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What's in a Name? Tamil Nadu Govt Believes They Matter, Even During a Pandemic

File image of Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami (PTI Photo)

File image of Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami (PTI Photo)

The upmarket Adyar in Chennai is now Adaiyaaru, just as the famed Srirangam is now Thiruvarangam, and it has opened a pandora’s box amid a pandemic.

Chennai: The Tamil Nadu government's order reverting names of several cities and important places back to historic phonetics has opened up a hot debate over its timing bang in the middle of a pandemic, and opinions on the purpose of changing names are doing rounds.

The move's stated purpose, though, was to bring back the way cities were called to their ancient nomenclatures, and it started two years ago when the government said anglicised names should be renamed closer to their original Tamil names. The decision to go on such a drive was announced in the Assembly.

Some of the prominent changes are Coimbatore to Koyampuththoor, Ambattur to Ampaththoor, Nagercoil to Nagerkoil, Vellore to Veeloor, Saidapet to Saidapettai, and Adyar to Adaiyaaru.

The state government officials defend the decision to put out the announcement at a time cases of the coronavirus have been surging in Tamil Nadu, particularly in Chennai.

A senior bureaucrat said the decision to bring out the list was taken earlier and months of effort had gone into it. In the coming weeks, the government also has the mammoth task of implementing it across the state, putting up new signboards, changing it in government maps and so on.

A political leader with the AIADMK, on condition of anonymity, said it was natural that Coimbatore was restored to its former glory when cities such as Madras became Chennai.

It is interesting that the new list of names have also reversed changes brought about by the influence of Sanskrit on Tamil names. For example, in the document, item number 784 is Srirangam, known for its famous Sri Ranganatha Swamy temple and its reclining Hindu deity Maha Vishnu. Srirangam is now Thiruvarangam, just as Srivilliputtur will become Thiruvillipuththur.

Tamil author Perumal Murugan, who wrote the book Madhorubagan, starts by saying the effort to change back the names to their original phonetics and form was a welcome one. “The Britishers couldn’t pronounce Ezhumboor, hence Egmore came to be. We need not keep calling it Egmore even now, decades after they left us...”

Murugan is excited that some Sanskrit was getting knocked off its perch in the names of ancient cities. For example, says Murugan, the original name of Virudhachalam was Thirumudhugundram, according to Sangam literature, which got changed due to the influence of Sanskrit. Murugan remembers protests done by the Dravida Iyakkam in their heyday demanding names be changed to their original ones. In fact, former Chief Minister and Dravidian movement icon M Karunanidhi had made a dent on public consciousness through his protests in his late twenties seeking a name change from Dalmiapuram to its original Kallakudi. In Tamil Nadu, etymology always strikes a chord with public sentiment.

first published:June 12, 2020, 11:23 IST