VHP wants Shimla renamed Shyamala, Himachal Pradesh CM Jai Ram Thakur says there’s no such proposal before his government.
Shimla: Himachal Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur has ruled out renaming Shimla as ‘Shyamala’ as he appears to have realised that the demand has no basis.
“There is no proposal before the government to change Shimla’s name,” Thakur said Tuesday.
“Some people made suggestions to us linking Shimla’s history to Shyamala (a goddess). I said we will examine it simply from the town’s historical importance as several town names have been changed in recent years.”
The demand to rename Shimla to Shyamala — a name derived from the Hindu Goddess Shyamala Devi, considered an incarnation of the Kali Bari deity — was first espoused by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) in April 2016, when the BJP government in Haryana decided to change Gurgaon’s name to Gurugram.
The then Congress government in Himachal Pradesh, led by Virbhadra Singh, turned down the proposal.
But last week, the demand resurfaced, when the BJP government in Uttar Pradesh renamed Allahabad as Prayagraj. The VHP was quick to use the Yogi Adityanath government’s decision to push its case.
The VHP campaign gained credence when Himachal Health Minister Vipin Singh Parmar backed the move.
Over the past week, however, Shimla, which was the summer capital of the British, has had historians, writers and intellectuals wonder how the demand that lacks justification, both historically and mythologically, continues to crop up.
‘Demand has no basis’
To back its claim, the VHP insists that a famous Kali Bari temple in the town was where a shrine for Shyamala Devi once stood.
Leading historians in the town, however, say there is no evidence of a temple dedicated to the goddess ever being present in Shimla.
“The demand has absolutely no basis. I haven’t found any document or landmark to suggest that there existed a Shyamala Devi temple in the town,” said Raaja Bhasin, a historian and author of several books on Shimla’s ancient landmarks and history.
“There is nothing to suggest Shimla was called Shyamala too. There are references to a British national Alexander Gerard, who referred to Shimla as Shemla. Thereafter, it became Simla and finally Shimla,” Bhasin added.
Six-time chief minister Virbhadra Singh, 84, whose government turned down the proposal, said the Kali Bari Temple itself was built after the colonial era.
“I recall from memory that the Kali Bari temple also came after the British. The only ancient temple that existed in the town was the Jakhu temple, named after Jakh (a devta),” Singh said.
On the demand cropping up during his tenure, Singh said: “Since there was no justification or basis for changing Shimla’s name, the proposal was never ever considered.”
The former chief minister has now threatened to launch a citizens’ movement if the BJP government attempts to “rewrite or distort Shimla’s history to appease the Sangh Parivar”.
Conservationist B.S. Malhan says 99 per cent of the town’s population will not accept a name change.
“The basis for the demand is weak and lacks any argument. Such a place of international prominence will lose its value,” he said, adding that the town has other problems to contend with.
“It’s time to worry about Shimla’s future as illegal and unauthorised constructions have turned the town into a concrete jungle. The drinking water problem in summer was a clear warning sign. But, sadly, we are making a noise over Shimla’s name and not its future.”
This, however, isn’t Himachal’s first tryst with nomenclature revivalism.
In 1990-92, when the BJP’s Shanta Kumar was chief minister, his cabinet decided to rename Dalhousie as Subhash Nagar in a bid to erase its British legacy. The proposal was turned down by the Central government.
A British legacy
Originally known as Simla, the hill town was declared the summer capital of the British Raj in 1864. As such, its infrastructure is still a reminder of the British legacy, from the Viceregal Lodge, which now hosts the Indian Institute of Advanced Study (IIAS), the Ellerslie House that is now the government secretariat building to the historic Gaiety Theatre and the Ridge.
“How can you write off such a legacy? Why are they only allergic to Shimla’s name? Will we wipe off the British landmarks as well?” asks S.R. Harnote, a noted literary figure, whose Facebook post opposing the proposal has gone viral in the town.
Dr Chetan Singh, a professor of history and a former director of IIAS, said changing Shimla’s name would do grave injustice to the town’s historic and economic importance.
“If we allow the demand to change its name, it will be a complete negation of the history and could also be an unending process.”
Ashwani Sharma is a freelance journalist based in Shimla.