Of late, I keep getting this message on WhatsApp, Facebook and email that claims to give information on how various localities in the city got their names. People forward it to me asking me if I can vouch for the veracity of the information. Sadly, the answer is no, for these stories are but flights of fancy.
Take for instance this oft-repeated tale of Kodambakkam taking its name from Ghoda Bagh ostensibly because the Nawabs tethered their horses there. If that were indeed the case, the ruler and his entourage must have had quite a walk each morning from Chepauk to get on to their mounts. The earliest British records I can trace refer to the place as Corumbat and Codamback, both dating to 1661. No mention of horses or gardens for them. If Kodambakkam was Ghoda Bagh should Nungambakkam by the same logic not be Nunga Bagh and therefore a historic nudist colony?
The Nawabs bring to mind another story, this one concerning Chepauk, said to have once been an area of six (cheh) gardens (bagh) and so becoming Chehbagh, which is now Chepauk. Here too, there is no proof of such a name or indeed such a garden existing. Pakkam is a common suffix in coastal Tamil Nadu and is of ancient Tamil usage indicative of a hamlet.
That Avadi is an acronym for Armoured Vehicles and Defence Industries is yet another falsehood doing the rounds. All defence establishments here came up in the 1940s and later. The place has been referred to as Avadi in records from at least 1882.
Was Mambalam really a grove of sacred maha bilwa trees guarding a Shiva temple that made it Maha Bilwa Vanam which was finally corrupted to Mambalam? If so why is it not mentioned in any old Tamil text? And that Nandanam got its name because it was the garden to the same ancient temple is another joke. Rajaji named the area after the Tamil year in which the colony was developed, in 1952. Similarly, the Adi Kesava Perumal temple in Chintadripet is claimed by some to be over 2,000 years old. Records clearly state that the temple was built from scratch in the 18th century only.
Some tales are so nearly accurate that anyone can be taken in. I had for long believed that Tondiarpet gets its name from the burial site of Kunangudi Mastan Sahib who was from Tondi in Ramanathapuram District. He lived between 1792 and 1838. Sadly for the story, British records refer to Tondiarpet from at least 1697.
Given that we are yet to have clarity over Madras and Chennai, we are a long way from handling the history of areas within the city. Till then, such emails are likely to proliferate.
This article appeared in The Hindu under the Hidden Histories column on January 31, 2015