India Place Name Changes

Significant Place Name Changes Since Independence

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Over the past few years, several places in India have changed their names to shed their colonial monikers in favor of appropriate indigenous names. Source: CIA World Factbook, 2007

Since declaring its independence from the United Kingdom in 1947 after years of colonial rule, a number of India's biggest cities and states have undergone place name changes as their states underwent a reorganization. Many of these changes to city names were done to make those names reflect the linguistic systems in the various areas.

The following is a brief history of some of India's most famous name changes:

Mumbai vs. Bombay

The name Bombay then stuck until 1996 when the Indian government changed it to Mumbai. It is believed that this was the name of a Kolis settlement in the same area because many Kolis communities were named after their Hindu deities. By the early 20th Century, one of these settlements was named Mumbadevi for a goddess of the same name.

Therefore the change to the name of Mumbai in 1996 was an attempt to use the previous Hindi names for a city that was once controlled by the British. The use of the name Mumbai reached a global scale in 2006 when the Associated Press announced it would refer to what was once Bombay as Mumbai.

Chennai vs. Madras

Both the names Chennai and Madras date back to 1639. In that year, the Raja of Chandragiri, (a suburb in South India), allowed the British East India Company to build a fort near the town of Madraspattinam. At the same time, the local people built another town close to the site of the fort. This town was named Chennappatnam, after the father of one of the early rulers. Later, both the fort and the town grew together but the British shortened their colony's name to Madras while the Indians changed theirs to Chennai.

The name Madras (shortened from Madraspattinam) also has links to the Portuguese who were present in the area as early as the 1500s. Their exact impact on the naming of the area is unclear however and many rumors exist as to how the name really originated. Many historians believe that it may have come from the Madeiros family who lived there in the 1500s.

No matter where it originated though, Madras is a much older name than Chennai. Despite that fact, the city was still renamed Chennai because it is in the language of the area’s original inhabitants and Madras was seen as being a Portuguese name and/or was associated with the former British colony.

Kolkata vs. Calcutta

The name could have also been derived from the Bengali word kilkila which means "flat area." There is also evidence that the name could have come from the words khal (natural canal) and katta (dug) which would have been present in older languages.

According to Bengali pronunciation however, the city was always called "Kolkata" prior to the arrival of the British who changed it to Calcutta. The changing of the city’s name back to Kolkata in 2001 was then an attempt to get back to its earlier, non-anglicized version.

Puducherry vs. Pondicherry

Like Mumbai, Chennai, and Kolkata, the changing of the name to Puducherry was a result of the area’s history. The city and territory's inhabitants said the area had been known as Puducherry since ancient times but it was changed during French colonization. The new name is translated to mean "new colony" or "new village" and is considered the "French Riviera of the East" in addition to being the educational center of south India.

Bongo State vs. West Bengal

The public opinion on these various city name changes is mixed. People residing within the cities often never used the anglicized names like Calcutta and Bombay but instead used the traditional Bengali pronunciations. People outside of India though often became used to such names and are unaware of the changes. Regardless of what the cities are called though, city name changes are a common occurrence in India and other places around the world.