What was the name again?

Omair Ahmad | Updated on August 09, 2019

Creating history: By promoting art, music, food and culture, the Mughals attached their names to high culture   -  ISTOCK.COM

Names and their connotations change to an extent that we often forget what they stood for in the first place

This summer, during my visit to Spain, my friend Enrique took me to an area on the outskirts of Madrid. Alcalá de Henares, where he spent his childhood, is actually an old city that subsumed into the Spanish capital over time. It was known as Complutum in the Roman times, but Alcalá de Henares’s real claim to fame is as the place where Miguel Cervantes, the author of Don Quixote, was born. Cervantes’s house has been restored, and you can sit on a bench in front of it, next to two life-size statues of Quixote and his faithful squire, Sancho Panza.

While Enrique joked that the house was possibly nothing like what Cervantes lived in, I focused on the name of the old city. My friend said it was derived from its old name under Muslim rule in Spain — Al Qila an Nahar, or castle by the river. It was intriguing to note how the name has changed over the centuries. The military ring to it is now history, though the city continues to be a base for the country’s air force.

Spain is a curious mix that way. A large part of its distinctive cultural identity comes from the Andalusian region, with famous buildings melding both Arab and European styles, not least the Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba. But the irony of Andalusian high culture rests in its very name. It is derived from the Arabic ‘Al Andalusia’, meaning the land of the Vandals, the primary ethnic group that lived there. But vandal has become a “bad word”, while Andalusia brings with it visions of high culture.

It reminded me of a conversation I had with Mohammed Amin, the historian who taught at St Stephen’s College, Delhi. It was 2008 and the film Jodhaa Akbar was slated for release amid protests over its historical authenticity. I was doing research on Akbar’s wife (spoiler: her name is unlikely to have been Jodha). My phone conversation with the teacher of history touched many other topics, including an anecdote from former prime minister PV Narasimha Rao’s trip to one of the then newly independent Central Asian states (Uzbekistan, if I remember correctly).

During the visit, in a bid to play up similarities, Narasimha Rao talked about shared histories and mentioned the Mughals, but his hosts seemed uncomfortable with the reference. The leader asked a couple of people in his entourage to find out why. Both of them ended up asking Amin Sa’ab, who prepared a short note for the prime minister. It said that the Mughals did not call themselves Mughals. Like the Vandals, who challenged the might of the Roman Empire, the name Mughal carried similar connotations in Central Asia. The name they preferred was Timurid, but it did not stick. So they did a branding exercise — like almost every ruler on the rise.

By cultivating art, music, food and architecture — probably best represented by Akbar’s Navaratnas (nine jewels) — the Mughals attached their names to high culture. This association thrived for many generations, as later rulers — even in the dynasty’s twilight years — continued with it. But this branding worked only in South Asia.

The funny thing is that the same word now carries a somewhat positive image in Central Asia (even when it’s being challenged in India). One of the meanings that Merriam-Webster dictionary lists for ‘mogul’ is “a great personage” (more after industry and Hollywood moguls). This meaning, too, may have been derived from history. When the European settlers first arrived in India, they were in awe of the Mughal court, one of the richest in the world. India accounted for nearly a quarter of the world’s wealth. When Iranian ruler Nadir Shah invaded Delhi, he took back so much wealth that he, apparently, cancelled taxes in his country for three years.

The European monarchies, in contrast, must have been less impressive. Their riches were drawn from the colonies around the world. Queen Elizabeth I is said to have bathed once a month, and France’s Louis XIII proudly declared, “I take after my father. I smell of armpits.” In comparison, the Mughal court, with its ornate architecture, power and beauty, would have dazzled visitors. Yet, India’s current political climate doesn’t attach much significance to the reign of the Mughals in the country.

No matter where in the world you are, names change meanings. They take on new connotations and, sometimes, transform to an extent that we barely remember what they meant in the first place.


Omair Ahmad is the South Asia Editor for The Third Pole, reporting on water issues in the Himalayas; Twitter: @OmairTAhmad

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Published on August 09, 2019
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