Thursday, January 24, 2013

Mumbai: What's in a name?

Mumbai, January 25, 2013

Names of cities, streets and other urban spaces are both a practical matter and a very powerful symbolic question.  Think for example of Saint Petersburg that in less than a century circled through Petrograd (1914,) Leningrad (1924) and back to Saint Petersburg (1991.)  Or Place de la Concorde in Paris, originally named Place Louis XV and renamed Place de la Révolucion after 1789.

Since India's independence in 1947, the city of Bombay became been a veritable battlefield in the war of names.  And the war only intensified with the rise to power of the ultranationalist Shiv Sena Party, culminating with their success in the 1995 elections.

Some changes are pretty straightforward, as with Victoria Terminus (celebrating the Queen's Jubilee) renamed Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus in 1996, honoring the founding ruler of the Maratha Empire.  Yes, even if everybody refers to the station as "VT".  Something similar with Vaar Nariman Road, except that before independence it was Churchgate, a name that had embedded its own urban history, as it run through one of the three gates of the colonial defensive wall, the one in front of St. Thomas Church.

Of course, the biggest prize was the name of the city itself.  The origin of the name Bombay has been historically connected with variations of Bombaim, Old Portuguese meaning "good bay" or "good little bay" (the Portuguese threw in the outpost with Catarina de Bragança's dowry when she married Charles II of England.)  But when the name was officially changed to Mumbai in 1995, members of the Shiv Sena Party argued that Bombay actually originated in the name of the native Koli goddess Mumbadevi.

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