Chennai, that is Madras

Noted historian Muthiah always refers to Madras as ‘Chennai, that is Madras’, never letting anyone forget what the city was originally called. For a lot of us, Madras will always be the name that is preferred. Because that is the city we grew up in and learned to love. Most of the world too, still remembers Madras, as that is the name the city had for hundreds of years.

Having just returned from two weeks of travel, a week on the East Coast of the US, and a week in Athens at the Internet Governance Forum, I can attest to that. Where ever I went in the US, when asked where I was from, I would reply, “I am from Chennai, India”. Only to receive a blank look! Then I would ask, “Have you heard of Madras?” Their eyes would light up with recognition, and they would say, “Of, course!” Then I would explain that Madras is now renamed Chennai. And the universal question was either, “When?” or “Why?”

At Frankfurt airport, the displays showed “Madras” or the IATA short code for Madras. At the Internet Governance Forum in Athens, where I met with people from all over the world, there was universal recognition of Madras, nobody had heard of Chennai. When our city was renamed, effort should have been taken to let the world know the new name by ensuring that people such as cartographers who prepare maps, IATA for their airline destination codes, organizations such as the National Geographic Society, the international media et al., recorded and started using the new name. For international magazines such as The Economist and BusinessWeek routinely refer to our city as Madras.

It seems that the change of name was a very local affair to cater to very local interests. Well, I am sure that a large section of the populace are very happy with the new name. I have nothing against it, but frankly to me this city will always be Madras. So that, in my heart, I will always have to ruefully admit that the city is Madras, that is now Chennai.

19 Comments so far

  1. Mytri (unregistered) on November 4th, 2006 @ 6:26 pm

    I do not think that changing airport codes is an easy thing. What if CHE is already taken? If you notice Madras is still MAS, Bombay is still BOM.
    Lots of us still refer to it as Madras. Even Bangalore is referred to as Bengalooru, Mysooru. It is just a name change to appease local interests. And I am sure it exists in all parts of the world.

  2. vishal (unregistered) on November 4th, 2006 @ 6:42 pm

    Well David this is another perfect example of how people in Chennai are confused. Whatever it is called be it Chennai or Madras, the place has turned into a real mess. Its a city that had an indentity which is quite quickly being eroded by the minute all in the cause of making it cosmopolitan. People here are ignorant to there own language and culture yet are willing to adopt others all in the hope of being accepted by the rest of India sorry I mean Hindia. Setting a bad example for all Tamilians in TN and across the globe no wonder Chennai is laughted at.

  3. Guy (unregistered) on November 4th, 2006 @ 7:26 pm

    Why mookku sindhify over a name? It’s just a name!

  4. Nastikan (unregistered) on November 5th, 2006 @ 1:26 am

    Madras has universal recognition? Whenever I’m in the US and say I’m from Madras, I get a blank stare.

    I like Chennai better simply on anti-s grounds, but I am far more irked by people who start claiming they are from Madras with a daring proportional to how far away they are from wherever they are from. Once they land in Los Angeles, even people from Madurai start claiming to Americans that they are from Madras.

  5. vishal (unregistered) on November 5th, 2006 @ 4:34 am

    Chennai or Madras whatever you may call doesn’t deserve to be called a metropolitan city. Firstly it is cosmopolitan to an extent which is not bad not that that is important. However Chennai is becoming far too Hindianised by the people who come here from other states which is a sad thing and with the help of foolish local Tamilians. It has turned into a S___ hole.

    The youth of Chennai who are responsible for classifying certain languages as cool or non cool and are trying so hard to become Hindians are a disgrace I wonder how misguided there children will me more than themelves thats for sure. Shame of you Chennai, Shame on Chennai youth for ruining people’s minds and creating a bad image about TN.

    It lacks all basic infrastructure so I don’t see how it was chosen be the capital of TN. No wonder Chennai doesn’t get coverage in the news and people from other cities in India look down on it and its people.

  6. ganesh (unregistered) on November 5th, 2006 @ 7:47 am

    Guys,what is in a name? To me this is nothing but current days political gimmick. All this started to give Madras a Dravidian name. It is just a Madraspatnam small villege where british were prominently present to rule, became MADRAS and not that any one changed Chennai to Madras then !. It is the British’s cherished memory of their first occupation village called Madraspatnam to become the name of the province and capital city.

    Is it Dravidian or Aryan invasion (this theory is now disproved)(Check this out :

    Be it Madras or Chennai. Let us forget the past. We will call it Chennai and don’t talk about airport or Railstation codes, otherwise there will be another agitation by numerous political parties.

  7. Maverick (unregistered) on November 5th, 2006 @ 1:46 pm

    Mytri go it right. Renaming a state, city or even a road is a political stunt aimed at impressing the great unwashed public.

  8. Srividhya (unregistered) on November 5th, 2006 @ 5:47 pm

    I also think that renaming a place is just a public stunt, a common one (may be the only common agenda) across states!

    If we think Madras to Chennai is a confusing change, what about Bangalore to Bengalooru?

  9. Thad E. Ginathom (unregistered) on November 5th, 2006 @ 11:47 pm

    I don’t think it is anything to do with impressing the public. Notice that newcomers, tourists and foreigners generally have no problem calling the city Chennai: we took it on board and are surprised to find so many of the native Chennaiites (sorry, Madrassees) still calling the city Madras. A very unimpressed public!

    It is to do with politicians impressing themselves, their egos and their own agendas. Nothing to do with real life at all.

    I do sympathise with name changes to local names when the original names celebrate past colonialists: but why change something like Royapettah High Road?

  10. sj (unregistered) on November 7th, 2006 @ 5:56 am

    Chennai is a perfect example of a city that has

    1) Water problems
    2) Is a city that has no identity or character about it but the people that live here think it does.
    3)Influenced too much by people from other states
    4)No footpaths
    5)Bad smell around the whole place
    6)Inadequate roads and infrastructure
    7)Generally a very corrupt society especially the youth.
    7) Overall just a bad place.

  11. Moyra (unregistered) on November 8th, 2006 @ 11:14 pm

    Hi there,

    I’ve just come back to Canada after living for four months in Chennai (working with BPO Sutherland. When we were told that we were coming, we had to look it up to see where Chennai was. When I found out that it was actually Madras, the confusion was cleared!

    As an expat and a tourist in Chennai, many of the things that the comments say are true. The city is very daunting to navigate and to explore, and the infrastructure issues are pretty serious. However, despite the fact that in recent days the youth may be embracing the “cool factor” of the north, from an outside perspective, Chennai still feels very solidly part of and representative (in a good way!) of TN.

    My husband came with me for the whole time. In univeristy, he studied Indian history for years, and we were very keen on exploring the cultural milieu of the country (we traveled extensively through 8 of the states in our time there).

    One of the things we found very frustrating while we were there, was that there was no centralized way of finding out what was happening in the city in regular weeks or during festival times. We really wanted to see and do everything that Chennai had to offer, but were never really sure what that was.

    Despite this, over the four months we were there, we very much began to feel at home in Chennai, and after all of our travelling, were very happy to return “home” to the city we had spent the most time in, the Chennai/Madras, that had endeared itself to us so dearly.

    I’ll be very interested to return to Chennai in a few years to see how it has changed and grown.



  12. sj (unregistered) on November 10th, 2006 @ 4:28 am

    Moyra there is nothing cool about North India or North India I don’t know why people from outside India feel this way. If you go to Delhi the heart of North India you get nothing but arrogant, ignorant and obnoxious people.

  13. nikhith (unregistered) on November 11th, 2006 @ 9:02 pm

    Greetings from citizen first,

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  14. Thad E. Ginathom (unregistered) on November 12th, 2006 @ 2:51 am

    Generate momentum? Certainly generating SPAM.

  15. sj (unregistered) on November 14th, 2006 @ 5:41 am

    Nikith the topics of concern for your group should be improving Chennai road and infrastructure, then maitaining its cultural and linguistic heritage as the youth these days seem not interested in preserving these. The only city in India where people are ashamed of there own mother toungue, but that maybe a genetic fault that many Tamilian children born in Chennai have I am not saying all of them but a large number do.

  16. mnazu (unregistered) on November 15th, 2006 @ 2:24 pm

    I will suggest that chennai should be again renamed as Madras, if any body want to call Madras in tamil let them call chennai. bec. we in saudi called as madarasis, not chennai by other Indians, Bangladeshis, Pakistanis, etc., and even Saudi Nationals knew only Madras not chennai. Madras is an International name. In my self-introduction I have to say others that I am from chennai, that is Madras. Really you believe me, I am bored of this.
    Holy Makkah

  17. Moyra (unregistered) on November 19th, 2006 @ 2:30 am


    The “cool factor” comment in my reply was actually not my own take on North India it was my response to Vishal’s comments above. I did in fact travel to Delhi during my time in India, and found the demeanor of the city quite alienating. In fact, one of my friends was violently assaulted there when she was travelling. However, Delhi was not the most (to your word) arrogant city we visited during the time that we were there (this title would have to go to Allahabad or Varanasi).

    While these cities are in the North, and you might think I am proving your point, I also should say that some of the best, most open, heartfelt and progressive cities we visited were in the North as well. We travelled far and wide, through the north and south, and my favorite place throughout all of India was probably Chanderi in MP.

    So, like any place in the world, there is a mix of good and bad anywhere you go.

  18. sj (unregistered) on November 22nd, 2006 @ 11:08 am

    Moyra thanks for your feedback I will agree with you on some of your points but as far as progression goes there is not much in the North besides Delhi and a few other places. However I experienced hostility towards me any where I go in the North. Maybe you did not because your are a foreigner so they will treat you differently. Chanderi have never heard of it, but I know MP state is quite backward.

  19. irfan (unregistered) on November 23rd, 2006 @ 2:55 pm

    Madras is where I am from… it was that way when I was born and it was that way when I went to US 14 years back, but when I came back 6 months back.. it has suddenly turned into Chennai. Whatever I knew of madras has changed to along with the name. Gone are the traditional things that I remember and along came the malls/shopping complexes and youth oriented culture which just wants what is “in” now and right now. I yearn to hear the nice musical harmony of birds and “All India” radio playing in the morning to ‘kaushalya….’ even I forget the words.

    Those I miss and I know that my Madras where i was born is gone and in its place is Chennai. I can fall in love again cant I. Please make me fall in love with my city again.

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