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.
Nellaiappar Temple is famous as one of the largest Shiva Temples of Tamil Nadu, steeped in tradition and also known for its sculptural splendours. The temple is situated in Tirunelveli Town, in the centre of the city at a distance of 2 km from the railway station. It is a twin temple dedicated to Goddess Parvathi and Lord Shiva. Even from a considerable distance, one can have a good view of the gopurams (towers). Both the gopurams were built according to the rules laid down in the agama sastras by Rama Pandyan. Rare jewels, the Golden Lily Tank, Musical Pillars, and the hall of Thousand Pillars are worth seeing. The temple dates back to 700 AD and contains inscriptions made around 950 AD. It is believed there were two distinct temples, built separately for Shiva and Parvathi, the consort to Lord Shiva, by the Pandyan kings. The Sangili Mandapam, a big terraced hall, linking both these temples, was built in the 17th century. The towers also date back to the early 17th century. Vishnu and Agastya are believed to have worshipped Shiva here.
Golden Chariot of the Nellaiappar Temple
The Nellaiappar temple car weighs approximately 400 tons and is the-third largest temple car in Tamil Nadu. It is also said to be the largest human-powered car in South India. The car's axle was fabricated in steel during the British colonial period. Recently, steel rims were also used to reinforce the gigantic yet ageing wooden wheels. The Aani Car festival is the most popular festival associated with the temple, and the five cars (for Vinayakar, Murugan, Nellaiappar, Kanthimathi and Sandikaeswarar) by themselves are minor landmarks in the city.
Nindrasir Nedumaran (நின்றசீர் நெடுமாறன்), who reigned in the seventh century AD, contributed by constructing and renovating important parts in the temple. A beautiful garden next to the Mandapam, designed by Thiruvengadakrishna Mudaliar in 1756, welcomes visitors with many colourful and fragrant flowers. A square Vasantha Mandapam with 100 pillars is situated in the midst of this garden.
The Nellaiappar Temple is bigger than the Madurai Meenakshi Amman Temple, though the latter is much more popular owing to its historical importance. Near Tirunelveli, are the nine Vaishnavite temples dedicated to Vishnu (the Alwar Nava Tiruppatis), the Krishnapuram Venkatachalapati temple with its brilliant sculptural work, Tiruchendur with its grand and imposing temple dedicated to Subramanya, and Kutralam a popular tourist resort with its charming waterfalls and abundant natural beauty. The region between Tirunelveli and Kutralam abounds in natural splendour. Mention must be made of Tenkasi, Papanasam and Ambasamudram. Further, Kanyakumari the Southernmost tip of India is only a couple of hours away from Tirunelveli.
Sri Varadharaja Perumal Temple
Sri Varadharaja Perumal Kovil is situated in Tirunelveli Junction, on the banks of the perennial river Thamirabarani (தாமிரபரணி). It is an ancient and reputed Vishnu temple.
Mela Thiruvenkatanathapuram Temple
The Mela Thiruvenkatanathapuram temple is located 7 to 10 km south west of Tirunelveli, on the banks of perennial river Thamirabarani. Also known as Thirunankovil, it has Lord Srinivasa as the deity.
Keezha thiruvenkatanathapuram Keezha Thirupathi
It resembles the thirupathi. Near this temple about ¼ Km. to the east lies the “thenn kalahasthi” temple which crowns Lord Shiva. First Lord Shiva is prayed followed by varadharaja perumal and then the thenn thirupathi perumal.
Holy Trinity Cathedral
The Holy Trinity Cathedral, Palayamkottai, a big, elegant and beautiful church, was built in 1826 by Rev. CTE Rhenius - the Apostle of Tirunelveli (Charles Theophilus Ewald Rhenius), and opened to public for worship on 26 June 1826. Bishop Corrie named it as Holy Trinity Church on 30 January 1836. Bishop Stephen Neill raised the status of the Church into a Cathedral. Many renovations and additions were made to this structure. This church still serves as a nucleus for this massive Cathedral which developed in later years. Church of glorinda is located one kilometre east to holy cathedral.
It is well – connected to other cities of Tamil Nadu by the National Highway (NH7)
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.