On July 17th 1996, M. Karunanidhi, the then Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu announced in the state assembly that the state capital of Madras would from then on be known as Chennai.
The name Madras was originally given to an area comprising of the present state of Tamil Nadu and neighbouring areas of North Kerala, Lakshadweep Islands, Coastal Andhra Pradesh, Odisha (then Orissa) and a few districts of Karnataka. This area was officially known as Presidency of Fort St. George and was an administrative subdivision of British India. It was, however, popularly known as the Madras Presidency.
The name Madras is said to have originated from Madraspattinam, a fishing village north of Fort St. George, though it is uncertain if the name “Madraspattinam” was in use before British times. Other sources believe that Madras was originally called Mundir-raj, usually referred to as Mundiraj. Another argument is that when the Portuguese arrived in the area in the 16th century, they named the place Madre de Deus (which meant Mother of God). It is also possible that the name Madras came from the Madeiros Portuguese family who lived in the area. Others believe that Madras was either named after a fisherman called Madrasan. Some even believe that the name has been derived from the Sanskrit word Madhu-ras which means honey.
The State Reorganisation Act was passed in 1956, which organised Indian states and territories along linguistic lines. A movement for the creation of new states based on linguistics began shortly after Indian Independence. In 1948, the movement to create a Telegu speaking state out of the northern portion of Madras state gained momentum. By 1953, 16 Telegu speaking districts of north Madras state became the new state of Andhra Pradesh. Similarly, Madras state was divided linguistically, the Malayalam speaking Malabar region was made part of the new state of Kerala and a new Union Territory comprising of Laccadive, Minicoy, and Amindvi islands was created. Madras State was officially renamed Tamil Nadu in 1969.
Over the years, it became a matter of linguistic pride to reclaim the names of cities in the vernacular rather than hang on to the names previous colonial administrators left cities with. These were looked at as an unwanted legacy of colonial rule.
The new name Chennai was derived from the name Chennaipattanam, a town near Fort St. George which the British built in 1639. There are two theories about the name Chennaipattanam. According to the first, the name Chennaipattanam was taken from the name of the Telegu king Damarla Chennappa Nayakudu Nayaka, from whose father they acquired the town in 1639. The second theory is that Chennai is named after the Chenna Kesava Perumal Temple, since the word Chennai means face in Tamil, the temple is considered to be the face of the city.
Following the name change of Madras to Chennai, other Indian cities followed suit and Bombay soon became Mumbai, Calcutta became Kolkata and Bangalore became Bengaluru.
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