Why Do Cities in India Change Their Names?

It’s got to be a royal pain in the behind to change the name of an entire city. Signs must be replaced. Government departments must be renamed. Not to mention all the business cards, letterhead, newspaper mastheads, maps… It must cost a fortune. And it’s confusing for those of us who can’t seem to keep up.

This name change thing happens in India quite a bit. Bombay is now Mumbai. Calcutta is now Kolkata. Benares is also Varanasi. Madras is Chennai.

It must be awfully strange to go to sleep in one city and wake up in another. Even stranger than getting married and suddenly having a new last name, or having to write a new year on things for the first couple weeks of January.

There are several reasons why name changes happen in India. In a lot of cases (Mumbai, for example), they are simply improving the spelling of a city whose name never really changed for the native people. Bombay is just an anglicized version of what the Brits heard the locals say. There’s a lot of arrogance surrounding colonialization, but the “we know better than you do what this place is called” takes the cake, as far as I’m concerned. (But then, not nearly enough American place names reflect the wishes of the Native Americans, so who are we to criticize?)

Adding another layer of complexity to the situation, there are 22 official languages in India, and 1652 spoken languages. Needless to say, all these people have different ways of pronouncing things, and different senses of history for each area.

From a political and religious standpoint, there’s also some pressure to change Islamic and Christian city names to their Hindu counterparts, as Hinduism comprises almost 80 percent of the population of India.

The thing I find most interesting is that a city’s name may “officially” change, but that does not necessarily mean that the locals or the press or the international community will adhere to that change. In some cases, it’s business as usual. Apparently it’s only a big deal if you make it one. Which makes me think of that old saying: “Wherever you go, there you are.”

Colonial India
The arrogant, and now largely inaccurate, colonial map of India.

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