In August 2021, the Zilla Panchayat of Aligarh in Uttar Pradesh (UP) passed a resolution seeking to rename ‘Aligarh’ as ‘Harigarh’, although the new name has no value. There are also demands to rename Sultanpur district in UP as ‘Kush Bhawanpur’ after Kush, the son of Lord Ram.
Ever since ‘Allahabad’ was renamed ‘Prayagraj’ in October 2018, proposals to change the names of other cities, towns and even institutions have generated much debate. While the current demands are clearly political, given that they are being made in the run-up to the UP Assembly elections, the fact is that rulers in India have always renamed cities to suit their political agendas. What we are seeing in Uttar Pradesh is the rule rather than an exception.
Under the Sultans and Badshahs
Since 1947 alone, more than 100 towns and cities have been renamed across India but this tradition goes back centuries. Take, for example, the conquest of Chittorgarh in 1303 CE by the armies of Alauddin Khilji and the jouhar (self-immolation by women) which took place there and popularised by the 16th-century poem Padmaavat as well as a recent movie by the same name.
What is not so well known is that Chittor was renamed ‘Khizarabad’ in honour of Alauddin’s eldest son Khizr Khan. But it reverted to its original name just a few years later, when the Rajputs took back control.
By the early 14th century CE, the Tughlaqs replaced the Khiljis. In the 1320s CE, Sultan Muhammad Bin Tughlaq renamed two of the greatest and richest cities of the Deccan – the former Yadava capital of Deogiri (in Maharashtra) was renamed ‘Daulatabad’, while the former Kakatiya city of Warangal (in Telangana) was christened ‘Sultanpur’.
The tradition of renaming cities was continued by the Mughals, especially Emperors Shah Jahan and Aurangzeb. Emperor Shah Jahan, soon after his accession in 1628 CE, rechristened the city of Agra as ‘Akbarabad’, in honour of his grandfather.
Aurangzeb too was extremely zealous in renaming cities, perhaps for political and ideological reasons.
Following the conquest of the Jadeja kingdom of Jamnagar (in present-day Gujarat) in the 1660s CE, he renamed it as ‘Islamnagar’, while for a short period Varanasi was called ‘Muhammadabad’.
Similarly, the important Maratha town of Satara in Maharashtra was renamed ‘Azamtara’ by Aurangzeb. In each of these cases, the original names were restored when Mughal power waned by the end of the 17th century.
The most prominent Mughal city in the Deccan was Aurangabad in Maharashtra. But ‘Aurang-Abad’ or the ‘City of Aurangzeb’ was originally founded in 1610 CE, by Malik Ambar, the Abyssinian General of the Nizam Shahis of Ahmadnagar. As it was built on rocky land, it was called ‘Khadki’ (‘khadak’ means ‘rocks’ in Marathi). Malik Ambar was succeeded by his son Fateh Khan, who changed the name of ‘Khadki’ to ‘Fatehnagar’.
After the Mughal conquest in 1653 CE, Aurangzeb named the city as ‘Aurangabad’ after himself. Interestingly, since the early ’90s, the Shiv Sena has been demanding that Aurangabad be renamed ‘Sambhajinagar’. They claim that the Maratha ruler Chhatrapati Sambhaji Maharaj was martyred in 1689 CE (on orders of Aurangzeb) ‘near’ Aurangabad and it would be a fitting tribute to him.
These claims have a way of stretching the truth, in this case, geography, to suit political interests. Tulapur, where Chhatrapati Sambhaji was killed, is 200 km from Aurangabad and just 30 km from Pune city. What better example to show how political interests influence name changes.
After the Mughals, there was no mass attempt to rename places except for Tipu Sultan of Mysore, who undertook perhaps the most comprehensive renaming campaign in the 18th century.
Tipu Sultan’s father Hyder Ali had usurped the throne from the Wodeyars of Mysore. On taking the throne in 1782 CE, Tipu Sultan declared his kingdom to be ‘Sultanat-i-Khudadad’ and renamed a number of important cities in the territory.
Mysore became ‘Nazarabad’, Mangalore became ‘Jalalabad’, Dharwad became ‘Khurshid-Sawad’, Calicut became ‘Islamabad’, Dundigul became ‘Kalikabad’, and Madikeri became ‘Jafarabad’, among many other examples.
Following the death of Tipu Sultan in 1799 CE, during the fourth Anglo-Mysore War, the Wodeyars were restored to the Mysore throne. The new names were abandoned and the old ones were restored. Interestingly, Nazarabad still exists as a locality in Mysore.
During British rule, while places were not renamed for political reasons, they were Anglicized and Westernized. Kanpur became ‘Cawnpore’, Pune became ‘Poona’, Thiruvananthapuram became ‘Trivandrum’ and ‘Kanchipuram’ became ‘Conjeevaram’, among many other examples.
Historically, it can be seen that renaming places is largely futile as in many instances the name changes have been reversed when a new political entity comes to power. Yet this policy of Sultans and Kings was continued by political parties in the post-independence period for political gains.
One would imagine that after India achieved independence from the British, place names that had been Anglicized would have been changed to Indian ones. It was not that simple. While ‘Jubbulpore’ did indeed become ‘Jabalpur’ in 1947 and ‘Cawnpore’ was renamed ‘Kanpur’ in 1948, it was the Congress government that changed the name of ‘Banaras’ to Varanasi in 1956.
Varanasi is said to have been an old name of the city as it is situated between the ‘Varuna’ and ‘Assi’ rivers. Banaras, a popular name for the city, was a corruption of ‘Banarasi’, a Pali version of Varanasi. Similarly, the city of Bezwada in Andhra Pradesh was renamed ‘Vijayawada’. This was perhaps the beginning of the ‘back to roots’ renaming of cities, initiated by successive Congress governments.
Another example of renaming was that of the city of ‘Baroda’, which was rechristened as ‘Vadodara’ in 1974. The city takes its name from the Banyan or ‘Vad’ trees that were found in abundance in the region. It transformed into an important city under the Maratha Gaekwad dynasty in the 18th century.
In Marathi, it was referred to as ‘Badoda’, from which it became ‘Baroda’. Following the linguistic division of Bombay State into Maharashtra and Gujarat, the historically important name of Baroda was ‘cleansed’ and changed to Vadodara, though even today it popularly retains its older name. Four years later, in 1978, ‘Poona’ was renamed ‘Pune’.
Funnily, the largest renaming of cities took place almost 50 years after India’s independence, and it was justified as ‘decolonization’. In 1995, ‘Bombay’ became ‘Mumbai’, a Marathi name for the city, while ‘Calcutta’ was renamed ‘Kolkata’ in 2001, after a village that existed here before the advent of the British.
But the most curious case of renaming was the changing of ‘Madras’ to ‘Chennai’ in 1996. While the names ‘Bombay’ and ‘Calcutta’ had colonial origins, this was not the case with ‘Madras’.
The local settlement had always been called ‘Madraspatnam’.
According to local lore, when the British East India Company first arrived in the region in the 1630s CE, to set up a factory there, they wanted to acquire land to establish a settlement. A local Tamil farmer named ‘Madrasan’ gave his coconut grove to the British on the condition that the settlement be named after him. Thus, it was called ‘Madraspatnam’ and later just ‘Madras’.
While the DMK government renamed the city as ‘Chennai’ as a mark of Tamil pride, oddly, the name ‘Chennai’ is of Telugu origin! Apparently, when the settlement of Madraspatnam needed to be expanded, the British East India Company leased land in 1639 CE from Darmala Venkatappa Nayaka, the local Governor of the Vijayanagara Emperor. The Nayakas were of Telugu origin.
The lease was granted on condition that a new settlement would be named after the Governor’s father – Chennappa Nayaka. Hence the new settlement was called ‘Chennapatnam’, from which Chennai derives its name.
The politics of renaming cities has continued since then. In 2014, Karnataka renamed most of its cities such as Bangalore, Mysore, Mangalore, Hubli and Belgaum to Bengaluru, Mysuru, Mangaluru, Hubballi and Belgavi. The historically important city of Bijapur, known by that name for hundreds of years, was changed to Vijayapura.
So the recent decisions by BJP governments to change names of ‘Gurgaon’ and ‘Allahabad’ to ‘Gurugram’ and ‘Prayagraj’ are nothing but a continuation of the same policy. Interestingly, the historic name of ‘Aligarh’ since the 13th century CE has been ‘Kol’ or ‘Koil’. It was only in the 1740s CE that a Mughal commander Mirza Najaf Khan renamed it ‘Aligarh’ or the ‘City of Ali’. It perhaps makes more sense to rename the town ‘Kol’ than ‘Harigarh’, a name with no historic significance.
In future, we will see many other cities being rechristened. It is for us to decide whether we need to accept these names as a part of a historic process, where names of places keep changing over time, or if our country needs a national policy on changing the names of places.
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