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Down the ages, Chennai has served as an important administrative, military, and economic centre during first century. The apostle St. Thomas is believed to have preached there between the years 52 and 70 AD. When the Portuguese arrived in 1522, they built a port known as San Thomé or Sao Thomé. The region then passed into the hands of the Dutch, who established themselves near Pulicat just north of the city in 1612. On 22 August 1639, the British East India Company was granted land by the Nayak of Vandavasi as a base for a permanent settlement, believed to be called Madraspatnam . A year later, Fort St George was built, which subsequently became the nucleus around which the colonial city grew. In 1746, Fort St George and Madras were captured by the French under General La Bourdonnais, the Governor of Mauritius, who plundered the town and its outlying villages.

The British regained control of the town in 1749 through the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle and subsequently fortified the base to withstand further attacks from the French and Hyder Ali, the Sultan of Mysore. By the late 18th century the British had conquered most of the region around Tamil Nadu and the northern modern-day states of Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka to establish the Madras Presidency, whose capital was Madras . Under British rule the city grew into a major urban dwelling and naval base.

After the railways were introduced in the late 19th century, Chennai was connected to other major cities like Mumbai (formerly known as Bombay) and Kolkata (formerly known as Calcutta) allowing easy communication and trade with the neighborhood. Chennai was the only Indian city to be attacked by the Central Powers during the First World War. After independence in 1947, the city became the capital of Madras State, which was renamed as Tamil Nadu in 1968.

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