Recently I watched a very interesting and excellent movie entitled The Man Who Knew Infinity. The film was about the life of the Indian mathematical genius Srinivasa Ramanuja, a native of Madras, a state in India which is today called Chennai.

During a discussion with his employer, Ramanuja’s boss explains to him that the fate of people from Madras is quite bleak due to the fact that they are so poor. He says this is expected, since the name ‘Madras’ is derived from Manderaggio, which means ‘The realm of stupid people’.

Having researched and written about the Valletta Mandraġġ, I searched for this disrespectful meaning but never found any reference to it. To me, as a Maltese and residing in Valletta close to the Mandraġġ, such a definition is an insult.

However, in the ‘Word Origin and History for Madras’, I found this definition of ‘Madras’:

1. A large silk or cotton kerchief usually of bright colours that is often worn as a turban.

2. (a) A fine plain-woven shirting and dress fabric usually of cotton with varied designs (as plaid) in bright colours or in white; (b) A light open usually cotton fabric with a heavy design used for curtains.

Reference to the former Indian state of Madras (modern Chennai, a Tamil name), from which a type of bright-coloured muslin cloth was exported. The British fort there dates from 1639. The name sometimes is said to be from Sanskrit ‘mandra’, a god of the underworld, but perhaps rather from Arabic ‘madrasa’, meaning a school, or Portuguese Madre (de Deus).

Quite a difference!

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