It was in1926, after years of deliberation, that the name of the new capital of India was finally chosen by the British — it was to be named New Delhi.
The name was picked from a list of alternatives such as Imperial Delhi, Raisina and Delhi South, writes historian Swapna Liddle in her 2018 book Connaught Place and the Making of New Delhi.
Thirteen years before this decision, a letter by an Englishman in 1913 to Lord Hardinge, the Viceroy and Governor-General of India at the time, pointed out that “though the British mostly spelt and pronounced the name as Delhi, this was incorrect. In fact, the name of the place was Dilli or Dehli”.
In her book, Liddle writes that Hardinge decided that “though indeed Delhi was the wrong spelling and pronunciation, long usage by the British had sanctified it”. And so the Capital of India came to be called New Delhi, as we know it today.
While little is known about how the city got its name, 84-year-old Urdu critic Shamsur Rahman Faruqi said, “It’s believed that there was a ruler called Raja Dhillu, who named the city after himself. It’s also believed that it was named after a small village in the area… the words ‘Dehli’ and ‘Dilli’ do appear in 11th Century texts.”
Faruqi also mentioned that Mauryan-era relics were also recorded in Delhi. He said that while both “Dilli” and “Dehli” were interchangeable, poets adapted the Iranian tradition of using the name of the city they inhabit as their surname, giving rise to “Dehlavi”.
He said, “Even Amir Khusro went by Amir Khusro Dehlavi and this was in the 13th Century.” The 14th Century mystic poet and Sufi saint Nasiruddin Chirag too suffixed Dehlavi in his name.
Author Sadia Dehlvi said, “For centuries, the city has been called Dehli, the sultanate was also called Dehli Sultanate. The refined word was always Dehli and in the colloquial language, it was Dilli.” Her grandfather suffixed “Dehlvi” to his name to reflect the family’s connection to the city.
Professor Narayani Gupta explains Delhi further when she says that “it’s a large area that encapsulates many earlier forts such as Qila Rai Pithora, Siri, Tughlaqabad, Feroze Shah Kotla, Dinpanah, Qila-e-Mubarak, and towns such as Jahanpanah, Firozabad, Shahjahanabad and New Delhi”.
She said that gates in walled forts or towns are named after the direction they face, and that there are “Dehli Darwazas in forts all over India”. “Even Shahjahanabad has a Dehli Gate, which led to Mehrauli, which in the 17th Century was called Dehli”.
At the Rajya Sabha, Goel also said, “It’s also said Delhi’s name should change to Indraprastha or Hastinapur but I won’t talk about it now.” Both Indraprastha and Hastinapur are mentioned in the Mahabharata. According to Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan’s 19th Century book Asar-us Sanadid, recently translated by city chronicler Rana Safvi, “Indraprastha was the name of the land between Khooni Darwaza of Dariba and the Pura Qila… Though there are no signs of this city any longer, the land to the south of Shahjahanabad, outside Delhi Darwaza, is called Indrapat. This was the first city of Delhi.”
Safvi said that the first documented proof of the city is a stone inscription from Ghiyasuddin Balban’s time. She said, “A stone found from a baoli built during the reign of Balban (1226-1287) bears a Sanskrit inscription praising him. In verse 12, it praises his capital ‘Dhilli’.”
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