On its acquisition from the Nawab of Arcot in 1801, the British named it as Tinnevelly district though their headquarters was first located in Palayamkottai the adjacent town, where they had their military headquarters during their operations against the Palayakars. There are three reasons attributed for naming the district after Tirunelveli. The prime one is that it has been serving as the chief town of the district and the second one is that it has been called called as Tirunelveli Seemai under the Nayaks and Nawabs. Finally it served as the south capital in the period of Pandyan Kingdom.

Both Tirunelveli and Palayamkottai grew as the twin towns of the district. In 1986, Tirunelveli district was split into two districts for administrative purpose such as Chidambaranar (present-day Thoothukudi) and Nellai-Kattabomman (later Tirunelveli-Kattabomman, present-day Tirunelveli) districts. This is one of the Ayyavazhi populated districts of Tamil Nadu. The Ayya Vaikunda Avataram was announced as a holiday for the district.

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