Thursday, June 19, 2008


Vir Sanghvi’s argument in the Hindustan Times of May 17, 2008, that the name ‘Bombay’ was of British origin and had no Indian reference point pre-dating the British came as a surprise. Karan Thapar also made a somewhat similar argument in the same paper on June 07, 2008. He, in fact, included Madras and Calcutta also in the list. Both these gentlemen seem to be perturbed by the ‘Indianisation’ of almost the last vestiges of the Raj in the renaming of Bombay to what many believe is its original name, Mumbai. Surprisingly, there was no such emotional outcry when Connaught Place and Connaught Circus in Delhi(still not called by its original name, Dilli or Dehli) were renamed after Indira and Rajiv Gandhi, even though their original names had no Indian roots at all and they were built from a scratch by the British.

Gujaratis and other Indians have always called Bombay ‘Mumbai’ and ‘Bambai’ respectively, long before the city got its present name formally. One always thought that Bombay was another British corruption of an Indian name till one read Sanghvi’s column. If he is to be believed, “Indians have a tradition of corrupting city names when we use them in different languages” like the Gujaratis have done in case of Mumbai and Amdavaad(Ahmedabad). He is right about the tonal variations in different regions but is wrong in deducing that these corruptions de-link names from their roots.

Amritsar, for example, is pronounced ‘Ambarsar’ by even residents of the town but that does not mean that they don’t know what the name actually means. Similarly, Jalandhar is not pronounced by Punjabis the way it should be in Sanskrit, but that does not mean that its meaning and origin is lost or changed. Yervada, Zilla and Yogi are all pronounced starting with a ‘J’ across large parts of the country. Similarly, Sagarika is pronounced ‘Shagoreeka’ in Bengali; Vinod Sharma will be Beenod Sarma in many states, but there is no doubt about what they mean and where they come from.

Gujaratis are among the oldest residents of Mumbai. If they have always got the ‘bai’ part of the name of the city right, there is no reason to believe that they were not able to pronounce the ‘Bom’ part correctly and therefore twisted it to ‘Mum’. Thus, if Gujaratis have always called Bombay ‘Mumbai’ as Sanghvi says, it almost proves the fact that the British corrupted the original name of a village called Mumbai to Bombay rather than the other way round! Outsiders who came into the city when the corrupted Bombay was its established British name, seem to have further corrupted the already corrupted ‘Bom’ to ‘Bam’ and taken the ‘bai’ part from the locals.

Bombay is not an isolated case of the corruption of the names of Indian cities by the British. Most people have forgotten that Kanpur was called ‘Cawnpore’ by the British. There was no city at that spot too before the British built a huge military station after getting the place in 1801. Prior to that, the small town/village that existed there was variously called Karnapur(after Karna of Mahabharat) or Kanhapur/Kanhiyapur(after Lord Krishna). There was also a Kohna village in the area. Whatever the prevalent name when the British took control of it, they promptly proceeded to corrupt it to an almost unrecognisable Cawnpore.

The British had a penchant for naming roads and streets after their kings, queens, princess, and other dignitaries in all the cities that they built on or around existing villages/towns. But for the cities themselves, they invariably stuck to the original names, thoroughly corrupted, of course. Very few towns were given non-Indian names. These were only those which were built from a scratch in a previously uninhabited area. Dalhousie, Abottabad, McLeodganj, Robertganj, Marghareta, Mussourie etc are few examples which readily come to mind. In all other cases, they stuck to the then prevalent local names.

The names of Calcutta and Madras cannot also be traced to any colonial roots. Logically, they would have been named after local settlements or villages there. The British wouldn’t have even dreamt during those early years that they would actually become the unquestioned rulers of this huge landmass one day. Nor would they have dreamt that they would build such large cities on those spots. Their achievements far exceeded their initial plans and expectations when they set camp in these and the other great cities and towns that they built. Had it been otherwise, or had they stayed longer, they probably would have followed the Mughal example in re-naming some existing great cities. Remember how at the peak of their power they arrogantly ignored the indigenous names of Mount Everest and named the world’s highest mountain after a British Surveyor General of India?

Bombay and Cawnpore are not the only examples of wholesale corruption of the names of Indian cities and places. Nor was the corruption limited to names of cities only. Everyone knows how river Ganga was corrupted to ‘Ganges’. That is not all, Narmada was mutilated to ‘Nerbudda’, Yamuna to ‘Jumna’ and Satluj river became, hold your breath, ‘Sutledge’ ! Names of individuals were also similarly corrupted. Karim Bhai became ‘Currimboy’ and Mohammad became ‘Mahomed’. Of course, who does not know that Lord Jagannath has become something else altogether in the dictionary as ‘Juggernaut’.

Examples of arrogant mutilation of names of Indian people, places and things are endless. But, for now, let us stick to the corruption of the names of Indian cities. A few examples of the way Indian cities were spelt during the Raj by the British are being reproduced below. Try and pinpoint which cities/places these are today. Some answers will be easy while a few may fox you! The really well known ones like Trivandrum, Tanjore, Pondicherry, Trichur etc have been deliberately not included in the list.

1. Allyeghur 2. Bagput 3. Bolundshahur 4. Bundlekund 5. Dacca 6. Deyra Dhoon
7. Guzerat 8. Kurnaul 9. Futtegurh 10. Hurrianah 11. Jansie 12. Jaudpore
13. Jeypore 14. Jubbulpore 15. Loodianah 16. Oojein 17. Oudh 18. Raneegunge
19. Saugor 20. Scinde 21.Sreenugger 22.Terree 23. Umballah


1. Aligarh 2. Baghpat 3. Bulandshahar 4. Bundelkhand 5. Dhaka 6. Dehra Dun
7. Gujarat 8. Karnal 9. Fatehgarh 10. Haryana 11. Jhansi 12. Jodhpur
13. Jaipur 14. Jabalpur 15.Ludhiana 16. Ujjain 17. Avadh 18. Raniganj
19. Sagar 20. Sindh 21. Sringar 22. Tehri 23. Ambala

How many did you get right, if you are an Indian reading this?

Okay, here are a few more. I have not been able to link them to any known present cities and towns, and they are not from the time of the Indus valley civilisation! Got any ideas?

1. Erinpora 2. Googairah 3. Lullutpore 4. Mundesore 5. Puddakottah
6. Segombe 7. Segowle

Some of you might be thinking that many of these spellings may have been made up by me or picked out of some obscure source which has little credibility. It needs, therefore, to be mentioned that these spellings are out of as authentic a Raj document as you can get. They are from ‘ The Post Office of India and its History’ by Geoffrey Clarke, ICS.

I can already hear some prominent voices, particularly in the English media, asking that we should revert to the Raj spellings and even pronunciations for these cities too! After all, they will argue again , there were no cities in these places too before the British came and built them! An increasing number of them as it is find it very difficult to pronounce Indian names the way they used to when they were growing up, and now spend long hours to better even the Brits at their mutilation. Proud Indians.

The Raj is dead, so we think; long lives the Raj.

This post was also published by