A name is a solid identity marker for any person or place. It defines its wearer and hence the popular Shakespearean line ‘What’s in a name?’ has gained almost a cult status when it comes to social, political or economic discourse. Yet, there is a lot of history, research and meaning in every name, especially when we start referring to names of places in India.
States and city names in India reflect the influence of the ruler, culture, as well as their social connotations. Some are born out of colonial history, some under the patronage of kings and nawabs and others are drenched in ancient Indian cultures, languages and myths. There are regional specifications and certain suffixes and prefixes that cater to certain areas. Some of the names sound familiar, some almost the same, whereas, some have a unique feel and sound. Yet, each of these has a special meaning that connects it to the place and unfolds its character.
Ever wondered how each state got its name? ‘Hima’ means snow and hence Himachal means clad or snow-laden. Punjab is the land of five (punj) rivers (ab), Rajasthan is the land of the Rajputs derived from ‘Raja’ or king and Jharkhand comes from the Sanskrit word ‘Jhar’ meaning forest and ‘khand’ which means land. There are some names that have literal meaning, such as Madhya Pradesh which means the Central Province and Uttar Pradesh or Northern Province. Then there are also state names that are derived from the type of people living there, for example, Gujarat is the land of Gujjars and Tamil Nadu is where the Tamil population resides. Bihar is believed to have originated from the Pali word ‘Vihara’ or abode of the Buddhist monks and Assam gets its name from the Ahoms rulers who ruled the area for centuries.
City and Town Names
City and town names, too like state names have ample meaning. Some of the names have clear derivations and meaning, whereas, some have multiple theories surrounding their names. Mumbai for instance is derived from Mumba Devi the Goddess of the region and Hyderabad comes from the word ‘Haider/Haydar’ meaning lion. The city is believed to have been named in honor of Caliph Ali Ibn Ali Talib who was also known as Haider for his exemplary courage during battles. Vadodara finds it origins in the Sanskrit word ‘vatodar’ which means the heart of the banyan tree and Mysuru is derived from Mahishuru or the mythological demon Mahishasura.
However, some cities that have varying theories surrounding the origin of their names include Kolkata which may have been derived from Kalikshetra or land of Goddess Kali. The other explanations include the unique products of the region, such as kata (coir) and koli chun(quicklime). Bengaluru, Benga-val-oru mean the City of Guards in Halegannada or Old Kannada, or the name may have been derived from the Kannada word for the Indian Kino tree that grows in this area. Pune gets its name signifying virtue or punya and Kochi gets its name from ‘kochu azh’ which means a small lagoon in Malayalam.
A Few Commonalities
Many towns and cities have common suffix, such as ‘patnam’, ‘pur’, ‘abad’, ‘nagar’, ‘peta’, ‘ooru’ etc. All of these mean village, area or town in their respective languages. And so we do have many cities and towns whose names end with such suffix, such as Jaipur, Kanpur, Nizamabad, Secundrabad, Vishakapatnam, Karimnagar, Vijaywada and more.
Quite a few places also have Anglicized or colonial names that have been named during the colonial rule, including McLeodganj, Port Blair, Landsdowne, Mussourie etc.
What’s in a Name?
One can go in great depth and detail while studying the naming pattern and meaning of the different states or cities. Yet, what stands out for sure is the diversity of the names, each having at least a cultural, regional, temporal or spatial significance. Because India is such a diverse country, its city and town names are bound to reflect this sprawling milieu. Most of the names are a reflection of the deep rooted literature and mythologies that are an integral part of the Indian diaspora. At the same time, the openness of accepting names that arise from different religious or regional dynasties and rulers across time only heightens the wonderfully unique and endearing aspect of the country’s culture. Where on one hand some names are very practically kept, depending on their location or geographic features, others expound and merit a more complex and interesting understand.
Also, changing names of cities and towns has always been an ongoing process, where governments have tried to shed off the colonial naming patterns to a more Indianized or culturally suited version. This might or might not really go down well with everyone, because though the name of the place is significant, it’s usage over the years also makes it a familiar and known entity. While changing the name may cause a shift from this comfortable association, it also once again brings the Shakespearean line at the forefront asking why should a name matter so much more than other pressing administrative and executive decisions. Yet, renaming city or town names might on the other hand, help build more a local and traditional connection that rekindles some of the older and forgotten culturally significant highlights.
Finally, just like the people of the country that hail, practice and follow a large range of diverse cultures, the names of the places they reside in are no different. And yet, the idea of unity in diversity never ceases to shine brighter when we think of how every name though reflective of its uniqueness, co-exists harmlessly and seamlessly surrounded by its geography, history, mythology, traditions and both physical and cultural landscapes.