Delhi – What’s in a Name?

1947, the year of India’s independence saw the government initiate a process of name changing for its landmarks, cities, and states. A process that is very much ongoing till today. Seeing this as an effective, immediate and yes, simple way to change the shadow cast by the British in India, by eradicating the Anglicized names, many in government saw this as a way to exorcise the shadow cast by the British on the Indian psyche and landscape.

Most recently, in 2005, when a proposal was made to change Delhi’s name this sentiment was very much present in the words of the Chief Minister of Delhi, Ms. Sheila Dixit:

“Delhi is a name that indicates our mental slavery at the hands of our former colonialists and conquerors. The oldest name of the city is Hastinapur and we shall initiate the legislative procedure to effect the name change immediately.”

This statement made by Ms. Dixit in December of 2005 got a lot of reaction by the opposition, and inspired alternate name suggestions by them such as Indraprastha (by the BJP) and Leningrad (by the CPIM). We are now in 2014, and the politicians and their respective parities and alliances have been unable to come to a decision about renaming Delhi. Whether we label it parochial politics or an ‘authenticating’ process of Indian cities and landmarks, let us enjoy the meaning of the name Delhi and what it has come to represent and mean for a Delhi-ite exempt from its colonial ties.

Dhilika, Deh-leez, Dilli, Dehli.

There are many theories and academic hypotheses about the etymology and historical trajectory of the name Delhi. Some believe it is an amalgam of all the titles the city has been given over her 4 millenia existence. Others believe that the roots of her current title exist in the hindi/prakrit word Dhilli, which means loose. The Rajputs used this word to refer to the city as the Iron Pillar built by Raja Dhava which had a weak foundation and was replaced. The most widely held belief is that its eponym is Dhillu or Dillu, a Maurayn King who built the city and renamed it in 50BCE. A newer theory suggests that the original name of the city was Dhillika. The one that is closest to most citizens of Delhi, and especially this one is the theory that Dehli is in fact a derivation of the Hindi word “Deh-leez” or “Dehali”. Which when translated means ‘threshold’.

This last theory, though an old one passed on to the next generation through an oral tradition echoing with pride, celebrates all that is Delhi – the most. As a threshold she has functioned in the capacity of a welcome party, a barricade, a protector and an embracer. She has historically had the capacity to assimilate all her rulers and conquerors. Swallowing them whole, satiated and proud she leaves nothing, and discards none.

Evolving, essentially the city is a ‘portal’. Allowing access and exit between various cultures, ideas, philosophies, peoples and worlds. There is choice in this city of excess and an infrastructure that facilitates exchange. She is the threshold, the doorway, and the gateway between the Self, you enter with, and you that she helps uncover.

So, let the journey begin!

Note under/above images : Images from from Tales of Historic Delhi. Written and
illustrated by Premola Ghose, a children’s book published by Amber Books in association with Young Zubaan (2011)



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