The city is considered to be one of the oldest in the Indian subcontinent, with a history that dates back to 1000 BC. This city is located on the west bank of the perennial river, Thamirabarani, whereas Palayamkottai is located on the right bank; for this reason, they are referred to as the "twin cities". Tirunelveli is also often called the "Halwa City" for its very famous sweet Halwa.
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 an 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 history of Tirunelveli (English name Tinnevelly) was extensively researched by Bishop Robert Caldwell. (Christian missions in the 19th century in Tinnevelly played a significant part in the development of education as well as religious conversion.)
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.
The city's historic heritage includes the Swamy Nellaiappar temple and the Sri Kandimathi Ambal temple, both of which are ancient Saivite temples. It is also the site of Asia's second largest two-tiered bridge, the "Tiruvalluvur Bridge",which connects Tirunelveli Town and Junction.
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.
Halwa City is the latest nickname of Tirunelveli. A wheat-based sweet, halwa is very tasty and popular in Tirunelveli, has brought it fame across the southern Indian states.