Place Names: Geographical Renaming and Historical Context

Place names of several major cities, roads, flyovers, bridges, airports, and even small and insignificant chowks in nascent cities and towns have had a “makeover” in modern times. Most of these changes in place names have been effected almost as an afterthought and a sudden revitalization of regional pride.

The protagonists of the changes in place names would perhaps argue that this regional pride was always there, but a change in place names nearly always brings in controversy and therefore takes years to implement.  This might yet be true, and I have no qualms with regional pride as long as it does not impinge on the rights and interests of citizenry across the country. After all, culture in many parts of India is nurtured through a pride in the province and its heritage. Regional arts, crafts, and other expressions of originality in a state not only bind the region with a homogeneous cultural identity by which it receives recognition from other parts of the country, but also represent that state in the international arena. Delhi Chaat, vada pao and bhelpuri, appam, masala dosa, Bengali sweets, Karachi halwa, Banarasi paan, Kacchi dhabeli, and Hyderabadi biryani—the list is endless—are some culinary expressions of that regional pride, which is the identity of a particular city or region.

Place Names as Signage of History

Similar channels of identity can be found in textiles, dance, art, language, etc. Regional pride, therefore, might not be a bad thing at all, and changes in geographical names to preserve— or remind—the people about a particular region’s “originality” can thus be acceptable. But simultaneously, it might be argued that a place name is not just a dot and line on a map, but also a veritable identifier of settlements, civilizations, migrations, and reference points of history. Modernity has reduced these points of reference to relatively modern relevance only, feigning a cultural amnesia and shortening the life of the place, in a way.

The new place names that now find place on the map— undoubtedly after a bitter struggle to bring about the change—evoke nostalgia (the “regional pride”) of a few centuries at most. On the contrary, the names of yore go back manifold in time, recounting a history that is far more time elastic; millenniums, not just centuries, are associated with them. Naturally therefore, the “bias” of the historian—the writer included—generally lies with old nomenclature, simply because the old names conjure up imageries that paint a more complete picture of a particular place or region.

Change in a Place Name: The Psyche

It is not just in India that historical place names are being obliterated from the modern map. Starting from the 1820s, and through the 1990s, at least 38 countries and territories have shed their old place names for the new, and 66 cities globally are now known by their new names. India, too, seems to be afflicted by this trend; there are at least seven or eight major Indian cities that have seen a name change in modern times.

What, then, is the psyche behind this urge to change a toponym? The prime reason, as mentioned earlier, is to reinstate regional pride. In several cases, the changes were brought about by the end of colonial rule and establishment of a nationalistic fervor; in others, mergers or splits necessitated a change; in still others, cumbersome or unusual names were given up for more suitable or easier-sounding names. All these reasons are based on the fact that the “right” to a place name lies with the people who reside there, and their sentiments need to be respected.

Place names have changed, but “geographical souvenirs” of the discarded names still survive. Bombay is now Mumbai, but it is still the Bombay High Court, IIT Bombay, and Bombay Stock Exchange; Madras is now Chennai, but it is still University of Madras, Madras Stock Exchange, IIT Madras, and Madras High Court, Peking is now Beijing, but it is still Peking University; Pusan is now Busan, but it is still Pusan National University… Why? Obviously because established conventions die hard, regardless of the constant urge to move ahead and change the status quo.  And what does a name change hope to achieve? In the last decade of the 16th century, William Shakespeare expressed this sentiment:

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

Romeo and Juliet (II, ii, 1-2), 16th century

And half a millennium later, we need to ask an almost identical question: Will a change in place name alter anything concrete in the people who live and react in a particular place? As former UN diplomat Shashi Tharoor writes:

The trains in Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus will be just as crowded as in VT…. The weather will be just as sultry in Chennai as it used to be in Madras. But are we Indians so insecure in our independence that we still need to prove to ourselves…that we are free?


Infrastructure, Evidence and Interpretation: Economic Fabric in Early India (Part Two)

In an earlier post, I discussed the problem of migration and agricultural output in early India. But besides agriculture, other economic activities in early India depended on similar factors as do economic activities in our times. For instance, let’s focus on infrastructure. Can you imagine a world without bridges, means of transport and communication, buildings, mints, dams, and roads? Where would our economy be without such infrastructure? Infrastructure, therefore, is a conditio sine qua non of any budding—or for that matter developed—economy, be it in the era of kings or emperors, or in the era of democracy and the welfare state.

Administrative Infrastructure

A critical economic action that has been engaged in throughout Indian history was the striking of coins, and the expertise with which the dies were carved and struck on minuscule pieces of metal makes it evident that mints constituted a crucial element of the city infrastructure and were located in every major town or trading center. The following extract from a modern work provides an excellent word picture of the mint organization in ancient India:

The mint house in ancient India was perhaps known as bhandagara, whereas the mahabhandagara was functioning just like the modern Reserve Bank….. The office of the bhandagara…had to maintain the establishment and accounts, and mint coins… [It] was headed by a board of Shreshtina









Figure 1. Interior of the Mughal mint in Fatehpur Sikri

For medieval India, we have the masterful documentation in the Dravyapariksha by Thakkura Pheru, mint-master during the rule of Alauddin Khalji (13th century), where detailed information is provided regarding the coins that were arriving at the mint for melting and re-coining, and about the metallic fineness of various coin nomenclature. Part of the infrastructure that housed the mint during the Mughal rule still survives in Fatehpur Sikri near Delhi (Figure 1).

Infrastructure for the Society

Moving to other elements of infrastructure that supported the economic fabric in early India, references to the construction of roadways, reservoirs, canals, forts, and rest houses are quite frequent in literature, and it is little surprise that the Arthashastra refers to such activities as one of the basic duties of the ruling authority:

[The King shall] construct roads for traffic both by land and water, and set up market towns…. He shall also construct reservoirs filled with water either perennial or drawn from some other source. Or he may provide with sites, roads, timber, and other necessary things those who construct reservoirs of their own accord. Likewise, in the construction of places of pilgrimage…

(Arthashastra, II.1)

From Mauryan Emperor Ashoka (3rd century BCE) to Pashtun Emperor Sher Shah Suri (16th century, often called the forerunner of Akbar), all rulers in early India prioritized the building of roads and infrastructure to support travelers:

On the roads also banyans were planted to give shade to cattle and men, mango gardens were planted, and at each half kos wells were also dug; also rest houses were made….

(Ashoka in one of his rock edicts, c. 273-232 BCE)

For the convenience in travelling of poor travellers, on every road, at a distance of two kos, he made a sarai…another road he made from the city of Agra to Burhanpur…and he made one from the city of Agra to Jodhpur and Chitor, and one road with sarais from the city of Lahore to Multan…

(Tarikh-i-Sher Shahi)

The road from Lahore to Multan, then called the Sadak-e-Azam (the Great Road), later formed part of the Grand Trunk Road (Figure 2), which still serves as one of South Asia’s oldest and longest roads stretching over 2500 km. The road has undergone several improvements in the British period and even thereafter, and now extends from Kolkata to Peshawar. Over the centuries, the road has serviced trade and communication, and aided the movement of troops and invaders.






Figure 2 (Left): The Grand Trunk Road in India, Ambala-Delhi section, during the British Raj. Image at







Figure 3 (Right): A passenger train travelling from Bombay to Thane, 1855 Image at File:Dapoorie_viaduct_bombay1855.jpg


Dalhousie’s stint as Governor General in the mid- 1800s represents a watershed as far as the history of communication infrastructure is concerned, particularly with the introduction of the telegraph and the railway. Here is how the official website of the Indian Railways records the introduction of the railway in India:

The formal inauguration ceremony was performed on 16th April 1853, when 14 railway carriages carrying about 400 guests left Bori Bunder at 3.30 pm “amidst the loud applause of a vast multitude and to the salute of 21 guns.”

Three locomotives were put in service to cover this distance of 33 km, and a year later the Bori Bunder–Thane route was enhanced with India’s first railway bridge (Figure 3). From three locomotives and 33 km, Indian railways today has about 8,000 locomotives and stretches over 63,000 km across the country.

Clearly, therefore, infrastructure has been a primary economic activity of the administration through all historical epochs. In the 21st century, most cross-state, or even multinational, commercial enterprises and investments are determined by the infrastructural base of the target site. In other words, to attract investment from other states and from abroad, we must first build and expand state-of the-art infrastructural capabilities. No wonder, infrastructure in Mumbai has been compared—albeit in a false sense of regional pride—to Shanghai, and India is struggling to attract foreign direct investment by ramping up, inter alia, airports ports, and the hotel industry, and by repeatedly projecting how India’s infrastructure needs should be prioritized to meet the urban challenges that will be posed by 2050.


Migration and its Impact on Agriculture: Economic Fabric in Early India (Part One)

In absorbing knowledge, the discerning public today is presented with a limitless platter of documents, data, and research analyses to pick and choose from. In all compartments of human interface, the documentation base has reached an unprecedented high. For the researcher, the dangers in such a situation of information overspill are obvious: he is constantly hit with “word pictures” from all directions, and more often than not it is the researcher’s insight that helps absorb the good information and filter out the residue.
For the economic historian, however, such vivid descriptions of economic activity are either missing or enmeshed with irrelevant information, and his job becomes quite mind-numbing. While India is chalking its own path of modernity and breaking new ground in all aspects of economic endeavor—infrastructure, agriculture, industry, trade, the demand and supply equation, and fiscal policies—this post presents a random selection of word pictures that depict activities related to agriculture, irrigation, and migration of farmers at various milestones of Indian civilization.

Migration of Farmers and Agrarian History

India in circa 1500 BCE was a predominantly agrarian economy; 3500 years later, agriculture is even now the largest economic sector in the sense that it still accounts for about 60% of employment in the country, although its share in India’s GDP has been steadily declining (while it was ±17% in 2007–08, this share is likely to decline to 13.7% in FY13). The government is constantly devising new ways and methods to augment agricultural production, just as farmers are engaged in hitting on the right crop to produce. Our hunt for word pictures begins in the Vedic period, to which the first written records belong.


A Rigvedic hymn vivifies the importance of the produce of the land, and agriculture was obviously the mainstay of the Vedic people. The hymn also shows that the Vedic Aryan was well-acquainted with the art of sowing. In fact, several rituals were associated with sowing activity in those times. Besides sowing of seeds and ploughing, Vedic texts also mention other agricultural processes such as proper land usage, irrigation, harvesting, threshing, winnowing, and storage of grains. As we move forward a few centuries to circa 300 BCE, the literature sheds its predominant religious/ spiritual tenor and becomes even more graphic in the description of agricultural practices. The Arthashastra casts a clear picture of the importance of rainfall and irrigation in agriculture, various crops and the cropping pattern, and the harvesting and gathering procedure. Today, when there is a global concern over climate change and changing pattern of the monsoons, it interesting to compare the geographical distribution of rainfall in circa 300 BCE with that of the 21st century.

Region Rainfall recorded in the Arthashastra Rainfall in modern times
Jangala (unidentified, possibly referred to forest land) 16 dronas = 100 cm
Avanti (Malwa, mod. west Madhya Pradesh) 23 dronas = 140 cm 75-100 cm
Asmaka (south of the Vindhyas, in the Deccan plateau 13.5 dronas = 85 cm 40-75 cm
western countries (west coast of India) “immense quantity”
>200 cm


While accepting that the measurement system in early India might only be taken to be indicative, it is still apparent that rainfall patterns have remained largely unchanged over time. A normal monsoon in those days is remarkably close to the pattern today. Thus, the Arthashastra clearly shows the importance of not only adequate amount of rainfall, but also its proper timing and distribution over various parts of the territory. All these three factors are equally important for agriculture, and even a 10% variance in the monsoons can cause havoc with agriculture.


Speaking of irrigation technology in early India, the Baburnama (memoirs of Mughal ruler Babur, 16th century) provides a vivid description of the irrigation devices used in various parts of India. Interestingly, as Irfan Habib writes, the Persian wheel had by this time become the principal means of lifting water for irrigation in northwestern India and the trans-Jamuna region.

agri3           agri2


(Left) Figure 2.  ‘Saharanpore with a Persian wheel for raising water,’ from ‘Views by Seeta Ram from Mohumdy to Gheen Vol. V’ produced for Lord Moira, afterwards the Marquess of Hastings, by Sita Ram between 1814-15. Print at The British Museum Online Gallery

(Right) Figure 3. The Persian wheel on a chilly morning on the Ganges Plain. Photograph: Bret Wallach, © The Great Mirror, 2009 

The wheel continued to be used for irrigation through the Mughal and British periods, and Babur’s graphic description of the wheel, based on his personal observations, is a perfect fit even for the system followed in the 19th century (Figure 2), and the system followed modern times (Figure 3). It is worthwhile to emphasize the major factors that have contributed to the produce of the land through history.

Migration of Farmers

Besides the dependence on monsoons, availability of land in plenty, and irrigation technology, the migration of cultivators was another critical factor. The Baburnama refers to the migration of entire villages, the ease with which new settlements were established, and the setting up of the required economic “infrastructure” in no time. In today’s context, migration is almost entirely to the cities to support urban industry and infrastructure (and of course eke out a living), but in early India setting up new agrarian settlements was a frequent phenomenon. Babur’s reference to migration and new agricultural settlements is not surprising because, even in the 5th century CE, we hear of migrations of farmers and various other occupation groups. The major factor that worked in favor of migration in early India was the availability of land in plenty, unlike the situation today where it is at a premium or not available at all.

Migration of farmers and its impact on agriculture in early India are thus well-evidenced in literature. It will surely be a worthwhile proposition to look at such evidence for other indicators of the economic fabric in early India and juxtapose such indicators with those in modern times.


Beyond American English and British English

In late 2000, Domino’s Pizza ran an ad campaign with the tagline Hungry kya? which helped the brand penetrate deep into Indian homes and cities; so much so that this label continues to be associated with all tele-branding and billboard campaigns for the brand. The admixture (pun intended) of English and Hindi proved to be an appealing, innovative, and paying concept, and many other brands skewed their ad campaigns to incorporate Hinglish (combination of Hindi and English), the most recent example being the Hungrooo campaign for Maggie Noodles. English is therefore being “customized” to regional preferences. American English and British English apart, there are region-specific or country-specific variations of the language, and their vocabulary repository is constantly evolving and expanding; it’s Japanglish, Japlish, or Janglish in Japan; Konglish in Korea; Chinglish in China; Hinglish in India; Denglisch in German-speaking countries; Thainglish in Thailand; and so on.

Such variations of English are construed as the ‘misuse of English by non-native speakers’. Conversely, American English and British English are the recognized primary variations of the language, each with some elements of writing style and vocabulary that render it with a character of its own.

We’ll return to the regional adaptations of English in a later post, but first it’s important to dive deep into the points of departure between American English and British English.

American English and British English: The Beginnings

Life was different till about the first half of the 18th century, when English was yet to plateau out into clear regional standardizations. Arguably, Noah Webster’s An American Dictionary of the English Language (1828) and Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language (1755) laid the cornerstones of American English and British English respectively. From then on, the clamour (or should we say clamor?) for reforms in the English language increased, with Webster himself leading the changes in the U.S., while Norman or Anglo-French speakers in England played a decisive role in the shaping of British English. Currently, a plethora of dictionaries service the needs of English speakers in U.S. and the UK, with most other countries adopting dictionaries from either group depending on their histories, while few nations like Canada and Australia follow both. With the increasing move to phones and tablets as the information source, it is not surprising to find tens of dictionaries for American English and British English lodged in micro memory slots. No more leafing through hefty volumes for a look up!

Spellings and More

Contrary to the general misconception, the difference between American and British English is much more than variations in the spelling of certain words; it is in fact a difference in writing style. So when an editor is asked to ‘migrate’ a document from British English to American English (or vice versa), it is important to realize that changing –our/–or, -ise/-ize, -re/-er, -ogue/-og (and so on) is addressing just one of the differences between American and British English. The other differences which an editor should take cognizance of include the use of the present perfect tense ‘have/has + past participle’ much more in American English than in British English, singular verb forms immediately after collective nouns in American English and usage-dependent singular or plural forms in British English, delexical verbs have and take in British and American English respectively (consider I’d like to have a bath and I’d like to take a bath as examples), auxiliaries and modals (for instance, needn’t and don’t need to), propositions at and on (at the weekend in British English and on the weekend in American English), and past tense forms (see Table 1).


Simple past

Simple past

Past participle

Past participle

burn burned/
bust bust busted bust busted
dive dived dove/
dived dived
dream dreamed/
get got got got gotten
lean leaned/
leaned leaned/
learn learned/
learned learned/
plead pleaded pleaded/
pleaded pleaded/
prove proved proved proved proved/
saw sawed sawed sawn sawn/
smell smelled/
smelled smelled/
spill spilled/
spilled spilled/
spoil spoiled/
stink stank stank/
stunk stunk
wake woke woke/
woken woken

After Kerry Maxwell and Lindsay Clandfield, “Differences in American and British English Grammar,” accessed at

This list of differences between American English and British English is by no means exhaustive, but only a representation of the editor’s predicament.

But Where is English Headed?

But the English language is a dynamic entity, constantly evolving and changing as it meanders through time and space. Regional variations are beginning to have a much more telling impact, and it will not be outlandish to imagine tailor-made dictionaries soon seeing the light of day. Hinglish, for example, is already an entry in some prominent dictionaries, which is perhaps a sign of things to come?