For the nationalist historian guided by the milestones of culture, names show the way. The past is a rich haul though sometimes it is reclaimed at the expense of the priorities of the present.
After Allahabad was rechristened Prayagraj, an Indian heritageophile has now written to the Uttar Pradesh government to change Agra’s name back to its Mahabharata moniker Agravana.
Or even an earlier appellation, Arya Griha, the Aryan abode—though such references could be politically incorrect in the reservation age. The past is also treacherous ground; in 100 AD, Ptolemy referred to the city as ‘Agra’, which begs the question as to who renamed it even before the Mughals? Agra’s glory days arrived with Emperor Akbar— he embarked on a beautification and construction drive, following which court sycophants called it Akbarabad.
When and why Agra reverted to its present name is a riddle: probably the British couldn’t wrap their tongue around Akbarabad; it’s easier to pronounce Thiruvananthapuram ‘Trivandrum’.
Conquerors have a habit of fiddling with local names; blame ego, phonetics and religion. When the Ottomans took Thessaloniki of ancient Greece, they changed it to Selanik: which is now back to Thessaloniki. Byzantium became Constantinople and later Istanbul. The Ahmednagar Sultan renamed Kharki Aurangabad. The British changed Kolkata to Calcutta, Chennai to Madras, Mumbai to Bombay and Dremoshong to Sikkim. Saigon became Ho Chi Minh City. Narcissistic rulers have a historic penchant for building new cities; Russia’s Peter the Great established Sankt-Peterburg, later the Petrograd of the Czars which became Leningrad after the Soviet Revolution.
Post-colonial countries also changed names: Terra de Santa Cruz became Brazil and Temasek, Singapore. So, by all means, rename Agra.
However, in the fervour of historical redemption, don’t stick to just the name. Agra will always be known as the home of the Taj Mahal, one of the nine wonders of the world.
Its marble surfaces have been ravaged by pollution, acid rain and insects—don’t blame the BJP, the deterioration began decades ago.
Aesthetics and government contractors do not go together; in 2015, the Supreme Court warned the SP-led UP government against destroying the Taj’s beauty by poor quality of construction near the mausoleum. Agra is also one of India’s dirtiest cities.
History is a process of change and nations are perennially in search of identity; hence their obsession with an expresso past.
Agra’s future as a smart city where the splendorous Taj Mahal sits proud, lies in the blueprint of the previous transformation of cities like Varanasi and Ayodhya.
There is a proverb which goes Agra peechhe or Lahore aage, which essentially means you are looking the wrong way. It is time to look forward to a roadmap for a resurgent Agra than just calling it a city by another name.