mentions trade guilds taking place in Chennai during the Chola period. 

The Colonial Period

Chennai has seen all three colonisers – Portuguese, French and British.

Portuguese were the first to establish a Port near Chennai in the late 15th century. Later there was a struggle between the French and British to annex this port city. After losing the Anglo-French war from 1744-1763, the French were forced to handover Chennai to the British.

When the British first colonised India, they needed a port on the Eastern Coast to control textile trade with the rest of the world. They were primarily trading cotton and indigo. Chennai was a very attractive region to carry out this trade.

The Raja of Chandragiri of Vijayanagara Dynasty, gave them a small stretch of land of about 300 square kilometre to start their trade. The British built their fort on this land and started the trade. This is now the region of the popular Marina Beach. 

Tamil Literature and Music

In literature and music, one can find description of various villages that formed Chennai. The Mylapore Kapaleeshwar Swami Temple is about a 1000 years old. Appar Swami of this temple, sang verses dedicated to Pumbabai, her love for Samathar and her subsequent death. The verse then invites her to rise from the dead, to go beyond mortal love and embrace the love for Shiva and spread the ideals of Shaivism to near and far off places. 

Kapaleeshwarar Temple at Chennai
Kapaleeshwarar Temple Chennai

particular verse is very interesting as it has a description of Mylapore region’s rich vegetation, the festivals celebrated and the food prepared for the occasion. Even today, those festivals are celebrated with the same, if not more grandeur. Interestingly, Pumbabai was the ancient name of the Parvathi murti consecrated in the temple. 

Travel Literature

Another literary source of Chennai’s history is Venkatadhri Kavi’s “Viswagunadarsa”. Written in the 17th century, this work is on the Champu metre. This metre is an Indian literary style which combines prose and poetry. Texts written using Champu metre are found in Sanskrit, Kannada, Telugu, Tamil and other Indian languages. 

The literary work describes Chennai and other Indian cities through the eyes of the two gandharvas (celestial beings), Krisanu and Viswavasu. The two gandharvas, one an optimist and the other a pessimist travel from the South to the North of Bharat Varsha and discuss the impact of the British on India. They discuss politics, culture, history, infrastructural growth and possible future. Krisanu, the optimist always ends the description of the city on a positive, hopeful note. Through this work, one gets to know the impact the British had already made by the 17th century in Chennai. 

Chennai is an ancient city that thrives even today. Every corner, a trace to the past connects the ancient world to the present. There is still lots to discover and explore about this history. Listen to the podcast by Pradeep Chakravarthy for a detailed walkthrough ancient Chennai.