The town and the surrounding hilly regions were part of the Chera dynasty and was part of the trade route with the Roman empire. It was later governed by Poligars, who built temples and forts in and around the city. It was part of the Vijayanagara empire before being captured by Hyder Ali during the early 18th century, after the Mysore-Madurai war. It was ceded to the British in 1768 and the area became part of the struggle between Kongu Nadu led by Dheeran Chinnamalai and the British. Salem became part of Salem district since independence in 1947.
Salem is located at 11.669437°N 78.140865°E / 11.669437; 78.140865, at an average elevation of 278 m (912 ft). The city is surrounded by hills: Nagaramalai on the north, Jarugumalai on the south, Kanjamalai on the west, Godumalai on the east and the Shevaroy Hills on the northeast. Kariyaperumal Hill is in southwestern Salem. The Thirumanimutharu River flows through the city, dividing it in two. The fort area is the oldest part of Salem.
Salem has a tropical savanna climate (Köppen climate classification Aw). January and February are generally pleasant; the hot summer begins in March, with the year's highest temperatures during April. Pre-monsoon thunderstorms occur during April and May. The Southwest monsoon season lasts from June to September. The northeast monsoon occurs from October to December.
Salem is the headquarters of Salem district. The town was constituted as a municipality in 1867, and was upgraded to a special-grade municipality in 1979 and to a municipal corporation on 1 April 1994. The Salem municipal corporation has 60 wards, each with an elected councillor. The functions of the municipal corporation are divided into six departments: general administration and personnel, engineering, revenue, public health, city planning and information technology (IT). All six departments are governed by a municipal commissioner. Legislative power is vested in the 60-member council, headed by an elected chairperson and assisted by a deputy chairperson.
Law and order is maintained by the Salem city subdivision of the Tamil Nadu Police, headed by a Deputy superintendent. Special units include prohibition enforcement, district crime, social justice and human rights, district crime records and a district-level special branch headed by a superintendent of police.
Salem is a part of the Salem North, Salem West and Salem South assembly constituencies delineated in 2008. The city elects the three members to the Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly once every five years. Present MLAs are R. Mohan Raj (Salem North) from Desiya Murpokku Dravidar Kazhagam, M. K. Selvaraju (Salem West) and G. Venkatachalam (Salem South) from All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam.
Until 2008, the city was part of the Salem I and Salem II assembly constituencies. Since 1977, the ADMK party won the Salem I assembly seat five times (1977, 1980, 1984, 2001 and 2006); Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam won twice (1989 and 1996), and the Indian National Congress (INC) won in 1991. Since 1977, the ADMK won the Salem II assembly seat three times (1980, 1984 and 1991) and the DMK also won three times (1989, 1996 and 2006); the Janata Party (JP) won in 1977 and Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) won in 2001.
The city is part of the Salem Lok Sabha constituency consisting of six assembly constituencies: Omalur, Salem North, Salem South, Salem West, Veerapandi and Edappadi. Since 1952, the Salem parliament seat was held by the Indian National Congress eight times (1952, 1957, 1962, 1984, 1989, 1991 and 2004), by the ADMK four times (1977, 1991, 2009 and 2014), by DMK three times (1967, 1971 and 1980), and once each by an independent (1998) and the Tamil Maanila Congress (1996). The current Member of Parliament from the constituency is V. Pannerselvam from the ADMK.
Salem is a major textile centre in Tamil Nadu, with more than 125 spinning mills, weaving units and garment units. Until the 1960s, it had less few spinning mills. Private handloom weaving began to increase in the region after the 1960s and during the 1980s, the textile industry expanded with major spinning mills and dying units established supporting the industry.
The area also houses a number of sago factories for the production starch. In Salem district, 34,000 hectares (130 sq mi) of land are devoted to cassava and 650 industrial units are engaged in tapioca processing. In 1981, the Salem Starch and Sago Manufacturers Service Industrial Co-operative Society (SAGOSERVE) was established to promote the sago industry and nearly 80 percent of the national demand for sago and starch is met by SAGOSERVE. In and around Salem cassava yields are 25–30 tons per hectare, one of the highest in the world; the national average is 19 tons per hectare, and the world average is 10 tons.
The Salem Steel Plant, a unit of the Steel Authority of India, produces cold-rolled stainless steel and a hot-rolled stainless-carbon steel alloy. The plant is being expanded and modernised, with plans for steel-melting and continuous-casting facilities. The Southern Iron and Steel Company (part of JSW Steel) have their first integrated steel plant in Salem for the production of TMT corrosion-resistant bars and alloy steels. The Salem region is rich in mineral ores, with some of the largest magnesite and bauxite deposits in India. Public and private magnesite factories include Burn Standard and Company, Dalmia Magnesites and Tata Refractories.
The Leigh Bazaar is the region's largest market for agricultural products. The Tamil Nadu government and the Electronics Corporation of Tamil Nadu are planning a 160-acre (65 ha) IT park in the city. The Steel Authority of India is planning a 250-acre (100 ha) steel special economic zone in its Salem plant, and an electrical and electronics industrial estate is in the Suramangalam area of the city.
Salem had a population of 826,267 in the 2011 census. There were 987 females for every 1,000 males, significantly higher than the national average of 929. A total of 79,067 were under age six: 40,570 males and 38,497 females. The city's literacy rate was 76.37 percent, higher than the national average of 72.99 percent. Salem had 215,747 households and a total of 332,147 workers: 1,599 farmers, 3,040 agricultural labourers, 32,597 in household industries, 278,892 other workers, 16,019 part-time workers, 165 part-time farmers, 544 part-time agricultural workers, 1,937 part-time workers in household industries and 13,373 other part-time workers. As per the religious census of 2011, Salem had 89.79% Hindus, 7.48% Muslims, 2.36% Christians, 0.02% Sikhs, 0.01% Buddhists, 0.11% Jains, 0.2% following other religions and 0.02% following no religion or did not indicate any religious preference.
Salem has a number of Hindu temples. The Kottai Mariamman Temple, dedicated to the goddess Mariamman, has an annual five-day festival during the Tamizh month of Aadi (mid-July to mid-August). The temple's gopuram is made up of seven tiers. Sugavaneshwarar Temple is dedicated to Shiva, and according to mythology the sage Sugha Brahmarishi worshiped here. Arunagirinadhar sang a song about Muruga in the temple, which was built during the 13th century by Mamannan Sundara Pandiyan. Kottai Perumal Temple, Skandhashram, Kothandaramar Temple and Sithar Koil are also in Salem. Oothumali Murugan Temple, Pandurangan Hill Temple, Kumaragiri Hill Murugan Temple and Kariperumal Karadu Hill Temple are in the hills in Salem. The International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) has built a temple in Karuppur, near the city.
Jama Masjid, on the southern bank of the Thirumanimutharu River in the heart of the city, is Salem's oldest mosque. It was reportedly built by the Mysore ruler Tippu Sulthan, who is said to have prayed here. The masjid inam granted to the mosque in 1862 was confirmed by the British with a special resolution in 1880. Christ Church is located on Fort Road and the church was consecrated in 1875. The other popular churches in and around the city includes Lechler Memorial Church, the oldest church in Salem, was built in 1856 by a German missionary in Fort Salem. Infant Jesus Church near Four Roads, the Calvary Assembly of God Church on the Bangalore highway in Mamangam and Reformed Baptist Church in the Yercaud foothills are other churches in the city.
Salem's traditional shopping areas are in the Town area, with major retailers in Bazaar Street, Car Street, First Agraharam and Chinna Kadai Street. Shevapet and the Fort area are noted for hardware and furniture, and Leigh Bazaar in Shevapet is the main wholesale market. Reliance Shopping Mall, the city's largest shopping complex is situated near Five Roads. Kurumbapatti Zoological Park and Anna Park are government-run parks. Paravasa Ulagam and Dream Land are amusement parks in the city.
Salem has six arterial roads: Omalur Road, Cherry Road, Saradha College Road, Junction Main Road, Gugai Main Road and Attur Road. Three National Highways originate in or pass through: NH 44 (Srinagar – Kanyakumari), NH 544 (Salem – Kochi via Erode and Coimbatore) and NH 79 (Salem – Ulundurpet).
Salem is the headquarters of the Salem division of TNSTC. The city has two major bus stations: the MGR Integrated Bus Terminus in Meyyanoor and the Town Bus Station (Old Bus Stand) in the town area. Intercity and interstate routes and private buses originate at the Central Bus Stand, and local buses originate at the Old Bus Stand. The Anna Flyover is the oldest in the city, and the Trumpet Interchange was built in the realignment of NH 544 to ease traffic towards Coimbatore.
Salem Junction is located in Suramangalam, 5 kilometres (3.1 mi) west of the city. In 2005, the Railway Board approved the creation of a Salem railway division from Palakkad and Tiruchirapalli divisions. It is the fourth-largest of the six Southern Railway zone divisions. Salem Railway Junction has been rated as the most clean station among the divisional headquarters railway stations and also the ninth cleanest railway station in the entire country, according to a survey report published in June 2017.
Salem Airport (IATA SXV, ICAO VOSM) is located on the Salem-Bangalore Highway (NH 7) in Kaamalapuram about 15 kilometres (9.3 mi) from the city. Airports Authority of India (AAI) opened the airport in 1993 for commercial operations. Kingfisher Airlines flew from Chennai but ended its service in October 2011due to low occupancy. The nearest major airports are Tiruchirappalli (152 km) and Coimbatore (159 km).
Salem has several educational institutions with arts and science colleges affiliated to Periyar University founded in 1997. The Government College of Engineering was founded in 1966.