Have you ever heard of the country Bharat? The city of Mumbai? Dilli, Chennai, Kolkata, or Kozhikode? These are all names recently adopted or advocated as new names for several of India's cities and even the country herself.


When India's foreign rulers invaded the country, they were not interesting in seeing the sights or understanding the culture. They wanted order and control. They were keen to map India, and therefore they quickly wrote down an approximate name for the site in question, preferably one that would be easy for them to pronounce. Thus India's latinised names were made. No wonder they wanted to change them back once they had kicked out the occupiers and regained their balance.

But India became independent in 1947. Why wait with the changes for so many decades?

Political will is needed to change a name. The colonial names were not doing any harm, as it were. Most Indians were perfectly happy calling their cities one thing for foreigners and another for themselves. Some were not, however. And eventually, some of these gained power.

Although the arguments for all changing of names have been to throw off the yoke of the British, other political agendas may lie behind. Names have been changed to reflect the language of the majority in that region. The political parties have played on people's nationalist feelings by renaming cities to the local name everywhere. Whether this is a threat to the union or a healthy pride in one's own heritage remains to be seen.

Foreigners have for the most part remained ignorant of the changes. Because of this the old names are still in use especially for them. Most likely the names will stay official, but local, while the international versions remain - as is the case with Thailand's Krung Thep.

These are the changes to date:

Bombay becomes Mumbai in 1995
Madras (city) becomes Chennai in 1996
Trivandrum becomes Thiruvananthapuram
Calicut becomes Kozhikode
Cochin becomes Kochi
Coimbatore becomes Koyamutthoor in 1997
Pondicherry becomes Puduchchery
The state of West Bengal becomes Bangla in 1999
Calcutta becomes Kolkata in 2000

Earlier changes made to reflect proper pronunciation: Cawnpore > Kanpur, Poona > Pune, Benares > Varanasi, Simla > Shimla, Jullunder > Jalandhar, Baroda > Vadodara.

Other suggested changes:

Ahmedabad > Karnavati - controversial because it will exchange the name of a Muslim ruler with that of a Hindu goddess. Note that this city lies in Gujarat which has a problem or two between the two communities.

Lucknow > Lakshman-puri - a reversion to an old name.

Delhi > Indraprastha or Dilli - the former suggestion is an ancient name for the city, the latter is used by today's inhabitants. Changing the name of a capital is a major undertaking and so far the project lives mostly in dreams.

Bharat is the Hindi name for India, and in common use by the country's inhabitants. Strong nationalists have demanded to change it to the nation's only name, but so far, no serious proposals have been made.

Reacting to this avalanche of changes, some pranksters in Bangalore sent out an e-mail saying the city would soon be renamed Koramangala. While the name sounds nice, it would have cause an uproar, for is is actually the name of a posh suburb in the city. The suggestion was not serious - it would have been like renaming London into Croydon - or Milton Keynes...

India's new names are not just restricted to cities alone. A number of roads, railway stations, airports and public places have been renamed. The capital New Delhi is conspicuous for the number of roads named after prominent politicians notably of the Gandhi clan. But most Indians still refer to places and especially roads by their original name. The 'Father of the Nation', Mahatma Gandhi holds the record for having the most number of roads named after him.

The decision to change the names of cities is rather perplexing. Most Indians use two varieties of city names in daily conversation. Citizens of the capital would use the term Dilli when speaking in Hindi and New Delhi as part of official correspondence. Both survived and flourished side by side. The same was true of Calcutta, now Kolkata and Bombay, now Mumbai. The changing of names is thus perhaps, an immature attempt to wipe out India's colonial legacy. Moreover, it is often associated with nationalistic, chauvinistic and sometimes communal motives. However, what has been forgotten in this 'name game' is that colonialism left behind far more devastating legacies in the form of poverty, a decimated rural economy, lack of infrastructure which are problem that are yet to be tackled. Changing the names of cities is usually a short term publicity stunt, often causing much confusion and bringing material benefit only to signboard painters! For 40% of the country that lives below the poverty line life continues in pretty much the same vein.

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