Changing Place Names in Kashmir

Archival evidence establishing change in place names of Shopore Pantchhokh and Munshi Bagh.
Archival evidence establishing change in place names of Shopore, Pantchhokh and Munshi Bagh.

On 24 October 2018, the State Government inaugurated in Srinagar a ‘library building’ named after the third generation Dogra ruler, Pratap Singh, whose memory in Kashmir only evokes painful feelings of oppression. On psychological plain, the development could be read as a statement to emphasize that theoretically the Dogra regime (1846-1947) might have since ended but its spirit still rules Kashmir.

Here is a former autocrat who is remembered in Kashmir for all the wrong reasons and the incumbent Government dedicates to his memory a multi-crore Libraries’ Complex to deify him 71 years after his dynasty’s rule was abolished. Libraries’ Complex – because the building does not house only the 19th century S. P. S. Library named after him which was shifted here from the old Museum building. At least three other public libraries of Kashmir–the very important Oriental Research Library (Hazratbal), the City Centre Library (Karan Nagar) and the District Library Srinagar (Habba Kadal)- have been amalgamated with the S.P.S. Library and housed in the new building. The collection of Oriental Research Library includes 5824 rare manuscripts in different languages and scripts including Sanskrit, Persian, Arabic, Balti, Hindi, Sharda, and Kashmiri. The official handout released on the occasion mentioned the collection of the newly inaugurated ‘SPS Library’ as “more than one lakh and fifty thousand books” which, in fact, is the total collection of the four public libraries. The Government’s decision to name the building and four libraries after Sri Pratap Singh is irrespective of local sentiment and the fact that a proposal to name the building after an illustrious son of Kashmir was already with the Government.

On 10 August 2011, Director Libraries & Research vide his letter No. DL/Admn-Constt/39-719 addressed to the Commissioner/Secretary to Government, Department of Culture forwarded a proposal of naming the upcoming building after “some very distinguished personality of Kashmir in the field of literature and academics”. The letter identified 16th century scholar, author and poet Shaikh Yaqoob Sarfi as the person after whom the building should be named, given his “enormous contribution to learning and scholarship and to honour this illustrious son of Kashmir”. Sarfi, it may be recalled, occupies a place of prominence in the history of medieval Kashmir and had acquired international reputation for his scholarship. He had also set up a huge personal library in Srinagar. The proposal was referred to the Government committee on naming of public buildings and roads where it was pointed out that since the building was still under construction a decision would be taken after its completion. Maulana Anwar Shah Kashmiri, the unrivaled Islamic scholar of 20th century, is another son of the soil whose name could have been considered for the Libraries’ Complex.

In the meanwhile, the building was thrown open without the originally approved art gallery, auditorium, exhibition hall, internet café and researchers’ cabins – facilities to, what was intended, make it a meeting place of cultural and intellectual offerings on the pattern of the India International Centre. The Government, it seems, is not interested in such a facility being available in Kashmir. Instead, it showed haste in merging four major public libraries of Srinagar into one and name them after the late ruler of Jammu & Kashmir, Maharaja Adhiraj Indar Mahindar Sipar-i-Saltanat-i-Inglishia Sri Pratap Singh, who “would not bear the sight of a Muslim in the morning after he rose from bed.” [Iqbal aur Tehrik-i-Azadi-e-Kashmir, pp 26-27]

That brings us face to face with a more serious issue of changing place names – a favourite tool in the hands of unpopular regimes and men at the helm of affairs to alter history. Kashmir has seen this happening for long. The very name ‘Kashmir’ is a misnomer, never accepted by natives as the name of their motherland. A Kashmiri calls it Kasheer, and himself and his language as Koshur instead of Kashmir, Kashmiri people and Kashmiri language, respectively. To justify ‘Kashmir’ as name of the land, you had to first invent Kashap Rishi who lived for ‘thousands of years and spent at least one millennium in overpowering and eliminating demon Jaladbav’ and draining water of the Satisar [Sheerazah (Urdu), 1984, Vol 23, No, 3-4]. Another account that the name is a combination of two words ‘Ka’ and ‘Smira’ meaning ‘a water body evaporated by the force of wind resulting into the emergence of land mass’ thus known as Kasmir or Kashmir’, is no less amusing. What is of significance is that Kashmiri language does not recognize the land by any other name than Kasheer, which according to scholar and author, Prof. Margoob Banihali is “a single word and not a blend of two words contrary to Kashap-mar and Ka-smira” [Sheerazah (Urdu), 1984, Vol 23, No, 3-4]. He refers to the ‘universal principle’ of a place and its people getting their name from the language originated from and spoken in that place, like German (a particular language) > German (an individual or race speaking German language) > Germany (land of German speaking people); French (a particular language) > French (an individual or race speaking French language) > France (land of French speaking people); English (a particular language) > English (an individual or race speaking English language) > England (land of English speaking people) and Nepali (a particular language) > Nepali (an individual or race speaking Nepali language) > Nepal (land of Nepali speaking people). Applying this principle to Kasheer we have Koshur (a particular language) > Koshur (an individual or race speaking Koshur language) > Kasheer (land of Koshur speaking people).

Another old and iconic place subjected to name change – several times – is the famous hill in Srinagar crowned with an ancient stone temple. What we are told is that the hill’s name was ‘Islamized’ from Shankaracharya to Takht-i-Sulaiman or Koh-i-Sulaiman. You often come across this premise in the writings, and posts on social media, of people subscribing to a particular view on Kashmir’s past. Those who hold and propagate this view do so without any regard for history. The name of the hill and the temple on its summit as Takht-i-Sulaiman predates by centuries its now officially used name Shankaracharya. Does that mean Takht-i-Sulaiman is its original name? Such presumption would be erroneous, for this name is not available in history prior to Muslim rule over Kashmir, except in a legend about Prophet Solomon or Sulaiman visiting Kashmir and delivering its people of deluge. However, there is no evidence forthcoming from the recorded histories of Kashmir that before the arrival of Muslims, the hill and the temple were known as Shankaracharya. The 12th century Rajatarangini mentions the hill as Gopa and the shrine as Gopadari. Kalhana assigns this name to the hill on the premise that the shrine on its summit was constructed by Gopaditya whom he identifies as a ruler of ancient Kashmir. Before Kalhana, however, Pandit Ratnagar, narrating the visit of Sandhiman (Solomon) and his descent on the hill, mentions its name as Jeetlark. So, those who accuse Muslims of changing the name of the hill from Shankaracharya to Takht-i-Sulaiman are on the wrong foot. The fact of the matter is that the latest name change of the hill was from Takht-i-Sulaiman to Shankaracharya, and not the vice versa, and it happened during the last years of the Sikh rule (1819-46) over Kashmir [Koshur Encyclopaedia, Vol I, p 304]. For long, through the Dogra rule, the name change did not find public acceptance. One can observe this from writings of foreign travellers or men in employment of the Dogra rulers, and archival papers which mention the hill as Takht-i-Sulaiman. It was only post-1947 when the new name was officially popularized.

For quite some time now, we come across allegations that the Muslim rulers of Kashmir and its Muslim majority population have wantonly ‘Islamized’ place names to, what is alleged, erase its Hindu past. In support of the allegation, often, and only, the instance of Islamabad, a South Kashmir town is quoted claiming it was originally named Anantnag. History, however, does not corroborate this assertion. The town bears the name of Islamabad since it was founded during the Mughal rule over Kashmir. Islam Khan, one of the governors of Aurangzeb (1658–1707 AD), laid out a garden here for the king. The latter, however, named the place as Islamabad after the governor. More than two centuries later, the town was rechristened as Anantnag during the Dogra rule (1846–1947 AD). We do not have any evidence to show that a town with its name as Anantnag existed in ancient Kashmir. The 6th–7th century Nilmatapurana or the Rajatarangini do not mention any shrine or place with this name. Aurel Stein who minutely studied ancient texts including the mahatmyas while translating and writing annotations on the Rajatarangini, finds in them no tirtha by the name of Anantnag, the supposed shrine after which the town is said to have gotten its name. “Of the town, however,” he writes, “I cannot find any old notice, and it is in all probability, as its Mohammadan name implies, a later foundation.” [Kalhana’s Rajatarangini, pp 464-67] The fact that Anantnag as the name of the south- Kashmir town is a Dogra-rule development is further corroborated by a Memorandum submitted by the then Mirwaiz of Kashmir, Molvi Muhammad Yusuf Shah, to Maharaja Hari Singh in 1941 where he points out rechristening of Islamabad as Anantnag. The Mirwaiz writes: “Sir, you can very well imagine what we feel when Islamabad is changed into Anantnag, Hindi names are allotted to Palaces, Aga Syed Hussain and General Samandar Khan etc. are made ‘Thakur Hussain’ and ‘Thakur Samandar Khan’, the legislative body is called ‘Praja Sabha’ and its members ‘Sad’, and all possible efforts are being made to popularize Hindi and Devnagri Script.” [Kashmir: A Walk Through History, p 218]

Notwithstanding a strong historical background to the contrary, there was always official coercion on people to use Anantnag instead of Islamabad, as the name of the south Kashmir town and district. During 1960s and 70s, the State Government bullied private transporters to use Anantnag as destination name on Islamabad bound buses but the Kashmir Motor Drivers’ Association refused to succumb to the pressure. The Association forced to drop Islamabad as the name of the town, replaced it with Khannbal, a place little distance short of the town of Islamabad. However, the Government Transport buses had no such option. During early years of militancy and crackdown across the Valley, paramilitary forces beat people who would say ‘Islamabad’ in response to a query on their destination or residential place.

We as people have exhibited serious lack of concern over attempts by outsiders on changing our place names or corrupting these to suit their own phonetic convenience. Far from resisting, we have appallingly facilitated such cultural distortion. One could understand a place name getting corrupted where it was difficult for non-local rulers or visitors to pronounce it but where is the reason for changing Varmul to Baramulla, Panpar to Pampore, Pulwom to Pulwama, Vejibror to Bijbihara, Kopwor to Kupwara, Badgom to Badgam, Tulmul to Tulmula, Nayut to Nowhatta, Razay Kadal to Rajouri Kadal, Sovur to Soura, Nov Kadal to Nawa Kadal and Buchhwor to Buchhwara et al., especially when in our speech we use these names in their original form. Is it our or their problem that our non-local administrators have difficulty in pronouncing Tsar-i-Sharief? Why should we change the name of this revered township to Charar-i-Sharief rather than them attempting at pronouncing it correctly? Let some non-local people mispronounce it than make entire local population to do so. Every place name has a history behind it and we have allowed wanton defacing of our history. Some years back the Greater Kashmir had taken a bold initiative of using Varmul instead of Baramulla as the name of an important north Kashmir town and district. If you Google Varmul, you will find the name used by the newspaper in the dateline and news reports through the years between 2006 and 2010. One had expected that it was a beginning of undoing distortion of our place names.

Rechristening villages for their awful names like Gyoor (faintness) to Noorpora (abode of light) in Tral or Gohpur (abode of cow dung) to Goharpur (abode of jewels) in Budgam district is a welcome step. It may as well not be atrocious to name a new settlement after a politician irrespective of local aversion, like Indira Nagar at Sonawar. But renaming places or distorting their names with clear political or religious import is an assault on history and culture of a people. It amounts to snatching the identity of a place and its inhabitants. In Kashmir, we continue to face this assault. Here we take up only three places in the neighbourhood of each other within Srinagar district, whose names have been changed in recent years, sadly with official connivance. These are – what you now know as – Shivpora, Ram Munshi Bagh and Pantha Chowk.

Let us start with Shivpora. The locality is settled in the loop of the Jhelum River downstream between Batwara and Sonawar. The present author was born and lived for half a century at Sonawar in the close proximity of this place. Up to his boyhood, he always heard people at home and outside mentioning the locality as Shopore, rhyming with Sopore. In old revenue record, like Intikhab-i-Jamabandi (extract of quadrennial land record) and state subject certificates, for instance of Mohammad Maqbool Wani issued on 19 January 1949, the place is also recorded as ‘Shopara’. The first recorded settlers of the ‘village’ are ‘Wanis’, followed by ‘Bhats’. If one checks with any +60 year old resident of the area he will confirm its name as Shopore and not Shivpora. The Census Report of India, 1941, Vol XXII, Jammu & Kashmir, Part III, on village tables and housing statistics, unambiguously mentions at page number 354 the place as ‘Sho Pora’. This is the most valid official document one could offer as proof to assert that Shivpora is a changed name of the locality. Just in case a clarification is required, the census was conducted during the reign of Maharaja Hari Singh and the report was printed under the supervision of J. Sharma, Superintendent, Ranbir Government Press, Jammu in 1943. The change in the name of the place from Shopore to Shivpora came about somewhere in 1970s after many Kashmiri Hindu families shifted residences to the newly set up colony, Indira Nagar, and Shopore. The change soon earned official patronage.

As regards Ram Munshi Bagh, it was a large tract of open land, later converted into a cricket stadium, situated between the Amar Singh Club and the All Saints Chruch, at Sonawar on the right bank of the Jhelum. The land was known and entered in official records, as Munshi Bagh, after a Munshi in the Dogra Darbar who enjoyed holding rights on the land. At the eastern end of the stadium is located a police station which was previously a thana known as Thana Munshi Bagh. One fine morning – somewhere during late 1970-early 1980s – there appeared a signboard on the building of the police station declaring its name as Police Station Ram Munshi Bagh. Nobody knows who enforced the change in the name of the place and why but it soon attained official recognition. Today, if you read or hear about the stadium or the police station, you will come across the name of the place as Ram Munshi Bagh.

Old records of the police station, if there is any left after the great deluge of 2014, would establish that the place was known as Munshi Bagh. However, there are enough archival documents available to confirm this. The Census Report of 1941 (page No. 354), referred to in the preceding, is one such document. If that is insufficient confirmation, here is more: In 1915, the Pratap Singh Government published ‘Report of the Committee on Grant of Land for Building Purposes’, listing the beneficiaries with localities where land was allotted to them. Appendix ‘K’ of the Report at page number xlii mentions, in sequence, persons from serial number 1 to 14 who were allotted land in different pockets of Sonawar. At serial number 4 figures Aziz Din Kausa son of Kh. Samad Shah who was allotted ‘1 acre 7 kanals and 10 marlas’ of land at ‘Munshi Bagh’. The allotment followed communication from the Chief Minister under No. 2022 dated 25 June 1906.

Another supporting document is a letter written from his summer camp at Gulmarg by the British Resident to the Government in Kashmir on 22 July 1904 wherein he conveys the Residency’s “no objection to repairs to the roof of the shrine of Sayid Sahib, situated in Munshi Bagh, Srinagar”. The shrine, it needs no emphasis, is located on the road separating Munshi Bagh from the shrine premises. Yet, another documentary evidence is the ‘List of Permanent European Residents in Kashmir’ updated and published by the Hari Singh Government in 1937. At page number 2 of the List figures Mrs. H. Bromley whose residential address is recorded as “H. B. [House Boat on the Jhelum] 818, Opposite Munshi Bagh”. At page number 5 figure Mrs. Houstan with residential address as “H. B. 261, Munshi Bagh”, Mrs. A. H. Jonston, “H. B. 112, Munshi Bagh”, Miss A. E. Jhonson, “Bunglow No. 21, Munshi Bagh”, Mrs. and Miss Lambert, “Munshi Bagh”, and, at page number 7, Dr. and Mrs. E. F. Neve, “Munshi Bagh”.

Lastly, we take up Pantha Chowk, the name used to identify a locality situated between Beswan hill and River Jhelum at km 8.8 on the Srinagar-Jammu Highway. It is important to note that the word ‘chowk’ is a post-1947 addition to the vocabulary of a Kashmiri after Srinagar’s city centre, Amira Kadal, was renamed as Lal Chowk. The name Pantha Chowk began circulating in early 1990s and, as in other cases, quickly received official endorsement. Before this, the place was known as Pantchhokh which is a corrupted form of Paan Chhokh literally meaning ‘a gust of water’. In old revenue record, the place is indeed mentioned as ‘Paani Chhokh”, a name seemingly derived from its location on a river bank. It would be of interest to note that the names of two other places – Panpar and Pandrethan, literally meaning ‘abode of water’ and ‘a place from where water can be seen’, respectively – in its immediate up and downstream, also point to a connection with their location on the river bank. The syllable ‘Pan’, Kashmiri equivalent of ‘water’, like Pan Tsadar (cascade of water or waterfall), is the basic part of “the string of [the three] identical place names” [A Fresh Approach to the History of Kashmir, p 45]. To suggest ‘Purandhishthana’ and ‘Padmapur’ as ‘original’ names of Panpar and Pandrethan are typical examples of first distorting a place name and then inventing its etymology. We might as well have an etymology for Shivpora on similar lines.

About the place name Panchhokh there is an anecdote from local folklore related to the trudges across Kashmir of the 14th century saint and poet, Sheikh Nooruddin Wali. The legend has it that when he reached this place and enquired of its name, he was told that the place is named Panchhokh (or Pantchhokh) upon which the Sheikh in rhyme with the name, purportedly exclaimed, ‘Koren dokh, noshan sokh’ (Daughters [of this place are] distressed and daughters-in-law happy). The name of the place as Pantchhokh, however, is evidenced from record. One can refer to a file from the Archives Repository of Kashmir pertaining to the year Samvat 1993-94, corresponding to 1937-38. The subject of the file from the office of the then Governor of Kashmir bearing number 258 (Part 1st), is ‘R/S to Pantchokh-Khonmoh Road.’ It is about instructions of the Government on repair of this stretch of road in anticipation of Maharaja Hari Singh’s visit to Tral for game shooting. Another important proof comes from a file, again, resting in the Archives Repository of Kashmir bearing number 729 related to the year Samvat 1969 (corresponding to 1933). The file pertains to details of amount outstanding against various villages on account of malia (land revenue). At serial number 239 is listed village ‘Pant Chhokh’ with an outstanding of Rs. 1139 and paise 6. It may not be too long before some enthusiastic etymologist comes up with an historical linkage between Panth and the place, citing in his support the existence of G. B. Pant[h] Children Hospital located 5.6 km downstream.

TAILPIECE: In recent memory, a name change people have successfully resisted was in 1973 when the Mir Qasim Government attempted to rechristen the Government College for Women, Maulana Azad Road as Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial College for Women. On 7 November, a function to celebrate the name change was organized at the college where the guest of honour was Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah who was then inching close to wrap up a deal with Nehru’s daughter, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, for his return to power two decades after an unceremonious sack in 1953. However, a fierce protest by students, during which Abdullah had to make a hasty retreat from the college gate, foiled the Government plan. For the first time, slogans were raised against the ‘most popular leader’ of Kashmir and his retreating car was hit by stones hurled by agitating students.

Khalid Bashir Ahmad’s latest book, KASHMIR: A Walk Through History, has just hit the stands. It comes close on the heels of his well received book, KASHMIR: Exposing the Myth Behind the Narrative, published in 2017


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