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How Gali Churi Waalan got its name and other stories behind Delhi’s street names

Adrija Roychowdhury's book 'Delhi in Thy Name' on the capital's street names has opened up a fascinating area of study

Written by Sohail Hashmi |
January 22, 2022 3:00:47 pm
Delhi bookDelhi, in Thy Name: The Many Legends That Make a City by AdrijaRoychowdhury; Rupa Publications; 209 pages; Rs 295 (Source: Amazon.in)

Adrija Roychowdhury is a familiar name for the readers of The Indian Express, especially for those who have an interest in the histories of people, places, practices, politics and similar fields.

Getting intrigued by names of places and wondering about their origin is a rather common occurrence for anyone researching histories. The need to delve into the “why” would have come naturally to Roychowdhury given her training as a journalist and her interest in history.

It is remarkable that she has chosen to look for the reasons behind the names and the tales that hang by them and turn her curiosity into a book. Whenever a book like this comes out, one begins to wonder, why didn’t I think of writing such a book and it is with this question in mind that one has read Delhi in Thy Name, with great interest.

Having said that, let us digress into the kinds of place names one encounters.

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Among the most common, especially in old cities are descriptive names, Chowk Badshahbulla — the crossing with the grave of a Sufi, Shah Abdulla, under a banyan tree; Gali Neem Wali; Mandir 84 Ghanta; Gali Kubda Peepal; Gali Auliya Dai – the street of the Midwife Auliya; or place names associated with professions, the street of bangle makers – churi waalan; the street of tailors, embroiderers and garment makers — suiwaalan; the street of thatch makers – sirki waalan; the butchers’ locality – Qassapura, etc.

Historically, place names can be arranged in two broad categories –names that have continued for a long time, across centuries or perhaps longer, and names that memorialise a person or an event and are of relatively recent vintage.

The first kind of names normally may not have a meaning or could have had a meaning in the distant past but now the only significance they have is as the name of a specific geographic location. For instance, Glasgow, London, Delhi, Burari, Mathura, Benaras or Varanasi, Asia, Europe etc.

The second kind of place names have a more recent and a recorded history like Rampur, Bhojpur, Kishangarh Victoria, Georgetown, Laxmangarh, Jaipur, Jodhpur, Akbarpur, Shahjahanpur, Amroha, Vijayawada, Jamnagar, Gobindsagar, Nanaksar, Alipur, Jamshedpur.

The interesting thing about changing names of places is the fact that instances of people bothering about changing place names that have no apparent meaning are rather rare. No one, for instance, will seriously bother about changing the names of places like Burari or Bhusawal, but there is an army of enthusiasts who have gone about changing names of places associated with historical events, periods or persons.

The flurry of name changes that one is witnessing currently and the one that we witnessed immediately after Independence may appear to be similar but the objectives the first sought to achieve and those being achieved now are diametrically opposed to each other.

The names that were changed in the immediate period after Independence were an attempt to celebrate the heroes of the freedom struggle, and they were memorialised by renaming existing roads or by naming new residential areas after these heroes.

This renaming was broadly inclusive, in as much as it tried to represent the diversity of region, language and denomination of those who had contributed to the making of India. Those excluded were the colonisers and their agents, so Victoria, George, Edward, Curzon, Hardinge, Minto, Irwin, Northbrook, and others fell by the wayside, to be replaced by those like Lakshmi Bai, Bahadur Shah Zafar, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Dadabhai Nauroji, Jawaharlal Nehru, Mahatma Gandhi, Ghaffar Khan and others.

The only constant in this upheaval of sorts were the pre-British kings and nobles — Prithviraj, Tughlaq, Akbar, Mansingh, Bhagwandas, Birbal, Shah Jahan, Tansen, Todarmal and others – who were celebrated by the British for their contribution to the making of India and retained post 1947 because independent India owned and celebrated that history while it sought not to memorialise the history of colonial occupation.

The current flurry of renaming is specifically exclusionary but a discussion on this strange myopia and related afflictions that has assumed national proportions can perhaps become the theme for another work.

Let us confine ourselves to Delhi and Roychowdhury’s interesting investigations.

While hunting a story, a good journalist keeps her ears open and glued to the ground, this is how one picks up little tell-tale signs that lead one to a great story. Those little tales and how she doggedly chased them is the flesh and bone of the book and we suggest that you acquire a copy to discover them. One needs to hone one’s skills to pick up the right signs but if you let down your guard even for a split second you are likely to be taken for a ride. Ballimaran, the street that was inhabited by people who pushed barges across the river, becomes Billimaron, the street of cat-killers and you end up with cake on your face.

Fortunately, this did not happen to Roychowdhury, but it has happened to many looking for meaning behind names and not being on their guard like a good snooper all the time.

People invent stories and spin yarns, the turn a canal that flowed through Chandni Chowk into the Jamuna and end up believing and relating their own inventions with such conviction that the fourth century Iron Pillar at the Qutub becomes the nail of Bhim that comes loose – dheeli — and the nail that has come unstuck gives its name to Delhi. Someone goes off on another tangent and invents a king called Dehlu, whose capital becomes Delhi. There is no need for corroborative evidence, your word is all the evidence that is required, like the proverbial Oakisms invented by the renowned PN Oak.

Someone made the unsupported claim to have supplied rotis to Bhagat Singh when he was in hiding in Delhi. Strangely, this part of Bhagat Singh’s life has not been mentioned by any of Singh’s friends and comrades, who have left extensive memoirs. None of them talk about this and yet the man persisted, because no one checked. Now, the son of the provider of rotis claims that his father sheltered Bhagat Singh.

Such tales continue to do the rounds even about events that occurred in post-Independence India and some of this comes across through Adrija’s chapter on Pamposh Enclave. Her interlocutors, a couple who migrated to Delhi in 1990, place the entire blame for the framing of Article 370 on Sheikh Abdullah, though Hari Singh, the then Dogra ruler of Kashmir, was principally instrumental in its framing. The point that is sought to be made is that everything needs to be checked and cross-checked to ensure that a one-sided perspective does not get presented as “the truth”. One needs to be doubly sure, especially in these “post-truth” times.

Investigations into these areas would also create openings for understanding a society fast descending into an atavistic state, in at least as far its relationship with and understanding of its ancient past is concerned.

Delhi in Thy Name has opened up a long neglected but fascinating area of study and the slim volume is thus a pioneering work.

(Writer, filmmaker, Sohail Hashmi also conducts heritage walks in Delhi)

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