The Ecotone theme for this biweek, Place Names, has inspired Nancy Gandhi of Under the Fire Star (which is six months old today—congratulations!) to an excellent entry on Madras/Chennai and its places:
Living in an ex-colony, I’ve discovered, means that place-names are highly mutable. The funniest example came during the Vietnam War, when the American Consulate in Calcutta went to sleep on Harrington Street and woke up on Ho Chi Minh Sarani—a little joke played on the Americans by the Communist government of the state of West Bengal, which continues to this day. (There’s a useful page here with old and new names for Calcutta streets—I wish there were one for Chennai.)
The city where I live was called Madras for 350 years, since the British cobbled it together from a number of existing villages. (It survived long enough to give America a fabric called ‘bleeding madras,’ in the sixties of the last century.) In 1996, some local politicians decided that Madras was a ‘colonial’ name, and should be replaced with a ‘real’ Tamil name, Chennai. Ironically, the writer Shashi Tharoor has some scathing things to say (this is the cached version—couldn’t get the original) about the name and the decision. It seems that Chennai was originally Chennappa-pattinam, a settlement named after a local Telugu (not Tamil) chieftain. Local historian S. Muthiah thinks that, if the name had to be changed at all—he opposed it—it should have been changed to Mylapore, the largest of the existing villages brought within the city limits. Mylapore was an ancient seaport, which sent traders and culture-bearers across the sea to Southeast Asia. However, the city’s residents were not asked for their opinions, and here we are in Chennai….
Personally, I wish sites like the “old and new names” one were available for every major city. And I wish governments would stop messing around with the names people are used to (or, failing that, I wish people would stubbornly stick with the old names). Place names are as much our collective heritage as any other part of language.
Addendum. The Tharoor article is online here.