How Bombay became Mumbai.

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July 12 2006 6:43 PM

Mumbai? What About Bombay?

How the city got renamed.

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Almost 200 people were killed on Tuesday when seven bombs exploded on a train in Mumbai, India. When did Bombay become Mumbai?

Officially, in 1995. That year, the right-wing Hindu nationalist party Shiv Sena won elections in the state of Maharashtra and presided over a coalition that took control of the state assembly. After the election, the party announced that the port city had been renamed after the Hindu goddess Mumbadevi, the city's patron deity. Federal agencies, local businesses, and newspapers were ordered to adopt the change.

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Shiv Sena's leadership pushed for the name change for many years prior to 1995. They argued that "Bombay" was a corrupted English version of "Mumbai" and an unwanted legacy of British colonial rule. Shiv Sena leader Bal Thackeray once installed a marble plaque with the name on the Gateway of India, a famous sandstone arch. The national government objected to the renaming, though, fearing that Bombay would lose its identity internationally.

The push to rename Bombay was part of a larger movement to strengthen Marathi identity in the Maharashtra region. The Shiv Sena party also declared their intentions to do away with the term "Bollywood," a conflation of "Bombay" and "Hollywood" that refers to Mumbai's film industry. That name, though, has stuck around.

The name change didn't impact all of Mumbai's residents. Speakers of Marathi and Gujarati, the local languages, have always called the city Mumbai. "Bombay" is an anglicization of the Portuguese name "Bombaim," which is believed to derive from the phrase "Bom Bahia," or "Good Bay." (Portugal held territories in western India until 1961.) *

Several other Indian cities have changed their names in recent years. In 1996, Madras became Chennai. This name change was part of a similar effort by the state of Tamil Nadu to promote Tamil language and culture.

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Correction, July 14, 2006: This piece originally stated that Mumbai is still known as "Bambai" in India's national language, Hindi. The city's official name, regardless of language, is Mumbai. (Return to the corrected paragraph.)

Christopher Beam is a writer living in Beijing.

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