Tirunelveli is an ancient city, as evidenced by the findings of archaeological excavations which have been going on since 1840s, in the outskirts of the city in Adichanallur (now under Tuticorin district). At this site, the archaeologists have unearthed and urn which could date back to 500 B.C, containing a complete human skeleton and clay vessels with some rudimentary Tamil Brahmi script inscribed on them. Other ancient urns in which the elderly were buried have also been found in the same district. Along with skeletal finds, husks, grains of rice, charred rice and celts have also been found.More recent excavations at this site has led to the discovery of a habitation site of the Iron Age people. Archaeologists opine that it is about 3000–3800 years old, from the Neolithic period. This has assured us that Tirunelveli has been an abode for human habitation for 3000 years or more. Now, Adhichanallur has been announced as an archaeological site for further excavation and studies.
The known history says that Tirunelveli had been under the prominence of the Pandya kings, serving as their secondary capital while Madurai remained its primary capital. It was an important city of the Chola kingdom (c.900–1200) and of the Vijayanagar empire. The city was the chief commercial town in the period of Arcot Nawabs and Nayaks. They were among the various ruling dynasties of Tamil Nadu. In fact, they called the city “Nellai Cheemai”, with cheemai meaning a developed foreign town. It was the Nayaks who, in 1781, granted its revenues and local administration to the British. In 1801, it was annexed by the British, who governed it until India achieved independence in 1947.On acquisition from the Nawab of Arcot in 1801, the British anglicized its name as Tinnevelly and made it the headquarters of Tirunelveli district. This happened despite the fact that their administrative and military headquarters was located in Palayamkottai (which was also anglicized as Palankottah),during their operations against the Palayakars. Post-independence, both towns reverted from their anglicized names to their original names and grew together as twin cities.
Tirunelveli is also called Nellai. The translation in Tamil for paddy (rice fields) is “Nell”. Both the names, Tirunelveli and Nellai, directly associate it to rice fields. Even on satellite imagery, it can be seen that the city is surrounded by fertile paddy fields, enriched by the perennial river “Tamirabarani” The river has a wide network of canals and waterways which irrigate numerous rice fields and support the villages around the district which primarily thrive on cultivating rice. The region is also heavily dependent on the monsoon rains.
The etymology of Tirunelveli has a Puranic association also. It is said that a devotee was invited by God in his dream to settle with his family near the Tamirabarani river. There was a famine in the region for a long time, and the man had to beg and collect paddy from other people. He spread out the paddy to dry under the sunlight and went for his ritual ablution in the river. He then continued to pray to the Lord for rain. Suddenly a thunderstorm broke out and it rained heavily. Although his prayer was answered, he was worried about the paddy he had spread out to dry in the sun. So he ran to collect it but what he saw was nothing short of a miracle. Not a drop of rain had fallen on the paddy he had laid out to dry. Since then, the city has been called Tirunelveli — ‘Tiru’ meaning respectable, ‘Nel’ meaning paddy, and ‘Veli’ meaning a protective fence. In other words, the etymology relates to the city having paddy fields as a protective fence.
Tirunelveli is located at 8°44′N 77°42′E8.73°N 77.7°E. It has an average elevation of 47 metres msl(154 ft). It is located in the southern-most tip of the Deccan plateau. Tirunelveli is an important junction in the National Highway No 7 connecting India from the North to South (Kashmir to Kanyakumari). The nearest pivotal towns are: Gangaikondan in the north, Tuticorin in the east, Alangulam in the west, Kalakkad in the southwest and Nanguneri in the south. It is also flanked by the state of Kerala to the west, Gulf of Mannar and the districts of Virudhunagar, Thoothukudi and Kanniyakumari. Thamiraparani river roughly divides the city into the Tirunelveli quarter and the Palayamkottai area. The major lakes in the city are Nainar lake and Udayarpetti lake. Three rivers (Chitraru, Thamirabarani and Kothandarama river) converge at a place called Sivalai, making the area very fertile. The closest town to this location is Kuppakkurichi.
The Agasthiyamalai hills, cut off Tirunelveli from the southwest monsoon, creating a rainshadow region.
The climate of Tirunelveli is usually tropical- generally hot and humid. The average temperature during summer (March to June) ranges from 23 to 36° Celsius and 18 to 30°C during the rest of the year. The average annual rainfall is 680 mm, most of which occurs during the northeast monsoon (October-December). Since the economy of the district is primarily based on agriculture, fluctuations in the monsoon rains or flooding of the Thamarabarani river has an immediate impact of livelihood in the area.
There have been no earthquakes in the recorded history of the region. However, there have been a few instances of floods and cyclones caused by the monsoons.
As of 2001 India census, Tirunelveli had a population of 411,831. Males constitute 49% of the population and females 51%. The city has an average literacy rate of 78%, higher than the national average of 59.5%: male literacy is 83%, and female literacy is 73%. In Tirunelveli, 10% of the population is under 6 years of age.Among the Municipal Corporations, Tirunelveli has been identified with a gender ratio skewed towards males, with 1024 females for every 1000 males. The growth rate of Urban Agglomeration is 20.22%.
The city spreads over an area of 108.65 km². The population density of the city had increased to 3781 persons per km² in 2001 from 2218 Persons per km² in 1971. The disabilities in the city as per the 2001 census are 1308246, out of which 645142 are males and 663104, female. Hindus are the most in urban population. They are followed by Muslims and then Christians. The language mainly spoken in the city is Tamil. The usage of English is relatively common. The vast majority of official dealings and the medium of instruction in most educational institutions is in English. The Tamil dialect spoken in this region is very lucid and is popular throughout Tamil Nadu.
The economy of Tirunelveli district is chiefly agrarian in nature and people are engaged in the cultivation of spices and condiments (like cumbu, ragi) groundnut, pulses, gingelly, coconut, chillies, indigo and cotton. It is rich in mineral resources like limestone, sulphides and ilmenite-garnet sand. The city of Tirunelveli has quite a number of industries in its area like cement factories, cotton textile mills, spinning and weaving mills, beedi (tobacco) companies, steel products and so on.
A vast majority of the middle class population in Tirunelveli city are either government employees, teachers, professors or others working in educational institutions. The living cost of the city is considerably low when comparing with other large cities in Tamil Nadu. Food items are easily available at affordable prices.
Tirunelveli city being the district headquarters of Tirunelveli, has an extensive transport network. It is well – connected to other cities of Tamil Nadu by the National Highway (NH7)
In terms of railways, Tirunelveli Junction (TEN) is one of the oldest and most popular stations in Indian Railway. Any train passing through the city halts in Tirunelveli junction station.
A large network of interstate and intrastate buses ply to various destinations from Tirunelveli. There is a good co-existence of both private and public transport networks in the city round the clock. The Tirunelveli sub-division of the TNSTC (Tamil Nadu State Transport Corporation), Madurai Division services the district’s road transport needs with a string of local and mofussil (out-of-town) services.
The closest airport to Tirunelveli city is the Tuticorin airport (TCR), located at Vaagaikulam in Thoothukkudi district, 28 km East of Tirunelveli. Connections to Chennai are via Kingfisher Red, operating daily. The Madurai Airport and Thiruvananthapuram International Airport are about 150 km away by road. An unused runway between Gangaikondan and Kayathar, 22 km North of the city, will become operational once the IT park at Gangaikondan is set up.