What is in a name?

PETERSBURG

 

An old mosaic adorns the facade of the big Apple store on London’s Regent Street. It harks back to the time long ago when the building housing the store was a London Branch of a big insurance company. The mosaic was assembled and installed long before the great Russian Revolution of 1917. Various cities are named on the mosaic. One of these is St Petersburg. After the revolution , St Petersburg was renamed ‘Petrograd’ and then ‘Leningrad’, which remaine dits name until the 1990s when the city reverted to being ‘St Petersburg’. During my childhood and early adulthood, St Petersburg was ‘Leningrad’. Whenever I passed that mosaic, I used to marvel that the city’s old name remained unchanged on the facade of the building. It was a memory of historic times. Now, by chance, it is up to date.

Many of the readers of this blog will have realised that I visit India regularly. Most people know that Bombay is now known as ‘Mumbai’. Actually, speakers of Marathi and Gujarati have always called it that, but often still call it Bombay when speaking in English.

Madras has become Chennai. So what should one ask for when ordering Chicken Madras, which appears on many menus in Britain’s Indian restaurants?

In Karnataka, Bangalore has become Bengaluru, Mysore is now Mysuru, and Halebid is Halebidu. When I bought a bus ticket to Gulbarga in northern Karnataka, I was puzzled to see I had been issued with a ticket to Kalaburgi. This turns out to be the new name for Gulbarga.

Allahabad is now Prayagraj, a name that removes the Islamic flavour of its former name. There are moves afoot to de-islmamicise the name of Ahmedabad in Gujarat. The proposed name for the city founded by Ahmed is ‘Karnavati’, but the change has not yet been enforced.

Whether these changes of Indian place names will stick remains to be seen. Who can say whether they will revert like Leningrad that became St Petersburg again?

It has its uses

Psychedelic headscarf_240

 

In the UK, unlike some countries in Europe, we have a fairly liberal attitude towards Moslem women covering their heads and faces to a greater or lesser extent. In the last dental practice where I worked until I retired, our patients came from all over the world. A not insignicant number of our female patients were Moslems who wore some kind of head covering. A few of them insisted on being treated by female dentists, but most of them did not mind seeing one of the male dentists.

One of my female Moslem patients came to the UK from a north African country. She always wore a loose-fitting headscarf, but did not cover up her face. One day, she needed to have a front (incisor) tooth removed. I explained to her that the situation was such that she would have be without any replacement for it for 24 hours – I cannot remember why. 

Will you be able to cope without that tooth for a day. The gap will show every time you speak or smile,” I said.

Picking up the end of the scarf she was wearing, she covered her mouth with it, and then said humorously:

This has its uses!

And with that comment, she allowed me to remove the troublesome tooth, and then left the surgery with her face covered. She looked like a typical Moslem woman wearing a face-covering. Nobody would have guessed that she was missing a front tooth.

Indian way of worship

Over and over again, I am impressed by the “Indian-ness” of worshipping in India. I will illustrate what I mean by this by describing a small Orthodox Christian chapel I visited on Bazaar Road in the Mattancherry district of Cochin (“Kochi”) in Kerala.

Outside the chapel, there stands a carved stone stand with indentations for oil lamps (diyas). It looks just like any diya stand that you could find in a Hindu temple, except that it is surmounted by a Christian cross.

The crucifix that stood above a small high altar within the chapel was draped with flower garlands (malas). Again, these are commonly found draped around effigies of Hindu deities.

I saw a brass diya stand with burning oil lamps directly in front of the crucifix. Like the lamp stand by the entrance, this one was also topped with a Christian cross.

If one were to replace the crucifix with an effigy of a Hindu deity and were to remove the crosses from the diya stands, the chapel would become identical to a Hindu temple.

The use of diyas and also agarbati sticks (incense sticks) is not confined to Hindu temples. I have seen them used in Christian as well as Islamic (especially Sufi) and Jain places of worship.

At a Sufi shrine at Sarkej Rauza on the edge of Ahmedabad in Gujarat, I have seen tulsi leaves being sold. These are commonly associated with Hinduism, but the vendor in the Sufi shrine told me that they were also used by worshippers who came to the shrine.

I have seen threads tied around the trunks of peepal trees by pious Hindu women hoping to have their wishes granted. I have also seen threads tied by women around pillars in Moslem shrines for the same reason.

Hinduism was probably one of the earliest religious belief systems to become evident in the Indian subcontinent. Christianity and Islam were relatively recent arrivals. Many Hindus converted to these two religions, but, I imagine, they were reluctant to abandon their Hindu heritage completely. Hence, the Hindu-ness or Indian-ness of some aspects of other religions in India.