Formerly known as Madras, the Port of Chennai is called by many the "Gateway to South India." Located on India's southern Coromandel Coast off the Bay of Bengal, the Port of Chennai is about 565 kilometers northeast of the Port of Cochin and some one thousand kilometers southeast of the Port of Mumbai. The Port of Chennai is an important cultural and administrative center and the capital of India's Tamil Nadu state. In 2001, over 4.3 million people lived in the city, and over 6.5 million lived in the urban area of the Port of Chennai.
The Port of Chennai is one of the oldest and biggest commercial ports in India. It was an important port for travelers before taking on its role in maritime trade. The Port of Chennai is a vital part of Tamil Nadu's growing economy, particularly for the growth in South India's booming manufacturing sector. Its major industries include factories that produce vehicles, rubber, and fertilizers as well as electrical engineering and a refinery. The major exports leaving the Port of Chennai are iron ore, leather, and cotton textiles. The major imports entering the Port of Chennai are wheat, raw cotton, machinery, and iron and steel.
The region surrounding the Port of Chennai has been an important military, administrative, and economic center since the 1st Century AD under the rule of many South Indian dynasties, including the Pallava, the Pandya, the Chola, and the Vijaynagar dynasties. The Christian apostle Thomas preached in the area between 52 and 70 AD.
The ancient town of Mylapore, which is now part of the Port of Chennai, was an important port for the Pallavan dynasty that reigned from the 6th to 9th Centuries. In 1522, the Portuguese built a port on the site of today's Port of Chennai, naming it Sao Tome after St. Thomas.
The Dutch arrived at Pulicat, some 33 kilometers north of the Port of Chennai, in 1613. In 1639, the British East India Company bought a band of coastline from Peda Venkata Raya, the Vihayanagara King, and the regional ruler, Damerla Venkatapathy, gave permission to the British to build a warehouse and factory on the site. The next year, the British established a colony called Madras and built Fort St. George on the site of the future Port of Chennai.
In 1746, French forces captured and plundered Madras, Fort St. George, and surrounding villages. Three years later, the Port of Chennai and town were returned to the British under the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle. They then strengthened the fort to defend the Port of Chennai from the French and from the increasingly powerful Sultan of Mysore.
Most of the southern India region had been conquered by the British by the late 1700s, and they established the Madras Presidency with Madras/Chennai as its capital. The future Port of Chennai flourished under British rule, becoming an important naval base and urban center.
At the time, the natural harbor was so shallow that ships had to anchor over a kilometer offshore, and cargo was delivered to and from the Port of Chennai shore in Masula boats. Cargo losses were high, and a 335-meter pier capable of berthing larger vessels was built in 1861. A cyclone destroyed the pier in 1881, and it was rebuilt in 1885.
In the late 19th Century, India's new railways connected the Port of Chennai to other important cities, like Bombay (Mumbai) and Calcutta (Kolkata), in the British colony. With stronger communications and trade routes, the port continued to grow.
In 1904, a new north-eastern entrance was added to control siltation in the basin. New quays were built in the Port of Chennai over the following decades. The South Quay opened in 1913. Five West Quay berths began operating between 1916 and 1920.
The Port of Chennai was the only city to be attacked by the Triple Alliance powers during World War I. A German cruiser, the SMS Emden, shelled the oil depot in 1914, and it raided vessels using the Indian Ocean shipping lanes, disrupting trade.
Between the world wars, the Port of Chennai gained new facilities. In the inner harbor, the North Quay was built in 1931, and South Quay II started operating as the Dr. Ambedkar Dock in 1936.
In 1947 when Indian won its independence, the Port of Chennai was made the capital of the Madras State, which was renamed Tamil Nadu in 1969.
In 1961, the Port of Chennai's Jawahar Dock was inaugurated by India's Prime Minister, Bahadur Shastri. The Bharathi Dock was built in the outer harbor to handle vessels with as much as 16.2 meters draft. In 1970, an oil jetty was constructed to handle imports of crude oil destined for the Manali Oil Refinery (today the Chennai Petroleum Corporation Limited). In 1974, the Iron Ore berth was added to the Port of Chennai for exports to Japan and other countries in the Far East. Another oil jetty was added in 1985 to meet increasing demands for crude oil and petroleum products.
The Port of Chennai began handling containerized cargoes in the 1970s. A container terminal was built at the Bharathi Dock with a 380-meter quay, a 51 thousand square meter container yard, and a six thousand square meter container freight station. In 1991, the Port of Chennai's container terminal quay was lengthened by 220 meters. In 2001, the container terminal and back-up area was privatized through a 30-year concession with Chennai Container Terminal Private Limited. Continually increasing container traffic resulted in another 285-meter extension of the quay in 2002.
In 1996, the city of Madras was renamed Chennai, and the Madras Port Trust was renamed as Chennai Port Trust. In 2000, the Port of Chennai began to handle pure-car-carrier shipments of automobiles.
The 2004 tsunami devastated the shores of the Port of Chennai, taking many lives and permanently changing the face of the coast.