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History of Chennai

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History of Chennai

Chennai, formerly known as Madras, is the capital of the state of Tamil Nadu and is India's fourth largest city.[1] It is located on the Coromandel Coast of the Bay of Bengal. With an estimated population of 8.9 million (2014), the 400-year-old city is the 31st largest metropolitan area in the world.

The city of Madras in 1909

Chennai boasts of a long history from the English East India Company, through the British Raj to its evolution in the late 20th century as a services and manufacturing hub for India. Additionally, the pre-city area of Chennai has a long history within the records of South Indian Empires.


  • Ancient area in South India 1
    • Chola and Pallava eras 1.1
  • Historical establishment of the city 2
    • Under Vijayanagara Dynasty Nayaks 2.1
  • Early European settlers 3
  • Arrival of the English 4
    • Permission from Vijayanagara Rulers 4.1
  • Grant establishing lawful self-rule 5
  • Expansion of Fort St. George into Madras 6
  • 1750s to the end of the British Raj 7
  • Post-independence (1947) 8
  • Post-British Raj 9
  • Name 10
  • See also 11
  • Notes 12
  • Bibliography 13
  • External links 14

Ancient area in South India

Moovar (of the Nayanmars) while Thiruvallikeni in the Nalayira Divya Prabhandhams (of the Alwars)

Chola and Pallava eras

The Kapaleeshwarar temple in Mylapore was built by the Pallava kings in the 7th century

Subsequent to Ilam Tiraiyan, the region was ruled by the Chola Prince Ilam Killi. The Chola occupation of Tondaimandalam was put to an end by the Andhra Satavahana incursions from the north under their King Pulumayi II. They appointed chieftains to look after the Kanchipuram region. Bappaswami, who is considered as the rule to rule from Kanchipuram, was himself a chieftain (of the tract around) at Kanchipuram under the Satavahana empire in the beginning of the 3rd century. The Pallavas who had so far been merely viceroys, then became independent rulers of Kanchipuram and its surrounding areas.

The Pallavas held sway over this region from the beginning of the 3rd century to the closing years of the 9th century, except for the interval of some decades when the region was under the Kalabhras. The Pallavas were defeated by the Cholas under Aditya I by about 879 and the region was brought under the Chola rule. The Pandyas under Jatavarman Sundara Pandyan rose to power and the region was brought under the Pandya rule by putting an end to Chola supremacy in 1264.

Historical establishment of the city

Under Vijayanagara Dynasty Nayaks

The present day city of Chennai started as an English settlement known as

Early European settlers

Modern Chennai had its origins as a colonial city and its initial growth was closely tied to its importance as an artificial harbour and trading centre. When the Portuguese arrived in 1522, they built a port and named it São Tomé, after the Christian apostle St. Thomas, who is believed to have preached there between the years 52 and 70. The region then passed into the hands of the Dutch, who established themselves near Pulicat just north of the city in 1612. Both groups strived to grow their colonial populations and although their populations reached into 10,000 persons when the British arrived, they remained substantially outnumbered by the local Indian population.

Arrival of the English

A plan of the Fort St. George and surrounding settlements

By 1612, the Dutch established themselves in Pulicat to the north. In the 17th century when the English East India Company decided to build a factory on the east coast and in 1626 selected as its site Armagon (Dugarazpatnam), a village some 35 miles north of Pulicat. The calico cloth from the local area, which was in high demand, was of poor quality and not suitable for export to Europe. The English soon realized that as a port Armagon was unsuitable for trade purposes. Francis Day, one of the officers of the company, who was then a Member of the Masulipatam Council and the Chief of the Armagon Factory, made a voyage of exploration in 1637 down the coast as far as Pondicherry with a view to choosing a site for a new settlement.

Permission from Vijayanagara Rulers

At that time the Coromandel Coast was ruled by Peda Venkata Raya, from the Aravidu Dynasty of Vijayanagara Empire based out of Chandragiri-Vellore. Under the Kings, local chiefs or governors known as Nayaks ruled over each district.

Damarla Venkatadri Nayaka, local governor of the Vijayanagar Empire and Nayaka of Wandiwash (Vandavasi), ruled the coastal part of the region, from Pulicat to the Portuguese settlement of San Thome. He had his headquarters at Wandiwash, and his brother Ayyappa Nayakudu resided at Poonamallee, a few miles to the west of Madras, where he looked after the affairs of the coast. Beri Thimmappa, Francis Day's dubash (interpreter), was a close friend of Damarla Ayyappa Nayakudu. In the early 17th century Beri Thimmappa of the Puragiri Kshatriya (Perike) caste migrated to the locality from Palacole, near Machilipatnam in Andhra Pradesh.[2] Ayyappa Nayakudu persuaded his brother to lease the sandy strip to Francis Day and promised him trade benefits, army protection, and Persian horses in return. Francis Day wrote to his headquarters at Masulipatam for permission to inspect the proposed site at Madraspatnam and to examine the possibilities of trade there. Madraspatnam seemed favourable during the inspection, and the calicoes woven there were much cheaper than those at Armagon (Durgarazpatam).

Raja Mahal Palace at Chandragiri from where Francis Day acquired permission from the King of Vijaynagara, Peda Venkata Raya

On 22 August 1639, Francis Day secured the Grant by the Damarla Venkatadri Nayaka, Nayaka of Wandiwash, giving over to the East India Company a three-mile long strip of land, a fishing village called Madraspatnam, copies of which were endorsed by Andrew Cogan, the Chief of the Masulipatam Factory, and are even now preserved. The Grant was for a period of two years and empowered the Company to build a fort and castle on about five square kilometres of its strip of land.[3]

The English Factors at Masulipatam were satisfied with Francis Day's work. They requested Day and the Damarla Venkatadri Nayaka to wait until the sanction of the superior English Presidency of Bantam in Java could be obtained for their action. The main difficulty, among the English those days, was lack of money. In February 1640, Day and Cogan, accompanied by a few factors and writers, a garrison of about twenty-five European soldiers and a few other European artificers, besides a Hindu powder-maker named Naga Battan, proceeded to the land which had been granted and started a new English factory there. They reached Madraspatnam on 20 February 1640; and this date is important because it marks the first actual settlement of the English at the place.

Grant establishing lawful self-rule

The grant signed between Damarla Venkatadri and the English had to be authenticated or confirmed by the Raja of Chandragiri - Venkatapathy Rayulu. The Raja, Venkatapathy Rayulu, was succeeded by his nephew Sri Rangarayulu in 1642, and Sir Francis Day was succeeded by Thomas Ivy. The grant expired, and Ivy sent Factor Greenhill on a mission to Chandragiri to meet the new Raja and to get the grant renewed. A new grant was issued, copies of which are still available. It is dated October - November 1645. This new grant is important regarding the legal and civic development of the English settlement. Because the Raja operated an arbitrary and capricious legal code which fundamentally discriminated against private property, trade, and merchandising in general, and against non-Indians in particular, the new grant signed in 1645 expanded the rights of the English by empowering them to administer English Common Law amongst their colonists and Civil Law between the colonists and the other European, Muslim, and Hindu nationalities. Furthermore, it expanded the Company property by attaching an additional piece of land known as the Narimedu (or 'Jackal-ground') which lay to the west of the village of Madraspatnam. This new grant laid the foundation for the expansion of Madras into its present form. All three grants are said to have been engraved on gold plates which were later reported to have been plundered, disappearing during one of the genocides of the English colony. However, there are city records of their existence long afterwards, and it has been suggested that the present government may still hold them.

An old 18th-century painting of Fort St George.

Expansion of Fort St. George into Madras

Francis Day and his superior Andrew Cogan can be considered as the founders of Madras (now Chennai). They began construction of the Fort St George on 23 April 1640 and houses for their residence. Their small fortified settlement quickly attracted other East Indian traders and as the Dutch position collapsed under hostile Indian power they also slowly joined the settlement. By the 1646, the settlement had reached 19,000 persons and with the Portuguese and Dutch populations at their forts substantially more. To further consolidate their position, the Company combined the various settlements around an expanded Fort St. George, which including its citadel also included a larger outside area surrounded by an additional wall. This area became the Fort St. George settlement. As stipulated by the Treaty signed with the Nayak, the British and other Christian Europeans were not allowed to decorate the outside of their buildings in any other color but white. As a result, over time, the area came to be known as 'White Town'.

According to the treaty, only Europeans, principally Protestant British settlers were allowed to live in this area as outside of this confine, non-Indians were not allowed to own property. However, other national groups, chiefly FrenchPortuguese, and other Catholic merchants had separate agreements with the Nayak which allowed them in turn to establish trading posts, factories, and warehouses. As the East India Company controlled the trade in the area, these non-British merchants established agreements with the Company for settling on Company land near "White Town" per agreements with the Nayak. Over time, Indians also arrived in ever greater numbers and soon, the Portuguese and other non-Protestant Christian Europeans were outnumbered. Following several outbreaks of violence by various Hindu and Muslim Indian communities against the Christian Europeans, White Town's defenses and its territorial charter was expanded to incorporate most of the area which had grown up around its walls thereby incorporating most of its Catholic European settlements. In turn they resettled the non-European merchants and their families and workers, almost entirely Muslim or of various Hindu nationalities outside of the newly expanded "White Town". This was also surrounded by a wall. To differentiate these non-European and non-Christian area from "White Town", the new settlement was termed "Black Town. Collectively, the original Fort St. George settlement, "White Town", and "Black Town" were called Madras.

During the course of the late 17th century, both plague and genocidal warfare reduced the population of the colony dramatically. Each time, the survivors fell back upon the safety of the Legislative Assembly and the Office of the Chief Minister. Elihu Yale, after whom Yale University is named, was British governor of Madras for five years. Part of the fortune that he amassed in Madras as part of the colonial administration became the financial foundation for Yale University.

The city has changed its boundaries as well as the geographic limits of its quarters several times, principally as a result from destructions of the town by surrounding Hindu and Muslim powers. For instance, Golkonda forces under General Mir Jumla conquered Madras in 1646, massacred or sold into slavery much of the Christian European inhabitants and their allied Indian communities, and brought Madras and its immediate surroundings under his control. Nonetheless, the Fort and its surrounding walls remained under British control who slowly rebuilt their colony with additional colonists despite another mass murder of Europeans in Black Town by anti-colonialists agitated by Golkonda and plague in the 1670s. In 1674, the expanded colony had nearly 50,000 mostly British and European colonists and was granted its own corporate charter, thereby officially establishing the modern day city. Eventually, after additional provocations from Golkonda, the British pushed back until they defeated him.

After the fall of Golkonda in 1687, the region came under the rule of the Mughal Emperors of Delhi who in turn granted new Charters and territorial borders for the area. Subsequently, Thomas Pitt became the Governor of Madras in 1698 and governed for eleven years. This period witnessed remarkable development of trade and increase in wealth resulting in the building of many fine houses, mansions, housing developments, an expanded port and city complete with new city walls, and various churches and schools for the British colonists and missionary schools for the local Indian population.

Village Year
Madraspatnam 1639
Narimedu (area to the west of Madraspatnam) 1645
Triplicane 1672
Tiruvottiyur 1708
Kottivakkam 1708
Nungambakkam 1708
Egmore 1720
Purasawalkam 1720
Tondiarpet 1720
Chintadripet 1735
Vepery 1742
Mylapore 1749
Chennapatnam 1801

1750s to the end of the British Raj

Map of Madras city in 1921

In 1746, La Bourdonnais, who used to be the Governor of Mauritius. Because of its importance to the East India Company, the French plundered and destroyed the village of Chepauk and Blacktown, the locality across from the port where all the dockyard labourers used to live.[4]

The British regained control in 1749 through the strongest of which came from the French (1759, under Thomas Arthur, Comte de Lally), and later Hyder Ali, the Sultan of Mysore in 1767 during the First Anglo-Mysore War. Following the Treaty of Madras which brought that war to an end, the external threats to Madras significantly decreased. The 1783 version of Fort St George is what still stands today.

In the latter half of the 18th century, Madras became an important British naval base, and the administrative centre of the growing British dominions in southern India. The British fought with various European powers, notably the French at Vandavasi (Wandiwash) in 1760, where de Lally was defeated by Sir Eyre Coote, and the Danish at Tharangambadi (Tranquebar). Following the British victory in the Seven Years' War they eventually dominated, driving the French, the Dutch and the Danes away entirely, and reducing the French dominions in India to four tiny coastal enclaves. The British also fought four wars with the Kingdom of Mysore under Hyder Ali and later his son Tipu Sultan, which led to their eventual domination of India's south. Madras was the capital of the Madras Presidency, also called Madras Province.

By the end of 1783, the great 18th century wars which saw the British and French battle from Europe to North America and from the Mediterranean to India, resulted in the British being in complete control of the city's regional and most of South India area. Although the British had lost most of their well-populated, industrious, and wealthy North American colonies, after a decade's feud with the French, they were securely in control of Madras and most of the Indian trade. Consequently, they expanded the Chartered control of the company by encompassing the neighbouring villages of Triplicane, Egmore, Purasawalkam and Chetput to form the city of Chennapatnam, as it was called by locals then. This new area saw a proliferation of English merchant and planter families who, allied with their wealthy Indian counterparts, jointly controlled Chennapatnam under the supervision of White Town. Over time and administrative reforms, the area was finally fully incorporated into the new metropolitan charter of Madras.

The development of a harbour in Madras led the city to become an important centre for trade between India and Europe in the 18th century. In 1788, Thomas Parry arrived in Madras as a free merchant and he set up one of the oldest mercantile companies in the city and one of the oldest in the country (EID Parry). John Binny came to Madras in 1797 and he established the textile company Binny & Co in 1814. Spencer's started as a small business in 1864 and went on to become the biggest department stores in Asia at the time. The original building which housed Spencer & Co. was burnt down in a fire in 1983 and the present structure houses one of the largest shopping malls in India, Spencer Plaza. Other prominent companies in the city included Gordon Woodroffe, Best & Crompton, Higginbotham's, Hoe & Co and P. Orr & Sons.

Madras was the capital of the Madras Presidency and thus became home to important commercial organisations. Breaking with the tradition of the closed and almost wholly British controlled system of the English East India Company, The Chettiar merchants to found Indian Bank, with which he funded new Indian enterprises and broke into the previously closed ranks of the British financial system. The bank still has its corporate headquarters in the city.

During World War I, Madras (Chennai) was shelled by the German light cruiser SMS Emden, resulting in 5 civilian deaths and 26 wounded. The crew of a merchant ship also destroyed by the Germans that night.

Post-independence (1947)

The Victory War Memorial
Map of Madras in 1955

Post-British Raj

After India became independent in 1947, the city became the administrative and legislative capital of Madras State which was renamed as Tamil Nadu in 1968.

During the reorganisation of states in India on linguistic lines, in 1953, Telugu speakers wanted Madras as the capital of Andhra Pradesh[5] and coined the slogan "Madras Manade" (Madras is ours). The demands for the immediate creation of a Telugu-speaking state were met with after Tirupati was included in Andhra State and after the leaders who led the movement were convinced to give up their claim on Madras.[6] The dispute arose as over the preceding hundred years, the early British, European workers and small cottage capitalists had been replaced in large part by both Tamil and Telugu speaking people. In fact, as the greater concentration of capital wrecked what remained of old East Indian middle class, the city principally became a large housing development for huge numbers of workers. Most of these were recruited as cheap labor from the relatively poor Telugu nationality, which in turn enraged the Tamil nationals who were originally the working and middle class settlers of Madras in the late 18th century. Earlier, Panagal Raja, Chief Minister of Madras Presidency in early 1920s had suggested that the Cooum River be the boundary between the Tamil and Telugu administrative areas.[7] In 1953, the political and administrative dominance of Tamils, both at the Union and State levels ensured that Madras was not transferred to the new state of Andhra

Although the original inhabitants of Madras and responsible for its growth into the modern metropolis of today, the British and European nationals are virtually non-existent. Always a tiny minority in comparison with the vast Indian population of the hinterlands, despite slow growth in natural birthrate and continued settlement, the British and European populations were made an ever decreasing share of their city's populations. As more and more Indians arrived from the countryside to work in the city, the British and other Europeans found it increasingly difficult to establish or maintain independent wealth as they had during the early East Indian regime. This only furthered to mitigate continued British settlement. Nonetheless, as any purview of the city's and other major metropolitan cemeteries of India can attest, hundreds of thousands came to India between the 1600s (decade) and 1770s and later another million more came between 1770 and 1870. These settlers and their families spread throughout India or settled in the cities, with Madras being one of their principal entry points. However, by the early 20th century they had become a small minority in their own city. Although they remained in control of the original corporations and businesses of Madras, and were the official representatives of the Imperial government, their communities size relative to the larger Indian population in Madras ensured their eventual demise should democratic control be given to Indian nationalities in place of the older Colonial charters. When this was accomplished with the Independence of India in 1947, they were quickly brushed aside by the Indian population.

Despite lacking their original numbers and control, the original British community remnants, along with other minorities as well as the long history of British culture, keeps Madras a slightly cosmopolitan city. Population of Telugu's and Tamils were more or less the same in those days, however dynamics of Madras city was changed post independence rapidly. mixed Anglo Indian descendants of the original English settlers, a smaller but still extant British and European community, as well as migrant Malayalee communities in the city. As the city is an important administrative and commercial centre, many nationalities such as Bengalis, Punjabis, Gujaratis and Marwaris, as well as people from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar migrated to the city and have contributed to its cosmopolitan nature. Today, Chennai also has a growing expatriate population especially from the United States, Europe and East Asia who work in the industries and IT centres.

Since its establishment as a city in 1639, English was the official language of the city. However, with independence, the new Hindi-dominated Central government started imposing the use of Hindi in business and government. Therefore, from 1965 to 1967, the city was an important base for the Tamil agitation against this imposition, and witnessed sporadic rioting. Madras witnessed further political violence due to the civil war in Sri Lanka, with 33 people killed by a bomb planted by the Tamil Eelam Army at the airport in 1984, and assassination of thirteen members of the EPRLF and two Indian civilians by the rival LTTE in 1991. In the same year, former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated in Sriperumbudur, a small town close to Chennai, whilst campaigning in Tamil Nadu, by Thenmuli Rajaratnam A.K.A. Dhanu. Dhanu is widely believed to be have been an LTTE member. In 1996, keeping with the recent nationwide practice of Indianizing city names, the Government of Tamil Nadu, then represented by Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, renamed the city to Chennai. The 2004 tsunami lashed the shores of Chennai killing many, destroying much of the historical oceanfront, and permanently altering the coastline.

Today, modern Chennai, formerly known as Madras is a large commercial and industrial centre, and is known for its cultural heritage and temple architecture. Chennai is the automobile capital of India, with around forty percent of the automobile industry having a base there and with a major portion of the nation's vehicles being produced there. Chennai is also referred as the Detroit of South Asia. It is a major manufacturing centre. Chennai has also become a major centre for outsourced IT and financial services from the Western world.


Various etymologies have been posited for the name, 'Chennai'. These are a few of the suggested explanations of the origin of the words Chennai or Chennapattanam:

  1. A popular explanation is that the name comes from the name of the Telugu chieftain, Damarla Chennappa Nayakudu, Nayaka of Chandragiri and Vandavasi, father of Damarla Venkatadri Nayakudu, from whom the English acquired the town in 1639. The first official use of the name Chennai is said to be in a sale deed, dated 8 August 1639, to Francis Day of the East India Company.[8]
  2. Another suggestion is that the city was named after the Chenna Kesava Perumal Temple; the word chenni in Tamil means face, with the temple regarded as the face of the city.[9]
  3. While historian J B Prashant More also supports the 'Chenna Kesava' theory, he contends that 'Chenna' is a Telugu word meaning "fair".[10]

Chennai's earlier name of Madras is similarly mired in controversy. But there is some consensus that it is an abbreviation of Madraspatnam, the site chosen by the British East India Company for a permanent settlement in 1639.[11]

Currently, the nomenclature of the area is in a state of controversy. The region was often called by different names as madrapupatnam, madras kuppam, madraspatnam, and madirazpatnam as adopted by locals. Another small town, Chennapatnam, lay to the south of it. This place was supposedly named so by Damarla Venkatadri Nayakudu, Nayak of Wandiwash in remembrance of his father Damarla Chennappa Nayakudu. He was the local governor for the last Raja of Chandragiri, Sri Ranga Raya VI of Vijayanagar Empire. The first Grant of Damarla Venkatadri Nayakudu makes mention of the village of Madraspatnam as incorporated into East India lands but not of Chennapatnam. This together with the written records makes it clear that the Fort which became the centre of present Chennai, was built upon or nearby the village of Madraspatnam. Although, Madraspatnam is named in later records following the establishment of Fort St. George, this is likely because of the discriminatory nature of the local caste system. Under Hindu caste code, as well as English Common Law, it is unlikely that Fort St. George was built upon the village of Madraspatnam and its inhabitants incorporated into the new town. Instead, it is likely that Fort was built either close to the village or if it was built upon the village, the village was relocated. In fact, in all records of the times, a difference is made between the original village of Madraspatnam and the new town growing around the Fort known as "White Town". Therefore, because of the fort's proximity or origin to the village of Mandraspatnam, and the fort's centrality to the development of the city, the British settlers of the city later named their settlement Madras in honour of it. Further militating against the name "Chennai", Chennapatnam was the name in later years of an area explicitly detailed as having been incorporated of native villages, European plantations, and European merchant houses outside of the combined city of Madras consisting of Fort St. George, and White and Black Town. Lastly, while the Fort St. George, White Town, and Black Town areas were fully incorporated together by the late 18th century, and was known as Madras, Chennapatnam was its own separate entity existing under the authority of Fort St. George well into the 19th century. Consequently, once the area separating Chennapatnam and Old Madras was built over uniting the two settlements, as founders, settlers, and authorities of area, the English named the new united city Madras. Thus it is improbable that the area was ever called Chennai. Instead, being the gateway of trade and the centre of the economy of the region, the English settlement and their fort of 1639-40, which was the basis for the presently named city of Chennai, was likely called Madras as well by the rest of India. The DMK renamed Madras to Chennai as DMK founder Anna renamed Madras State as Tamil Nadu.

See also


  1. ^ "Chennai". Retrieved 2009-07-27. 
  2. ^ The Madras Tercentenary commemoration volume, Volume 1939
  3. ^  
  4. ^ Chennai Corporation - Madras History
  5. ^ Narayana Rao, K. V. (1973). The emergence of Andhra Pradesh. Popular Prakashan. p. 227. Retrieved 2009-08-07. 
  6. ^ A R, VENKATACHALAPATHY; Aravindan, Ramu (2006). "How Chennai Remained with Tamil Nadu". Chennai not Madras: perspectives on the city. Marg Publications on behalf of the National Centre for the Performing Arts. p. 9.  
  7. ^ G. V., Subba Rao (1982). History of Andhra movement. Andhra Pradesh. Committee of History of Andhra Movement. Committee of History of Andhra Movement. Retrieved 2009-08-07. 
  8. ^ "District Profile – Chennai". District Administration, Chennai. Retrieved 28 December 2012. 
  9. ^ T. A., Srinivasan (28 February 2002). "Face behind the name".  
  10. ^ "Chennai is a Telugu word, nothing Tamil about it: Historian". The Hindu. 14 May 2014. 
  11. ^ "Origin of the Name Madras". Corporation of Madras. 


  • Wheeler, J. Talboys (1861). Madras in the Olden Time, Vol II 1639-1702. Madras: J. Higginbotham. 
  • Wheeler, J. Talboys (1862). Madras in the Olden Time, Vol II 1702-1727. Madras: J. Higginbotham. 
  • Wheeler, J. Talboys (1862). Madras in the Olden Time, Vol III 1727-1748. Madras: J. Higginbotham. 
  • S. Srinivasachari, Dewan Bahadur Chidambaram (1939). History of the City of Madras: Written for the Tercentenary Celebration Committee, 1939. Madras: P. Varadachary & Co. 
  • Hunter, W. W. (1886). The Imperial Gazetteer of India, Volume IX, Second Edition. London: Trubner & Co. 
  • Barlow, Glynn (1921). The Story of Madras. Oxford University Press. 
  • Love, Henry Davidson (1913). Vestiges of Old Madras, 1640-1800 : traced from the East India Company's records preserved at Fort St. George and the India Office and from other sources. London: Murray. 
  • Somerset, Playne Wright (1915). Southern India: its history, people, commerce, and industrial resources. London: The Foreign and Colonial Compiling and Publishing Co. . Chapter: The City of Madras and Environs Preview in Google books

External links

  • Once Madras, Chennai turns 372
  • History of Fort St George and Black Town - Madras
  • Picasa Gallery - Historical Photos of Madras
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