Vanishing names and unchanged places

Hari Kumar

Changing the names of cities is a favourite pastime of populist leaders and nationalistic movements. They think it will wipe off the layers of history deposited on the place over the centuries. 

Representative image | Photo: AFP

Have you ever been to Krung Thep Maha Nakhon?

This question probably left you stumped. You may have heard of Timbuktu and even know where it is. Krung Thep Maha Nakhon is also a city many of you have visited, but you won’t find the name even in the Atlas.

Still confused? Here is the full name, if that helps.

“Krung Thep Maha Nakhon Amon Rattanakosin Mahinthara Ayuthaya Mahadilok Phop Noppharat Ratchathani Burirom Udomratchaniwet Mahasathan Amon Piman Awatan Sathit Sakkathattiya Witsanukam Prasit.”

At this point, even the most adept in geography quizzes would shake their head in disbelief.

The city referred to above is none other than Bangkok, the capital of Thailand.

Millions of tourists from India have been to that city, including planeloads of Malayalees, thanks to direct flights from Kerala. But if you ask even the most seasoned travellers to Bangkok about Krung Thep Maha Nakhon, you will see their eyes roll.

Thais refer to their capital city as Krung Thep – not Bangkok – when they speak in their mother tongue. And nowhere in the official Thai reference can you see the word Bangkok, though it still is the name that is familiar to billions across the world.

Boats travel along the Chao Phraya River as the sun sets in Bangkok | Photo: AFP

Whether issuing an official order will change this reality is a moot point. However, that is what the Thai government is trying to do.

Changing the names of cities is a favourite pastime of populist leaders and nationalistic movements. They think it will wipe off the layers of history deposited on the place over the centuries.

In Uttar Pradesh, the BJP chief minister, Yogi Adityanath, has been on a name-changing spree. And his followers are demanding more. One of his party stalwarts, Jagan Prasad Garg, wants to change the name of his city, Agra, which is well known worldwide because of the Taj Mahal. His reason?

“About 5,000 years back, the place was called Agravan, so it should be named that again.”

The drive to ditch names is fuelled by the nationalist agenda of the ruling party, but it is not confined to one side of the politics either.

The leftist Kerala government led by EK Nayanar was also stung by a similar bug, and the capital of the state was no longer called Trivandrum from 1991 but Thiruvananthapuram. Besides making life difficult for radio and TV journalists elsewhere and taking more space in newspapers, very little change was felt in the city.

Born after the independence and growing up in the city with dual names – Trivandrum and Thiruvananthapuram – one was comfortable with it. It may have even grown into an arrogant pride as we nodded condescendingly at those non-Keralites who struggled with the tongue-twisting Malayalam version and advised them to stick to the anglicised version.

Leave the other one to the experts like us, we said with a pat on their shoulder. But some wise counsels decided to deflate that ego with a stroke of a pen in 1991.

Talking of pride, it is the wounded one that has now brought Turkey before the United Nations. They don’t want to be mistaken for a bird anymore. It was clearly, pardon the pun, ruffling some feathers.

Their anger is not about being mistaken for a bird that ends up on the dinner table every Christmas. Definitions of Turkey in dictionaries say the word also means “something that fails badly” or “a stupid or silly person.”

So, now, they want their country called Turkiye and have launched campaigns to teach the rest of the world how to say it right.

Sometimes the change makes very little difference, but politics demand it. Like Kiev, the capital of Ukraine. As the Russian troops marched into the country and Ukraine became the focus of news media, the Ukrainian president urged an end to the use of Kiev as it was an “old Russian spelling.” His choice is Kyiv.

Soon it became a trending hashtag on Twitter, and most Western media readily agreed. “KEE-eve, not KEE-yev,” tweeted out one American television host to show how the new name should be pronounced.

But a few years back, when the Burmese junta changed their country’s name to Myanmar, most international media ignored it and kept calling the country by its old name. It shows it is crucial to be on the right side of the media when you change names.

Wars usually spur calls for name changes. It was not too long ago that a campaign was launched by some US politicians to change French Fries to Freedom Fries after Paris objected to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. People in France don’t call the spuds French Fries didn’t matter, but it still became almost a hot potato issue.

The name changes are quickly adopted by those who work in the media or friendly governments, while others continue to refer to those places by their old name.

Some years ago, a perplexed travel agent in Hong Kong spent a considerable length of time peering onto her computer screen before apologetically telling me there were no flights to the city I wanted to go to­– Chennai.

A combo picture showing Madras City of past and present | Photo: PTI

As the trip was on a tight schedule, that meant a lot of rescheduling and frantic phone calls. While making changes and trying to find alternate routes, an employee of the travel agency interrupted me and said helpfully: “But I can get you a ticket to Madras if you want.”

And I gladly took that, realising that despite the changes made by the Tamil Nadu government in 1996, MAA remained the city’s code in the aviation sector.

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