Nearly 15 years back, my friend, his father and I had an interesting discussion on how Chennai got its name. Here is an authentic answer for the question.
From Pages 161 onward of the Book *MADRAS TERCENTENARY COMMEMORATION VOLUME* published in 1939. Tha article from which this is extracted is written by *K. Venkataswami Naidu, B.A., B.L., the then Mayor of Madras*. The Book was published in July 1939.
In the early part of the seventeenth century, when the East India Company’s Agents were obliged to remove their Factory from Annagon, the Company’s Agents at Calcutta, requested the assistance of one of the ancestors of the family named Berry Timmapa, an inhabitant of Palacole, a Dutch factory near Maddipollam, for using his influence with the native princes in this coast in order to establish a Factory. Accordingly, he came out to this part of the country, and procured permission from one Damerla Venkatapa Naick, to build a factory at Madras. But it was found necessary that the sanction of the ruling prince of the Dynasty of Rayalu should be obtained for it previously. Berry Timmapa succeeded in procuring a Sasanam or Grant from Sreeranga Rayalu who then reigned at Chandragiri, for three villages, namely, Egmore, Tondavadoo and Poodupauk. Damerla Venkatapa Naick, at Poonamallee, insisted upon building the Town in the name of his father Chennapa Naick. The Dynasty of Rayalu was at that time in a declining state.
Berry Timmapa assisted in building a Town (which was accordingly called Chennapatnam) in the north side of the factory, and in inviting people from different parts of the country, by the aid of a CowIe from the Company’s Agents to settle there. Lands for both right and left hand castes were allotted separately. He also caused two pagodas, one of Vishnu and the other Siva, to be built there, calling the former Chenna Kesava Perumal and the latter Chenna Mallesvara, both after the same name, nearly one hundred and eighty years ago. According to Hamilton’s Gazetteer and that of the Fragments of Orme’s Hindustan, it was in the year 1639.
Mr. Day, the then Agent, undertook to erect a factory, on the spot, where there was a Fishermen’s Kuppam, the headman of which was a Christian named Madarasen. He threw some obstacle in allowing the piece of ground he was in possession of, which was his plantain garden. But Berry Timmapa used his influence to obtain that spot, promising him that he would cause the factory, which was about to be erected, to be called after his name. as Madarasenpatnam or commonly called Madraspatnam.
My friend’s father remarked then that he thought the name Chennai came from Chenna Kesava Persumal while I was adamant that it was from a Telugu Chieftain’s name. The truth as is the norm, is somewhere in between.