Lavelle Road or …? Leningrad or …? Bangalore or …? Why do place names matter enough for people to fight for or against a name? Why do governments officially change names of places? This is another way in which we engage with places, the primary concern of geography.

It’s a small fun thing to do in Bangalore. (We’ll return to that name in a moment.) Asking a friend or an autoricksha driver to take you to “M L Subbaraju Road” and watch the reaction. Alas, the more commonly likely response would be a peremptory sideward shake of the head that means, “Won’t go.” If, however, he is willing to go there, very likely, he will ask you where it is. Can you guide him, he may ask. If you don’t know, then there is an awkward situation. Knowing a little geography helps, no? J

If you have a smart phone and can access one of the map apps, you might be able to find it and show and/or tell him where to go. But even this may not always be needed these days.

When the British ruled India, Bengaluru became Bangalore. One of my friends rubbishes the explanation of Bengaluru as “bendha-kaal-ooru” (city of boiled lentils). Instead, he says, the name has a different botanical origin: the area was thickly forested with benga (old Kannada name for hongey) trees. The plural for benga, in old Kannada, is benga-l. The city that was full of benga trees, benga-l, became Bengala-ooru or Bengaluru.

But along came the British and went about changing all and sundry place names. Just because they couldn’t be bothered to pronounce them correctly. This is a large part of colonialism. Change names of places to suit the convenience of the colonizer and never mind the old cultural and historical connections that the colonized people have to the place.

In my primary and middle school history textbook I remember reading about Seringapatam (Srirangapattana). Later, in high school, when Sri B Narasanna taught us social studies, we learned about the many results (“good” and “bad”) of colonialism. One of these, I learned, was changing of place names.

Places get their names from people who live there. Usually. However, ruling political powers often impose names on places. The name of a place tells us something about the history, legend, mythology, or even ecology (as in the botanical name of Bengaluru that I shared above) of a place. Toponyms (from the Greek, topos – place, -onym – name) are very powerful means of affirming or denying people’s own sense of place, their identity, their connection with a place, often over many generations.

Once the name of a place sticks and is internationally known, it is very tough to change it. It costs money and a lot of political effort to bring about the change. A couple or so years ago, the government of Karnataka issued an order changing the names of several cities in Karnataka. Under this rule, Bangalore became Bengaluru, Mysore became Mysuru, Tumkur became Tumakuru and so on. I should actually have said “returned to” instead of “became” because the “new” names are actually the old pre-British names.

In this change, there were many implications. The chief one was that we were shedding the “foreign” names and returning to “native” names.

Except …

There is always something!

The international system of airport call letters is a short-hand way of referring to an airport ( ). These are easier to use in radio communications in aviation, and on aeronautical maps. “Bengaluru International Airport” is BLR. This code has been in use for ages. And it will not change! So, when “Bangalore” became “Bengaluru”, “Bangalore Airport” became “Bengaluru International Airport”, and then became “Kempegowda International Airport” … the code was unaffected. It remains BLR. It would be far too much effort to internationally change the code to something else.

Maps? Oh, maps that were printed before the changes in names are now collectible items. People going around showing the old maps … “See? Here the name is the OLD name! Huh? See? OLD NAME, I SAY!” The new maps show the new names.

The digital maps? Updating them is a piece of idli!

Changing of street names also follows similar patterns. Local political forces may want names changed to honor their own political heroes or heroines. Different social groups may likewise want their heroes’/heroines’ names. Patriotic feelings may drive place name changes, too. “Vidhaana Veedhi” where the Vidhaana Soudha is located in Bengaluru, was changed to Dr Ambedkar Road (Veedhi = Road). When I was a kid, growing up in Jayanagar 6th Block, a nearby circle was called “Yediyur Terminus.” Apparently, until a few years before we moved there (in the mid-1960s), buses did not ply beyond that spot. Hence it was the terminus, the end. And another circle further east of here was called the South End Circle. At one time, the urban area probably ended there. Now, it is practically in the centre of the vast urban area of the city. South End road that connected Yediyur Terminus and South End Circle (and a little bit more) became, more recently, Nittur Srinivasa Rao Road (a famous Kannada intellectual and former Chief Justice of the High Court who lived just off that road).

Similarly, Nagasandra Road connected South End Road to Gandhi Bazaar and beyond. On this road lived Dr D V Gundappa (DVG), one of the most amazing intellectuals and poets of our state. Following his death, the road was renamed in his honour and is now called DVG Road.

Thus, many different reasons motivate the changing of place names. By no means is it confined to India. Find out which other famous places have had their names changed. Start with a look at city names in Russia and the names of countries, cities, and lakes in Africa.

Explore Bengaluru (and other) place names in this map and research name changes that have happened.

(A version of this article appeared in the Deccan Herald Student Edition on 21 January 2016)


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