ven old New York was once New Amsterdam, why they changed it I can’t say, people just liked it better that way,’ goes the famous song called ‘Istanbul’ (not Constantinople).
Every now and then, cities shake off their uncomfortable pasts and change their names. Canton is Guangzhou, Saigon is Ho Chi Minh City. In the late 1990s, states across India also decided to break with colonial histories, and go with older or indigenous city names. Bombay, Madras and Calcutta chose new identities, and so did Bangalore and Cochin. It is another matter that some of the old names still trip off the tongue; officially, the new names are what matter.
But now, BJP governments across India are on another renaming spree. From Mughalsarai station and Aurangzeb Road, now entire towns and districts like Allahabad and Faizabad are being rebranded to convey a mythic landscape of Prayagraj and Ayodhya. Ahmedabad might become Karnavati. Even the fate of Hyderabad and Aurangabad is in doubt.
This new rash of renamings is different from the earlier attempt to Indianise British names. Now, the agenda seems to be to erase all Muslim-sounding names and replace them with names that evoke past Hindu glory. It is to suggest that these “alien” names were imposed by past invasions and conquests, and that this wrong is now being avenged.
However, the fact is, Faizabad was always located outside Ayodhya, built from scratch by the new nawab as the capital of Awadh. There was no historical wrong, no assault on an existing Hindu heritage. The word Awadh itself is a tribute to Ayodhya. “So in the case of these cities, there was no ancient past being erased. The very names call up a history of confluence,” says cultural theorist Ranjit Hoskote.
“The renaming has overlooked syncretic traditions of both Faizabad and Ayodhya. Faizabad has been the point of origin of Avadh’s ganga-jamuni tehzib that travelled to Lucknow with Nawab Asafuddaulah, while Ayodhya has always nurtured the tradition of vidhwa bandhutwa (global harmony)”, says Shah Alam, writer, and founder of the Ayodhya Avam ka Cinema movement. It is inaccurate by any measure — the geographical boundaries of the epic Ayodhya might have to stretch to other districts of Barabanki, Gonda, Basti, Sultanpur and Bahraich, part of the 84 kosi parikrama, he points out.
Meanwhile, the new city created by Akbar was called Ilahabas, the abode of the divine (rather than specifically Allah) — and Prayag refers to a specific sacred spot, where the rivers Ganga and Yamuna meet, points out Hoskote. Settlements were not built on top of each other, but alongside, he points out, and the nature of Indian culture is of a palimpsest, layers, rather than one thing forcibly rubbing out another. This change is a “wilful misreading of history and an assault on the lived experience”, he says.
What’s more, the name we use depends on the context. We might say Prayag in a ritual or ceremonial context, but say Allahabad to refer to the town. “We would say Mumbai while speaking Marathi, Bombay if speaking English. This is the ‘Indic’ way, this is the natural code-switching from one register to another, the many versions that we are comfortable with. It is a Western, ‘Cartesian’ mentality where you annihilate one thing and replace it with another,” says Hoskote.
But this project to reduce Indian society to a clash of religions, to identify Hindus with the nation, and cast Muslims as outsiders and invaders, requires ignoring historical facts, it means ignoring the nonreligious motives of rulers, the diversities of both Hinduism and Islam, and the actual mingling of cultures that defines us.
Even in the Gangetic plain, for all the communal tensions of the last century and the frictions before, it is impossible to sever the connections strengthened over hundreds of years — in the language, the clothes, the food, the music and dance. Whether it is kathak or thumri, the churidar pajama and the names we have, these cultures have been too tightly intertwined for us to even tell them apart now. “The Bhakti and Sufi movements influenced each other. Even the Gorakhnath order (the Nath yogis where UP CM Yogi Adityanath is connected to) had connections with the Chishti tradition,” says Rana Safvi, who specialised in medieval history and syncretic culture. She points to the respectful aadaab greeting, a secular gesture rather than a religious one. As the musicologist Peter Manuel writes, Hindustani music tells a story of Muslim patronage and connoisseurship and Hindu themes, and its performers and traditions cannot be categorised as Hindu and Muslim.
Randomly renaming an existing city is an easy thing to do. Building one would be the real achievement, says Safvi. While the UP government may count on the new city names sticking after a generation or two, old memories are also stubborn. For instance, 62 years after its renaming, people still call Varanasi both Benares and Kashi. Signboards may change but it’s difficult to undo the past that produced us.
— With inputs from Shailvee Sarda