Names may not always define the nature of a thing but certainly represent historical lineage when referred to a place. William Shakespeare’s assertion that names don’t matter, as a rose will smell the same even if named otherwise, makes some sense as names do not necessarily mean what things really are. Names may not always define the nature of a thing but certainly represent historical lineage when referred to a place. This is so as past always matters, it carries the legacy that provides continuity to existence of places. Names provide a sense of purpose and a reason for the place to be; names illustrate the struggles and the triumphs that a culture has faced; and names help people discover their identity with the place, and a continuity of being part of it.
In the present times when names of places and roads are being swapped to align with political allegiance of a kind, Mapping Place Names of India asserts that ‘place is neither just a site, nor people, politics or culture, but a chemistry between all this nor much more, which creates the soul of a place’. What is right in theory is not necessarily true in practice though. Else, names would not have been subjected to change for a variety of inexplicable reasons. While Mughal-sarai, a place of resting on a long journey during the Mughal period, had to forego its popular identity, Gaziabad, named after its founder Ghazi-ud-din, has continued to skip attention. Is it the political traction that determines the urge for a name change?
It does as camouflaged within the course of naming and renaming is how a place gets welded with identity, power and space. In the first of its kind book that charts the terrain of placenism as a phenomenon, Anu Kapur investigates how places are named and renamed, and will continue to remain a never-ending process as the quest for carving a new sub-national identity erupts from time to time. From Sanskritization of place names to its Persianization, and from its subsequent Englishization to Anglicization in recent times, names of places in each era has revolved around cultural identity and political influence.
Mapping Place Names of India is a comprehensive account of the geography and history of place names. It is an interesting reading in parts, but is loaded with rich information all through. It is a virtual who’s who on the evolution of sub-national identities in the country. It is an intriguing subject, as not one size fits all when it comes to demand for changing names. While there is no denying that cultural reclamation under the political influence is a primary reason for name change, the failure of promised development triggers search for new identity to enforce attention from the powers-that-be as well.
Kapur unleashes interest in topophilia – the love of, and love for, a place from this book. She laments that this multi-disciplinary branch of knowledge has yet to emerge as a subject for the lack of scholars committed to research on place names. How new names evolve may remain a matter of conjecture, but left to people they still prefer cultural vibrancy and economic progress as new markers for subnational identities. However, intention to wield power over the will of people sees no end. It will be interesting to see how the proposal to change the name of the ‘Taj Mahal’ to ‘Ram Mahal’ gets accepted, if at all.
Mapping Place Names of India
by Anu Kapur
Routledge, New Delhi
Extent: 234, Price: Rs. 699.
(Sudhirendar Sharma is a writer on development issues based in New Delhi, India)
This review was first published in The Hindu, dated May 24, 2020.