Elphinstone Road to Prabhadevi: Why is Mumbai on a name-changing spree?

The renaming of the railway station is just the latest in a series.

Along Mumbai’s busy Western Railway line that carries three million commuters every day, Elphinstone Road station was always the poor country cousin to the better connected and vibrant Dadar station nearby. After it was opened to commuters in 1867, only two of its four platforms were used by suburban trains, while the other two lay mute witnesses to fast trains trundling by. The two in-use platforms were narrow, almost always filthy, lacked basic services such as restrooms and clean benches, and the taps ran dry for most part of the year. The station was after all used by workers of textile mills and engineering factories in this central Mumbai area, including at the now-demolished Elphinstone Mill.

When the mills and factories were razed to make way for shiny corporate towers in the early 2000s, there was a marked shift in the commuter crowd with hordes of suit-and-briefcase executives thronging the station. Elphinstone Mill gave way to the gleaming India Bulls complex. As the area transformed into a financial and corporate hub over the last decade, little about the station changed. The platforms remained filthy, the access roads poorly lit, and the station itself gave no sense of the area’s history. Now, with the state government’s decision to change its name from Elphinstone Road to Prabhadevi, the station, too, loses its historical – though colonial – name. Another link to the city’s formative past is overlaid by contemporary political populism.

To be more accurate, what Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis has done in the past three weeks is toponymic populism – toponymy being the study of place names. On the northern side of the western railway line lies Oshiwara railway station, named after the river that runs through the suburb, and now rechristened Ram Mandir. Oshiwara, the area, has grown into a mish-mash of antique furniture shops, upscale neighbourhoods and illegal shanties. It was but natural that when the long-pending railway station was finally completed this year, it would assume the local name. But, no, Ram Mandir it had to be.

In a move that would have made the late Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray proud, Fadnavis at once acceded to the demands of self-styled Maratha leaders and did some more name-changing. The Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, the railhead for all Central Railway trains in South Mumbai, and the Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport will henceforth be called Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus and Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj International Airport. The addition of the honorific Maharaj was necessary to give the Maratha warrior his due respect, the chief minister argued.

Prabhadevi is among the prominent patron goddesses of Mumbai – the others being Mumbadevi, Mahalaxmi, Gamdevi, Shitladevi – as well as the name of a mixed middle and upper-middle-class neighbourhood. But neither the temple to goddess Prabhadevi nor the area is anywhere near the station. In fact, those headed towards Prabhadevi prefer to use Dadar station. But who’s to argue with populist, or toponymic, sentiment?

It does not stop here. There are pending demands to rename Grant Road station in South Mumbai as August Kranti, after the historic maidan by the same name (originally Gowalia Tank) where the tricolour was raised with the Quit India call to the British regime in August 1942. And Charni Road station as Gamdevi. Also, Dadar as Chaityabhoomi, the name of Babasaheb Ambedkar’s cremation site, visited by lakhs of followers on his death anniversary every December 6.

The name game

The political, or more specifically electoral, games being played with this renaming spree are not lost on most people. With less than two months to go for the all-important municipal elections in Mumbai and neighbouring cities such as Thane, and given that the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party is pulling out all the stops to wrest the corporations held by the Shiv Sena, Fadnavis is clearly using his executive powers to appeal to local sentiment.

For decades now, the Shiv Sena has positioned itself as the voice of Maharashtrians and Marathi-speaking people. The BJP, on the other hand, has been the party of businessmen and traders, traditionally the Gujarati, Marwari and Jain communities. The Sena’s decent performance in the 2014 Lok Sabha and Assembly elections meant the BJP would have to think beyond the Modi effect and make itself appealing to Maharashtrians.

The BJP’s leaders have realised that the archetypal Sena sympathiser – practitioner of its sons-of-the-soil theory, the sort who would do anything for Thackeray and the party – can be kept happy with tokenism. Hence, the renaming of Elphinstone Road station, preparations for the bhoomi-pujan of the multi-crore memorial to Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj in the Arabian Sea, and, moving a few steps ahead, a memorial to Thackeray.

The Dalits have not been forgotten. The Fadnavis government has got the Ambedkar memorial project moving on a 12-acre plot in the Dadar area. Election season is usually the time for tokenistic gestures and announcements. But even by that cynical yardstick, this government has taken it too far.

As for poorly lit, badly equipped Elphinstone Road station, if renaming it Prabhadevi would somehow magically upgrade its facilities, there might have been less reason to argue against the new name. But substantive changes to its accessibility and usability are not on the agenda here. Fadnavis will point the finger to railway authorities for upgrading the station’s facilities. But the name change? That was the easy part.

History of urban geographies

One or many, toponymic changes offer evidence of political agenda at work. The renaming of Marathwada University in Aurangabad as Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar University back in the 1990s, assorted government programmes bearing the names of the late Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi and Mahatma Gandhi, and the current dispensation changing many of these to honour its ideological icons, renaming Aurangzeb Road in Delhi, and changing the prime minister’s official residential address from 7 Race Course Road – not a colonial or Mughal hangover even – to 7 Lok Kalyan Marg, all indicate a shift in political power.

The newly renamed Lok Kalyan Marg in Delhi. Photo credit: PTI
The newly renamed Lok Kalyan Marg in Delhi. Photo credit: PTI

This is not a new phenomenon. Newly independent India threw off the British yoke in visible ways. The public arena has been a potent area of and for propaganda. The Communist regimes in Europe set about transforming urban landscapes in the 1940s to reflect their politics. And as the regimes collapsed in the late 1980s, their commemorative landscapes became targets of protest and were eventually cleansed or altered to reflect new realities. In Hungary, for example, the Budapest city authority decided to not demolish but relocate more than 40 Communist-era statues and monuments to an open-air park at the city’s edge called Statue Park, but relocate it did.

The erasing, demolishing, relocating and renaming are all elements of the dramatic visible proclamations of the changing political order that countries and cities undergo from time to time. Of them, renaming streets, buildings and landmarks is possibly the least dramatic but no less potent in symbolism. The intent is always the same: De-associate the place from the past and attempt to change its historiography to reflect current political ideologies. The Portuguese Bom Bahia became the British Bombay, which was then reintroduced by the Shiv Sena in 1995-1996 as Mumbai.

But does this distort and/or obliterate the past, the process of urban creation and its creators, and urban histories told through its geographies? Yes, it does, say urban conservationists who say the ideal would be a balance between living with non-traumatic symbols and landmarks of the past while reflecting new ideologies in other ways. Historians, urban archivists and researchers, and local voices would be collectively better placed to decide on changing names instead of politicians randomly exercising their executive powers to do so.

Even so, urban streets, buildings and landmarks exist simultaneously in two realms – the physical and historical one in which citizens use them, engage with them, mark personal milestones and remember them; and the second in which they exist on maps, in official registers, government documents and the like. It is not always that the two overlap and fuse to become one.

A street, an area, a landmark gets its locally popular nomenclature and reflects that urban geography. The formal name is often an imposition. For example, Oshiwara station. Or Prabhadevi area. It is indeterminate if the original temple to the goddess was at the present site. The original temple in Kotwadi was destroyed by the Portuguese, according to documenter J Gerson da Cunha, writing in The Origin of Bombay in 1900. But local people came to know of the devious plan and hid the idol of the goddess in a step well at another location, where it lay for 200 years before she appeared in the dream of a palm garden owner, a Pathare Prabhu, to reinstall her. This is the present location of the temple.

What does it have to do with Elphinstone Road station, one might wonder. This was named after John Elphinstone, governor of Bombay between 1853 and 1860. More famous than him and more dedicated to shaping Bombay, and the founder of educational institutions in the city, was his uncle Mountstuart Elphinstone, governor from 1819 to 1827. What will Fadnavis rename the renowned Elphinstone College, named after him?

The chief minister might want to remember that among the pending name changes are Dadar, which means ladder or bridge in local parlance, and Charni Road, which got its name from the vast grazing (charni) fields for cattle there. It is an irrefutable reality that Bombay was a colonial city, one that historian and author Gyan Prakash describes in Mumbai Fables as an urban project that “epitomised and represented the colonial conditions” represented by industrialisation built on the backs of cheap labour, Gothic buildings, architectural styles and sculptural designs fashioned from the European past, and so on. This colonisation, he and other urban historians have argued, involved the repression of prevailing cultural significances that local people had with places.

This can help us understand, if not appreciate, why Bombay was renamed Mumbai. But it does not explain why Elphinstone Road should be renamed Prabhadevi, or Oshiwara be turned into Ram Mandir. The current toponymic changes will be recorded in official files and maps, no doubt, but it is hard for them to be absorbed in the realms of public imagination and language. After all, how many call Mumbai’s majestic Marine Drive Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose Road, decades after it was renamed?

Marine Drive, long after it was renamed Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose Road, remains Marine Drive.
Marine Drive, long after it was renamed Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose Road, remains Marine Drive.
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“My body instantly craves chai and samosa”

German expats talk about adapting to India, and the surprising similarities between the two cultures.

The cultural similarities between Germany and India are well known, especially with regards to the language. Linguists believe that Sanskrit and German share the same Indo-Germanic heritage of languages. A quick comparison indeed holds up theory - ratha in Sanskrit (chariot) is rad in German, aksha (axle) in Sanskrit is achse in German and so on. Germans have long held a fascination for Indology and Sanskrit. While Max Müller is still admired for his translation of ancient Indian scriptures, other German intellectuals such as Goethe, Herder and Schlegel were deeply influenced by Kalidasa. His poetry is said to have informed Goethe’s plays, and inspired Schlegel to eventually introduce formal Indology in Germany. Beyond the arts and academia, Indian influences even found their way into German fast food! Indians would recognise the famous German curry powder as a modification of the Indian masala mix. It’s most popular application is the currywurst - fried sausage covered in curried ketchup.

It is no wonder then that German travellers in India find a quite a lot in common between the two cultures, even today. Some, especially those who’ve settled here, even confess to Indian culture growing on them with time. Isabelle, like most travellers, first came to India to explore the country’s rich heritage. She returned the following year as an exchange student, and a couple of years later found herself working for an Indian consultancy firm. When asked what prompted her to stay on, Isabelle said, “I love the market dynamics here, working here is so much fun. Anywhere else would seem boring compared to India.” Having cofounded a company, she eventually realised her entrepreneurial dream here and now resides in Goa with her husband.

Isabelle says there are several aspects of life in India that remind her of home. “How we interact with our everyday life is similar in both Germany and India. Separate house slippers to wear at home, the celebration of food and festivals, the importance of friendship…” She feels Germany and India share the same spirit especially in terms of festivities. “We love food and we love celebrating food. There is an entire countdown to Christmas. Every day there is some dinner or get-together,” much like how Indians excitedly countdown to Navratri or Diwali. Franziska, who was born in India to German parents, adds that both the countries exhibit the same kind of passion for their favourite sport. “In India, they support cricket like anything while in Germany it would be football.”

Having lived in India for almost a decade, Isabelle has also noticed some broad similarities in the way children are brought up in the two countries. “We have a saying in South Germany ‘Schaffe Schaffe Hausle baue’ that loosely translates to ‘work, work, work and build a house’. I found that parents here have a similar outlook…to teach their children to work hard. They feel that they’ve fulfilled their duty only once the children have moved out or gotten married. Also, my mother never let me leave the house without a big breakfast. It’s the same here.” The importance given to the care of the family is one similarity that came up again and again in conversations with all German expats.

While most people wouldn’t draw parallels between German and Indian discipline (or lack thereof), Germans married to Indians have found a way to bridge the gap. Take for example, Ilka, who thinks that the famed differences of discipline between the two cultures actually works to her marital advantage. She sees the difference as Germans being highly planning-oriented; while Indians are more flexible in their approach. Ilka and her husband balance each other out in several ways. She says, like most Germans, she too tends to get stressed when her plans don’t work out, but her husband calms her down.

Consequently, Ilka feels India is “so full of life. The social life here is more happening; people smile at you, bond over food and are much more relaxed.” Isabelle, too, can attest to Indians’ friendliness. When asked about an Indian characteristic that makes her feel most at home, she quickly answers “humour.” “Whether it’s a taxi driver or someone I’m meeting professionally, I’ve learnt that it’s easy to lighten the mood here by just cracking a few jokes. Indians love to laugh,” she adds.

Indeed, these Germans-who-never-left as just diehard Indophiles are more Indian than you’d guess at first, having even developed some classic Indian skills with time. Ilka assures us that her husband can’t bargain as well as she does, and that she can even drape a saree on her own.

Isabelle, meanwhile, feels some amount of Indianness has seeped into her because “whenever its raining, my body instantly craves chai and samosa”.

Like the long-settled German expats in India, the German airline, Lufthansa, too has incorporated some quintessential aspects of Indian culture in its service. Recognising the centuries-old cultural affinity between the two countries, Lufthansa now provides a rich experience of Indian hospitality to all flyers on board its flights to and from India. You can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalized by Lufthansa to the extent that they are More Indian Than You Think. To experience Lufthansa’s hospitality on your next trip abroad, click here.


This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.