On August 22, 1639, two merchants of the East India Company, Francis Day and Andrew Cogan, sowed the seeds of modern Chennai by establishing a factory at Fort St George and laying out George Town besides the port. The settlement was named Madras, derived from the indigenous name Madrasapattinam.

To mark that event, Chennai will celebrate the 375th anniversary of its founding on Friday with a week of events and exhibitions. But this is not simply an exercise in nostalgia. It's also the opportunity to contemplate the city’s future.

Over the last 2,000 years or so, Chennai has slowly taken its contemporary shape, each step a subtle overlay of new institutions and expanding road networks that have transformed a small cluster of temple towns into the frenetic megapolis we know today. Astonishingly, much of contemporary Chennai continues to be guided by age-old urban decisions.

Roman traders

New evidence suggests that the Romans and Greeks reached this part of the world around 2 BCE, trading silk, texts, peacocks, wine and beads. The Kapaleeshwar and Parthasarathy temples were built in the seventh century on the banks of the two rivers that trisect the city. Around that time, Chinese travellers visited sites in Kancheepuram and Mahabalipuram, taking back texts as records of cultural and intellectual exchange. Over time, the agrarian settlement came to be ruled by the Pallavas, Cholas, Pandyas and the Vijayanagara kingdom.

The famous traveller Marco Polo is thought to have passed through the city in the 13th century, following the unrecorded paths of the Romans and Chinese. The Portuguese reached these shores and constructed a port town in 1522. Ninety years later, the Dutch created a settlement towards the north of the city, at Pulicat.

With the establishment of Fort St George and George Town by the British, two vital urban decisions were taken. The urban design of The Marina, connecting Fort St George to San Thome Church, changed the scale of the city. Over time, this coastal promenade was lined with a number of significant institutional buildings, a magnificent façade to welcome ships from Europe.

The Senate house designed by Robert Chisolm in the Madras University Campus in 1879 epitomises this new synthesis of highly skilled indigenous craftsmen and romantic colonial geometries and imaginations of the Oriental landscape. Returning from the historic Congress of Religions in Chicago in 1897, Swami Vivekananda lived in a guesthouse on the Marina that was once an ice house built by the Tudors, a wealthy trading family from the United States.

The second decisive urban intervention was the consolidation of Mount Road as a primary artery, connecting Fort St George to the ancient town of Adambakkam and St Thomas Mount. The construction of the Thousand Lights Mosque, Spencer’s and Bharat Insurance building each enriched the primary artery of the city.

The magic of the railways

By the late 18th century, the Madras Presidency was established. The Madras Railway Company opened a line on July 1, 1856, connecting Vyasarpady and Walajah Road (Arcot), a distance of just under 100 km. The establishment of rail links in the late 19th century transformed the city, connecting it to Bombay, Calcutta and Delhi.

A major international port already, the addition of railway lines allowed the city to expand its exports. Like in many other colonial towns, the location of the Central Station broadly divided the city into a cultural zone in the south and an industrial zone in the north. It is only in recent years, as Chennai has sprawled frenetically, that the legacy of this urban decision is gradually dissolving.

The emergence of the Theosophical Society at the end of the 19th century and Krishnamoorthy Foundation in 1928 revitalised the city's cultural roots, though in very different ways. In 1936, bharatanatyam dancer Rukmini Arundale started Kalakshetra – the sacred place of the arts – radically transforming its lineage.

In the early 20th century, Madras became the home of an exuberant film industry that has since produced phantasmic and magical figures like Marudhur Ramachandran, better known as MGR, Shivaji Ganesan, Rajnikanth, Kamal Haasan and several more. The first movie theatres in the city transposed a distant image of Art Deco, an eclectic design style emanating in Paris. In a certain sense, the cinemas captured the fervid aspirations of the residents of Madras. The surreal explorations of the grey zone of justice by the legendary director Mani Ratnam more recently evoke an unchartered threshold between popular cinema and the arts, most suitably decoded by Baradwaj Rangan in his book on the famed conjurer of imaginations.

From Madras to Chennai

In 1947, the city was made the capital of the Madras State. In 1969, the state was renamed Tamil Nadu. In the throes of early globalisation in August 1996, Madras was renamed Chennai. The link roads to Bengaluru to the east, Kolkata to the north, Nellore, Srirangam and Tanjore to the south and The Old Mahabalipuram Road emanating from the city centre have provided the city a blueprint for its growth trajectory. Industrial towns like Mahindra World City, Oragadam, and Sriperumbudur and high-rise apartments now mark the skyline of an erstwhile relaxed coastal town.

The sudden spurt in land values in the last decade considerably transformed the landscape. The metropolis has now within its confines a large deer park that was once at the peripheries. The restoration of the Adyar estuary has brought back migratory birds and is regenerating its lost ecosystems. Like most growing agglomerates in South Asia, Chennai today is confronted by several challenges of growth, migration, groundwater, garbage, disparity, and environmental degradation.

We live in a time of constant change and challenges. In the euphoria of humungous development and slogans of progress, a pluralistic overlay of several cultures over 2,000 years sits patiently beneath the urban veneer. Chennai and its architects hope that this will form a solid substrate for its unfolding future. 375 years is too short a journey.