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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
Updated May 28, 2014
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

Mumbai is one of the world's ten largest cities today and is located in the Indian state of Maharashtra. This world-class city wasn't always known by this name however. Mumbai was formerly known as Bombay, which has its origins in the 1600s with the Portuguese. During their colonization of the area, they began calling it Bombaim - Portuguese for "Good Bay." In 1661 though, this Portuguese colony was given to King Charles II of England after he married the Portuguese princess Catherine de Braganza. When the British then took control of the colony, its name became Bombay- an anglicized version of Bombaim.

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

However, Mumbai was not the only newly named Indian city in 1996. In August of that same year, the former city of Madras, located in the state of Tamil Nadu, had its name changed to Chennai.

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

More recently, in January 2001, one of the world's 25 largest cities, Calcutta, became Kolkata. At the same time the city’s name changed, its state changed from West Bengal to Bangla as well. Like Madras, the origin of the name Kolkata is disputed. One belief is that it is derived from in the name Kalikata - one of three villages present in the area where the city is today before the British arrived. The name Kalikata itself is derived from the Hindu goddess Kali.

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

In 2006, the union territory (an administrative division in India) and city of Pondicherry had its name changed to Puducherry. The change officially occurred in 2006 and but is only recently being recognized worldwide.

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 most recent place name change for India's states is that of West Bengal. On August 19, 2011, India's politicians voted to change West Bengal's name to Bongo State or Poschim Bongo. Like other changes to India's place names, the most recent change was done in an attempt to remove its colonial heritage from its place name in favor of a more culturally significant name. The new name is Bengali for 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.

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