Chennai, known as Madras until 1996, is situated on the Coromandel Coast in south-east India and is the capital of the state of Tamil Nadu. The city played a pivotal role in the trading routes that crossed the Bay of Bengal, and has been nicknamed the “Gateway to South India”, acting as not only a resting point for merchants on their journeys from the Spice Islands to the west, but also as a centre of economic and cultural activity. From the 17th century, Madras became a city of key importance within the British network of maritime trade routes, exporting locally produced cotton and chintz, as well as many different spices and other cargoes imported from the east.
This region of south-east India has been characterised by a long history of trade and exchange. The ancient kingdoms of Chera, Chola and Pandya, which ruled the territories around Tamil Nadu, established trade relationships with the Greeks and the Romans from as early as the 4th century BC, and connections were also forged with peoples across western Asia. The region developed as a cultural centre throughout the early Middle Ages, and traces of this heritage are represented today in monuments such as the 8th century Parthasarathi Temple. Furthermore, local textile production and trade drew the attention of a number of western merchants before the British arrived, and Armenian, Dutch and Portuguese traders were already engaging in the vibrant local trading community established at San Thomé, today situated in the Mylapore district of the city, from the early 16th century.
However, the arrival of the British in 1639 brought Madras to the heart of the maritime trade networks that were starting to emerge in the early 17th century. The British East India Company first settled in southern India in 1611, but moved to the area of Madras in 1639 in order to be near the established textile weavers' communities. Textiles produced in the region were internationally sought-after, and were exported to Central Asia, Persia, and the East Indies. Weavers, dyers and merchants from the region were encouraged to settle around the city, named 'Madras' after the local village of Madraspatnam. Not long afterwards, in 1641, Madras was designated the site of the East India Company's headquarters and went on to become one of the most important maritime trading ports of the British Empire.
During the early years of commercial expansion, in the 1640s, the East India Company constructed the citadel known as the Fort St George in Madras, making it the first trading settlement city in India to be fortified. These fortifications illustrate the high value of the city's trade to the British, and also the ongoing threat of conquest from another invading power. Control of the key ports along the maritime Silk Roads brought with it not only the lucrative proceeds of the spice trade and other imported and exported goods but also, the power to control stretches of the routes, as well as to impose taxes. As Madras developed to become a vital hub of British imperial trade in southern India, it became a highly desirable conquest, and was attacked twice by the French, being captured between 1746 and 1748, and then besieged again in 1758-59. The Fort St George was also subject to attack from the ruler of Mysore, Hyder Ali, on two occasions in the later 18th century.
As well as being a major commercial centre however, Madras also developed as a melting pot for different cultures and religions, as its expansion into a major port on the maritime Silk Roads brought merchants to the city from across the world. Indian, British, Portuguese, Armenian, French and Dutch traders came together to trade, but also exchanged ideas and cultures that shaped the city's development. As the proceeds of commercial prosperity fed back into Madras in the late 17th and 18th centuries, new buildings and architectural styles emerged. Of the 600 Hindu temples in Madras today, many were constructed in this period and are distinguished by their highly decorative pillared porticos. British Neoclassical and Indian Mughal architectural styles were often combined, as illustrated in the extensive use of striking white chunam, or Indian stucco that is typical of many buildings in Madras.
The first British church in India, the Anglican church of St. Mary’s, was constructed in Madras between 1678 and 1780, but there were also a number of other churches representing the Portuguese and Armenian merchant communities in the city. The Roman Catholic Luz Church, built between 1547 and 1582, is one of the oldest churches in the city, and there is an Armenian church dedicated to the Holy Virgin Mary, completed in 1772, together with a mid-17th century Armenian cemetery. A number of mosques served the city's Muslim communities, most notably the striking Wallajah Mosque, completed in 1795, and important Jewish and Jain communities added to the cultural and religious diversity.
As such, Madras developed as a lynch-pin of the maritime trade routes that emerged over the 17th century, and although originally a British trading settlement, the city brought together people and ideas from across the world, and saw a fusion of Indian, British and many other cultures. In this way, the city's expansion was not only funded by maritime trade, but also stimulated by the global interchange of goods and people that accompanied it.