How the English christened places in India might evoke memories of the Raj, but the circumstances have, nevertheless, become historical legacy that cannot be wished away, says Sudhir Kumar Jha
REMEMBER the faux pas in a recent edition of the Oxford English Dictionary? It said Bangalore — not even Bengaluru — got its name as the locals were Bengalis and spoke Bangla. This was the height of untruth and ignorance, a gaffe not expected from Oxford, but it does explain the myth and confusion prevailing in respect of place names. Places get their names by design or sheer accident. These can be plain, catchy or hilarious, obvious or intriguing, but never without some link to the past. Delving into the genesis of the English names of places in India has been an interesting but challenging exercise. For the sake of euphony, the terms “English” and “British” have been used indiscriminately. These place names evoke memories of the British Raj and, notwithstanding the ongoing attempts at renaming them, the circumstances of their naming have become historical legacy which cannot be wished away. It is sad that no definitive compilation of these names is available. At the beginning of the last century, two Calcutta-based scholars, KN Dhur of the Imperial Library followed by Lt-Col DG Crawford of the Indian Medical Service, made an attempt to list places named after the British. They consulted the survey maps of districts and also went through Newman’s Indian Bradshaw, Smith’s Students’ Geography of India published in 1882 and Keith Johnston’s Atlas of India published in 1894. Periodicals such as Bengal Past & Present and Saturday Journal also yielded some names. To the information so gathered, the two added their own knowledge based on folklore and hearsay. Their total came to a sizeable number, well over 150, but was far from being exhaustive. These came from the whole of British India which covered not only what are now Pakistan and Bangladesh but also Burma and the Malay Peninsula for most of the 19th century. Were they to include the localities or muhallas of towns, roads and streets, public and private institutions, monuments, gardens and parks, et al, so named, their list would have run into thousands. Bangalore Cantonment would have provided over 100 and Kolkata at least 20. The Andaman and Nicobar Islands provide over 40 such names. These islands were formally annexed in 1858 and converted into a convict settlement to confine the great number of life-prisoners left after the Sepoy Mutiny. The British gave the numerous names of their Mutiny heroes and members of the Andamans Commission to places in these islands. Several places in the Sunderbans falling in West Bengal and Bangladesh were named after officers of the Indian Navy, Royal Indian Marine, or Bengal Pilot Service. Amitava Ghosh mentions a few in his captivating book, The Hungry Tide. The one class of Britishers to have left the strongest imprint on the naming of places were the civil servants from the Provincial Civil Service and, later, from the Indian Civil Service, as District Collectors, and some as Lieutenant-Governors. In the days of the East India Company, military officers carried the flag into uncharted territories and laid the foundations of civil administration. New civil stations established by them carried their names, for example Daltonganj and Hunterganj in Jharkhand and Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh. There are railway stations that were named after the British, be it a railway engineer, priest or civil servant, because there was no village of any importance in the neighbourhood after which these could be named — for example Palmerganj between Gaya and Dehri-on-Sone and Twiningganj between Ara and Buxar. Places were also named after ranks in the British army. We have Captainganj and Colonelganj in Uttar Pradesh and Majorganj in Bihar. Brigade Maidan and Barrackpore in Kolkata and Brigade Road in Bangalore, too, have a British army connection. While many names famous in Indian history are commemorated in place names, many more of the first importance are not thus distinguished. There does not appear to be any place named after Robert Clive or Warren Hastings, the real founders of the British Empire in India. It is notable that most English names were given to places in the first 100 years of British rule in India, very few in the second half of the 19th century and hardly any in the 20th. Significantly, though the missionaries carried their work deep into the hills and jungles and made healthcare and education available to tribal settlements, not many places are named after them; they apparently did not try to impose their own or any other foreign names. Nor did the British try to change the names of villages already in existence. It is not that places were named only after Europeans, though exceptions are few and far between. For example, Achipur near Kolkata, on the banks of the Hooghly river, is named after Yong Atchew, the first Chinese settler in India in modern times. He came to Kolkata around 1780 and enjoyed the patronage of the East India Company as a cultivator of sugarcane. Exceptions apart, these exotic place names are in two parts. The prefix is English while the suffix is vernacular, invariably Persian-Urdu. By far the commonest, in northern India, is ganj, which means a market. Also common are abad and pur, meaning town. Whereas the Hindi garh has been used at least once, as in Georgegarh, nagar does not appear to have been used at all. In southern India, the suffix used is pet, again denoting a town or market; it has also been used in Marathi as Malcolmpet in Mumbai. Places were not always consciously baptised with English names. They just evolved as a corruption of vernacular names. Take the case of Bangalore. The British, after defeating Tipoo Sultan and restoring the Raja of Mysore in 1799, obtained the right to station their own troops in the state. They built their cantonment on ceded village land just east of the ancient town and fortress of Bengaluru, which was soon anglicised to Bangalore. English Bazar in West Bengal’s Malda district was originally the Rangreza Bazar, the dyers’ quarter. The first letter was dropped along the way and it became Angreza Bazar, and hence English Bazar. Kidderpur in Kolkata is not named after Colonel Kyd but derives from an older local name, Khettarpur. Some names got Anglicised, in pronunciation and in spelling, because the British could not pronounce these the local way. Kanpur became Cawnpore and Munger became Monghyr and Danapur Cantonment in Bihar became Dinapore. Likewise, Waris-ali-ganj in Bihar’s Gaya district began to be called Worsleyganj. Grierson market in Madhubani, Bihar, was named after the eponymous linguist, Sir George Abraham Grierson, ICS, who set up the market while he was posted as the SDO of that area. It has been known as Gilesan Market for generations. Bhendi Bazar in Mumbai is a phonetic caricature of “behind the bazaar”. Given below, by way of illustration, is the etymology of some place names from Bihar and Jharkhand: Goldinganj: This is a small village on the Chapra-Sonepur road about 12 km east of Chapra, an old district town in north Bihar. The only claim to fame of this otherwise nondescript place is a ring of mystery surrounding its name. It has a railway station catering to the North Eastern Railway and a post office with the postal index No. 841211. The station is spelt “Goldinganj” while the postmark reads “Gultenganj”. Old records reveal there was in fact one Edward Golding after whom the place was in all probability named. He was appointed the Company’s Commercial Agent at Bettiah in 1766 after the local Raja had capitulated to the East India Company’s forces. In 1769, Golding was promoted as the Supervisor (precursor of Collector) of Saran Parganas. His bailiwick covered what are today Chapra, Siwan, Gopalganj, Motihari and Bettiah districts. Lesliganj: This is an outgrown village, more of a kasba, in Palamu district of what is now Jharkhand. Located about 15 km east of Daltonganj, the district headquarters, on the road to Manatu, it has the usual appurtenances of an administrative outpost — a dak bungalow, a police station and a block development office. It has nothing much to offer except its exotic name. It was founded by, and is named after, Matthew Leslie, Collector of the Ramgarh Hill Tract in the 1780s. As with other East India Company officials of the 18th century, Leslie’s biographical details are extremely difficult to get. His revenue jurisdiction included the whole of what later became Palamu and Hazaribag districts and part of Gaya up to Sherghati. The Cheros had been the rulers of Palamu but their internal feuds afforded the British the opportunity to intervene and eventually assume control. As Leslie had to continually camp in Chero territory, he chose a hamlet that soon became known as Lesliganj, dropping an “e” from his name. It appears that Leslie’s good work as Collector of Ramgarh was taken note of and he was transferred as the Collector and Magistrate of Rungpore district in East Bengal (now Bangladesh), a more prestigious charge. Daltonganj: Situated on the Koil river, this is the headquarters of Palamu district, now in Jharkhand. It has the usual components of a civil station but nothing else and has been a poor and neglected cousin of the other towns in Chhotanagpur. Though connected by rail and road to the rest of the country, its back-of-beyond location is responsible for its relative isolation. The town is named after Colonel Edward Tuite Dalton who, as the Commissioner of Chhotanagpur, founded a settlement here in 1861 on government land where the headquarters of Palamu subdivision was shifted from Lesliganj the following year. When Palamu was made into a separate district 20 years later, Daltonganj was the obvious choice as the headquarters of the new district. Dalton was the commissioner of Chhotanagpur during the Sepoy Mutiny and for many years thereafter. He initiated several administrative measures. In 1862, he ordered an outright substitution of Hindi written in the Devnagri or Kaithi script for Urdu in the Persian character as the medium of instruction and for court work throughout his commissionerate. In September 1870, Dalton laid the foundation of a permanent church at Ranchi in the presence of a large and assorted gathering. He is best remembered for his magnum opus, The Descriptive Ethnology of Bengal, published in 1872. Forbesganj: This is today a subdivisional town of Purnea division in northeastern Bihar. It borders Nepal and is not very far from the Bangladesh border. The checkposts of various government departments notwithstanding, its busy market caters to buyers from both India and Nepal. The main business today is in grains and timber, jute having lost ground to plastic. How did Forbesganj acquire its exotic sounding name? It is named after Alexander J Forbes, an indigo planter and zamindar in Purnea district. His biographical details are not available except that he came out to India in the early part of the 19th century and spent the greater part of his life in Purnea, where he amassed a large fortune, mostly from indigo. One of Forbes’ indigo factories was at Forbesabad, which name was presumably changed to Forbesganj as the place developed into a township with a flourishing market. While on a trip to Calcutta, he died in 1890 at the age of 84, and lies buried at Purnea. Sandys’ Compound: In the heart of Bhagalpur civil station, there is a large tract of land that is locally referred to as Sandys’ Compound. At one time this whole area formed the compound of the residence of Teignmouth Sandys, who was the Judge of Bhagalpur around the middle of the 19th century. He belonged to the Indian Civil Service, though the nomenclature had not been fashioned till then. He was recruited as a Writer, like many others before and after him. William Tayler of Patna fame was his contemporary. Educated and promising youngsters from England were appointed as Writers, something like probationary Assistant Collectors and Magistrates, and rose to become Supervisors/Collectors if entrusted with revenue functions or as Judges if utilised for judicial work. Sandys belonged to the first batch of Writers nominated in 1826 for the qualifying examination in 1827. Revelganj: This is an inconspicuous town in Saran district in north Bihar. Situated 12 km west of the district headquarters town of Chapra, it is served by road and rail. Unlike some other places with European names, it is well known that Revelganj was named after Henry Revel. The East India Company posted Revel as the Collector of Customs at Chapra. It may be recalled that at that time, in the absence of satisfactory road and rail transportation, the East India Company carried on the bulk of trade and commerce by the river route. Revel realised the value of having a proper Custom House to earn revenue for the company so he set up one at Godna in 1788. A market grew around it and in no time the place developed as an important river mart. Revel appears to have been resourceful as well as kind-hearted and became a legend in his lifetime for his humanitarian and charitable acts. His memory was held in such repute that his grave was considered a shrine and his name invoked on occasions of calamity and adversity. It stands in front of the Eden bazaar alongside the Chapra-Guthni road. Tarapada Mukherjee, a local zamindar and lawyer, gave the place a facelift and was also instrumental in establishing a municipality in 1876 by combining the twin revenue villages of Godna and Semaria and, as it’s first vice-chairman, had the new township named Revelganj after Henry Revel. Bakarganj: Not to be confused with Bakerganj in Bangladesh, this lies in the heart of Patna and is named after Robert Barker, an officer in the East India Company’s army. The grant of Diwani to the East India Company in 1765 made the British the virtual rulers of what later became the three provinces of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa. A reorganisation of the East India Company’s army followed. Barker had long served the Company’s Artillery and distinguished himself during the siege of Madras. In the reorganisation, he was to have been made Colonel of the Artillery but had to contend with the place originally slotted for Major Knox of Patna fame. Of the three refashioned brigades, the first was located at Monghyr, the second at Allahabad and the third at Bankipore (Patna) under Barker. The 21st battalion raised by Barker at Bankipur became known as Barker-ki-Paltan just as the 20th battalion raised at Lucknow was called Hussaini-ki-Paltan for having been raised on the day of Muharram. Ironically, Barker-ki-Paltan, after several changes of nomenclature, mutinied at Azamgarh in 1857. Barker rose to become a general and Army Chief and was also knighted. He spent three years at Bankipur (Patna) roughly from 1765 to 1768, that is, until the cantonment was shifted to Danapur. The area around his residence developed as a military bazaar or mandi on the eastern side of Gandhi Maidan and was named Bakarganj after him. It is today an extremely congested commercial-cum-residential locality. Hunterganj: Contrary to popular thinking, Hunterganj in Chatra district, now in Jharkhand, is not named after the famous educationist and indologist WW Hunter. It derives its name from William Hunter who was the Collector of Ramgarh (spelt Ramghur) Hill Tract in 1794. The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Judicature at Fort William had appointed him and other Collectors of the Bengal Presidency Justices of Peace. Hunter’s jurisdiction extended right up to Sherghati in today’s Gaya district. A patch of jungle was cleared to set up his camp during his visits to Sherghati and human habitation slowly grew around it. Soon it was being referred to as Hunterganj and developed as an administrative centre. McCluskieganj: McCluskieganj is a sad saga of aspirations gone awry. The Anglo-Indians were, generally speaking, a town-bred community without knowledge of agriculture or experience of village life. They were doled out petty appointments in the Railways and Telegraphs departments while their women worked as teachers in convent schools and as stenos in multinational companies. It was becoming difficult to find employment, whether in government departments or in commercial concerns, for the increasing number of Anglo-Indian youth. Having observed their conditions first-hand, the Indian Statutory Commission made a suggestion, with the concurrence of the government of India, that an attempt be made to bring the Eurasians, chiefly the Anglo-Indians, to the land and open up a wider range of self-employment for them. The Anglo-Indians seized upon the idea and was thus born in 1933 The Colonization Society of India Limited, registered as a limited company. On behalf of the company, ET McCluskie, a Calcutta-based Anglo-Indian real estate agent and member of the Bengal Legislative Council, discovered a beautiful spot in the Chhotanagpur forests, 60 km from the district headquarters town of Ranchi. The Society bought 10,000 acres of forest land from the local Maharaja in 1932. Plots were allotted as per the layout plan prepared by McCluskie. In a creditable display of grit and determination to conquer the natural difficulties, they made the clearings, dug wells and planted orchards. It was not long before a large number of sprawling bungalows and cottages situated in the midst of several acres of land came up in these sylvan surroundings. The new colony became home to nearly 300 Anglo-Indian and domiciled European families. McCluskie died soon after and, as a fitting tribute to this pioneer, the new settlers named the place McCluskieganj, the putative Tel-Aviv of their homeland. Come Independence and, feeling deprived and insecure, there was a mad rush to migrate to Australia, the USA, Canada and the UK. The Society went into liquidation around 1955. Today there is nothing much to see here but a place gone to seed. One can take long walks through the forest, do some bird watching and listen to their chirping. Not more than 35 Anglo-Indian families now live here and fewer are descendents of the original allottees. There is no dearth of English place names. One only has to be inquisitive. There has been a trend in favour of demolishing English names originally given to a place. We cannot turn the clock back by renaming such places. Naming Calcutta Kolkata has not made the traffic less congested. People still prefer VT to Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus and refer to Connaught Place as CP and not by its new official appellation. Whether we like it or not, these mysterious place names have become a part of our heritage. Dhur and Crawford could not trace the etymology of each and every name they catalogued, leaving enough scope for future probe. Before the trail gets colder, all such names should be collected, collated and a funded research undertaken to record for posterity the circumstances of their naming.
(The author can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)
Dr. Sudhir Kumar Jha is a gold medallist in History from Patna University. He has also done his Ph. D. Born in 1939, he joined the Indian Police Service in 1960 and superannuated as a Director General of Police in Bihar. He has been writing regularly on subjects relating to police and historical research. He has produced two widely acclaimed books:-1. RAJ TO SWARAJ: CHANGING CONTOURS OF POLICE 2. A NEW DAWN: PATNA REINCARNATED.E-edition of this book can now be accessed on Kindle(Amazon). He can be contacted at sudhirjhapatna @gmail.com