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An Aspect of Identity

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Readers may pardon me for beginning with an anecdote that is probably known to some of them. Once an Englishman complained to an American, “What odd names your towns have – Hoboken, Weehawken, Oshkosh, Poughkeepsie.”

“They perhaps sound queer to your ears. Where in England do you live?” asked the American.

“Well, for the greater part of the year I am at Chipping Norton; the rest of the time I divide between Brigglewade and Leighton Buzzard!” replied the Englishman.

Such names, of both the American and English varieties, must be sounding equally queer to us. We can perhaps take pride in the fact that no other country has such charming and imaginative names for their places as India. And some of these places had even more attractive names in the past. Patna was Pushpapura and Kusumpura, both meaning the city of flowers. Karnataka was Kuntaladesha; Kulu was Kulantapitha (the sacred frontier of human habitation); Dwaraka was Dwaravati; Gulmarg Gaurimarg; Lucknow was Lakshanavati (believed to be after Lakshmana of the Ramayana), Guwahati was Pragjyotishpura (Light of the East); Goa was Gomantaka, Pondicherry was Vedapuri (the seat of Vedic studies) Madurai Madhurapura, Ajmer Ajaymeru, Tamluk Tamralipta, Berar Vidarbha and Delhi Indraprastha. Trivandrum has reverted to Thiruvananthapuram. Bombay was of course Amba Mai (Seat of Mother Amba, in popular parlance Mumbai).

Researchers list the factors leading to places getting their names under nine heads, prominent among which are: Descriptive (Varanasi, the city between rivers Varun and Asi); Incident-oriented (Kurukshetra getting its name from a Yajna performed by King Kuru); Possessive (identifying who dominated it, such as Nagaland or Mizoram), Commemorative, Euphemistic (Dharmapuri, Srikshetra) and of folk nature. However, most of the Indian place names as well as the names of India’s rivers, lakes, hills and forests are at once meaningful and poetic and seem to have been bestowed by such great creative minds who obviously could act on the nation’s psyche. Places that were important only for the deities dwelling in them – such as Kedarnath, Badrinath, Kanyakumari, Rameshwaram, Bhubaneshwar, did not need any separate names. Then there were numerous names commemorating the Avatars and the Rishis, like Vyasa and Agastya, the founding fathers of Indian civilisation. The origin of several such commemorating names are almost forgotten – for example Kashmir getting its name from Sage Kashyap and Gwalior from Sage Gwaliapa. Even an atheist seeker like Javali (not Satyakama Javali, but the one in the Ramayana who advised Rama to return to Ayodhya and forcibly occupy the throne, throwing the old Dasaratha into gaol!) is remembered by Jabalpur where, on the river Narmada, he performed penance for having shocked Rama with his unworthy worldly counsel.

What is even more significant, at least three Indian cities, according to legends, bear the memories of formidable demon-kings: Gaya (Gayasura), Mysore (Mahishasura) and Thanjavur (Tanjam). They are symbols of forces which have made unmistakable contribution to the building of Indian heritage.

Can any list of the names of rivers surpass for their lyrical quality, their significance apart, those of India? Ganga, Yamuna, Krishna, Cauvery, Godavari, Narmada, Sarayu, Tungavadra, Tamraparni, Prachi and Mahanadi. Then the mountains Himalaya and Vindhya, the forest Dandakaranya; last but not the least the lake Manasarovara – born of the Supreme’s Mind.

All this comes to mind today because some friends have complained against the latest propensity in the politicians to create new districts and states and giving them new names. They are fine as long as they celebrate the natural characteristics of the region (say, the name of a state as Arunachal) or a sublime landmark (say, the name of another state as Himachal). But what is uncomfortable is, naming a district after an individual’s name. I wonder if anyone belonging to the discipline of social science or psychology had studied the effect on the inhabitants of the area of the name of an individual, however illustrious, being used to identify their district. I woke up to what can be termed a mild identity crisis while talking to a venerable old teacher who would not like to put down the name of his district in his address. “I have great regard for the man after whom my district is named. Let there be a dozen hospitals, a university and a dozen public parks bearing his name. But why impose it on my identity? Why should I be obliged to make him a part of my greater address? This is arbitrary, almost a tyranny, albeit of a subtle variety, for we can neither protest against such ostensibly patriotic decisions nor feel comfortable with them. A district is so vast an entity, like the name of one’s father! Why not name it after a river or a hill or an ancient institution that characterizes it? Why after a contemporary mortal?”

That reminds me of a friend in Delhi who was fluent, but inevitably stammered when he had to speak out the name of the road leading to his residence, named after an infamous ’emperor’ notorious for his cruelty towards his father and brothers and his unkindness towards the greater part of the population of India because of his religious fanaticism.

Names of places either evolve or they are bestowed on them. Nobody questions an evolved name. Once our country was known as Jambudwipa. It had a few other names too. But it settled down to Bharatavarsha – believed to have been after the legendary monarch Bharata, the son of King Dushyant and Shakuntala. Over the ages the word assumed almost a mantric power – capable of arousing in our mind a sense of vastness, awe, reverence and wonder.

Manoj Das

(Manoj Das is an internationally known creative writer. He is the recipient of India’s national recognition, the Sahitya Akademi Award and the nation’s most prestigious literary award, the Saraswati Samman. As a social commentator, his columns in India’s national dailies like The Times of India, The Hindustan Times, The Hindu and The Statesman, revealing the deeper truth and the untraced aspects behind current issues, have been highly appreciated.)