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?

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