Tear up the maps: India's cities shed colonial names.

Mention the name Bangalore, and sprawling high-tech campuses of a saffron-scented Silicon Valley come to mind. In short, "New India."

By year's end, however, Bangalore could go the way of Bombay, changing its name from an international totem to a Jeopardy question. What is the city formerly known as Bangalore: Bengaluru. Or perhaps Bengalooru.

The trend that began vexing cartographers a decade ago when Bombay became Mumbai, Madras became Chennai, and Calcutta became Kolkata has only gained speed. Last month, the "French Riviera of the East" decided it wasn't so French after all, dropping its Francophile name, Pondicherry, for Puducherry.

In part, India is merely sweeping clean the last corners of colonialism – offending few beyond upper-class English-speaking Indians and outsiders who have wrapped India's identity in its anglicized names. In part, its politicians are using words as a tool – sometimes more to divide than to unite.

But underneath all is a new and unprecedented Indian self-assurance. More than half a century after the British left, India is making a statement that can be seen from politics to its economics: We are now a power in our own right, and the world must come to accept us on our own terms – whether that is nuclear weapons or a high-tech hub that might sound like baby talk to the foreign ear.

"This is a particular conjunction that is happening," says sociologist T.K. Oommen, citing changes in the Indian culture, polity, and economy. "We are gaining in confidence."

The changes sometimes take the guise of reclaiming historic names hopelessly mangled by colonial conquerors. Pondicherry was the best that the Gallic lips could do with Puducherry, and the British simply hit the eject button with Thiruvananthapuram, instead opting for the less tongue-twisting Trivandrum.

Advocates for Bengaluru say this is the case with Bangalore, where the cost of changing names would not be huge, the state chief minister has said. In fact, the local-language press had difficulty even reporting the proposed change: Bangalore is Bengaluru in the local tongue, so the papers duly pronounced that Bengaluru was changing its name to Bengaluru.

In some respects, the revisions are hardly surprising. From Myanmar (still widely known as Burma) to Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon), newly independent nations frequently find colonial names as ill-fitting as breeches and pointy admiral's hats. What is curious in India's case is that it took 50 years for the purge to start in earnest.

It is a measure of the admiration for Britain that many of India's early leaders shared, says Mr. Oommen – as well as a sign of how much the atmosphere has begun to shift to a new sense of self-worth.

What has emerged is also the logical culmination of a decision by India's first prime minister. In 1956, Jawaharlal Nehru decided that the country's states should be organized along linguistic lines, essentially creating more than a dozen nationlets within India – each with its own distinct language, culture, and recipe for curry.

For example, Bangalore is the capital of Karnataka, where the local language is Kannada – part of India's mix of 23 official languages, 800 unofficial languages, and an estimated 2,000 dialects. "If in a state that was made to preserve a certain language you can't even call the capital by the name in Kannada," there is something amiss, says Ramachandra Guha, a historian who lives in Bangalore.

Yet some of the other changes take a different tenor. India has slowly found firmer footing as a nation after the tumult of partition with Pakistan and the uncertainty caused by former leader Indira Gandhi's authoritarian rule in the 1970s and '80s. In this collective exhale, new and not always inclusive forms of national and regional politics have found space to expand.

Foremost among them has been more extremist strains of Hindutva: the doctrine that India – with an 80 percent Hindu majority – is a Hindu nation and should start acting like it. Some nationalists argue it's time to strip India's place names down to the studs. "The culture of India is not 200 years old," says Santosh Gangwar, a member of India's lower house of parliament, the Lok Sabha. "Our culture and heritage is more than 5,000 years old."

By this measure, he says, Delhi is Indraprasth – harking back its name in the Hindu epic, the Mahabharata. Even "India" is not beyond revision. After all, India's namesake – the Indus River – has been in Pakistan since partition. Mr. Gangwar suggests Hindustan. Others favor Bharat.

The past is not all that stirs would-be name-changers, though. The faceless forces of a more globalized future, turning India into nothing but a long succession of McDonald's and KFCs, also give pause. The switch to Mumbai in 1995 was largely the work of Shiv Sena, an ultraconservative party founded on the idea that within the state of Maharashtra (where Mumbai is the capital), Maharashtrians should have more rights than others.

"In some cases, [the changes] reflect local paranoia that they will be swept away by outsiders," says Mr. Guha.

There are shades of this discontent in Bangalore, even though the change to Bengaluru has been promoted not by right-wing politicians, but by an award-winning local writer. Forgotten amid the tumult of the New India is a different Bangalore, author U.R. Ananthamurthy laments. By some estimates, less than 30 percent of the population speaks Kannada.

"There are actually two towns here: Bangalore and Bengaluru," says Professor Ananthamurthy, noting the split between the Kannada-speaking locals and outsiders drawn by start-ups and call centers.

"The elite classes have to realize that there is also a Bengaluru," he adds, suggesting that the correct spelling should actually be Bengalooru. "The [name change] is a step towards making visitors come to terms with the place."

Occasionally, however, Indians themselves can't agree on which name and whose version of history to use. In 2000, the people of the hill country northeast of Delhi celebrated the creation of their new state – only to discover that the federal government had chosen to name it Uttaranchal.

The women and students who had lined the streets calling for a new state had united under the banner of Uttarakhand. Even the holy texts of the Hindu faith, perhaps written as early as 2,500 B.C., speak of the area as Uttarakhand.

But in a country where every state is a potential breakaway republic, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) worried that the name Uttarakhand might only encourage the state's sense of itself as separate and unique. So it settled on a new creation with no history outside the modern Indian nation, and Uttaranchal was born.

To Sanjay Kothiyal, it was nothing less than domestic colonialism. "It hurt the people as a whole that they changed the name for which people were fighting," he says.

With a different party in power, the name is returning to its ancestral antecedent. Says Mr. Kothiyal: "This is a question of pride."

• Saurabh Joshi contributed to this report.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Tear up the maps: India's cities shed colonial names.
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today