Guwahati: The Curious Food History Behind Its Name
Image Credit: Wikipedia/Gitartha Bordoloi

Associating food with its place of origin is an endearing tradition seen around the world. Hyderabadi Biryani, Kerala Parotta and Banarasi Paan to Bombay Duck Fry, Agre Ka Petha and so on - there’s a plethora of famous dishes and food items in India that are named after the city or state where it was first made. This is a practice witnessed across the globe too. For instance, we all know of Yorkshire Pudding, Taiwanese Fried Chicken, Mississippi Mud Pie, Buffalo Wings and so many others. However, what is rare to find is the name of a food item hidden in the name of a place. Not many people know that the northeastern city of Guwahati actually got its name from something that people here love to chew on.

Etymologically, the term Guwahati can be divided into two parts - guva, an Assamese word that comes from the Sanskrit word guvaka, meaning areca nut and its trees, while the term hati is again an Assamese word meaning rows. So, the name Guwahati means ‘rows of areca nut trees’. While this is one explanation, some records claim that the term hati in the name of the place actually refers to ‘locality’, while others say it is derived from the term haat, meaning ‘a market area’. Thus, going by this legend, Guwahati means an ‘areca nut market’. More popularly known as betel nut - or tamul, the local word for it - areca nut is the seed of the areca palm (areca catechu) that grows abundantly in most parts of the tropical Pacific (Melanesia and Micronesia), Southeast and South Asia, as well as in some areas of east Africa.

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Referred to as Gauhati during British rule and in fact until the late 1980s, Guwahati comprises the ancient cities of ‘Pragjyotishpura’ and ‘Durjaya’ (modern-day north Guwahati). The biggest city in Assam, Guwahati is home to many historical gems and relics, and is commonly described as the ‘gateway to Northeast India’. Envisaged as a ‘cultural-commercial bridge to Southeast Asia’ in the Look East Policy, Bharat Ratna Bhupen Hazarika once said that the city of Guwahati will jilikabo Luitore paar (destined to dazzle the banks of Brahmaputra).

Published in 1901, ‘The Gazetteer of Bengal and North-East India’ describes ‘Goa-hathi’ as a highland covered with areca palms. In the document, hathi translates as elephant. It’s obviously a deviation from what’s considered more phonetically correct - hati. This, many say, could have simply been a ‘spelling mistake’. Dr John Peter Wade used the spelling ‘Goahawti’ in ‘An Account of Assam (1800)’. Through the course of history, ‘Gohatti’, ‘Gowhatee’, ‘Gowhatti’, ‘Gohati’, ‘Gwahatti’, ‘Gowhatty’ and ‘Gowahatty’ also appeared in different accounts. Statistician WW Hunter, however, finally spelled the official name as ‘Gauhati’ in ‘A Statistical Account of Assam (1879)’. 

Situated on the banks of the Red River, Guwahati also has quirky food stories behind the names of its neighbourhoods. Panbazar, one of the oldest and most popular localities in the city, is called so because, several years ago traders from Dhaka used to run paan shops here. Their flourishing business eventually gave the name Panbazar (a market area selling paan) to this corner of the city. And there is more. Way back during the Ahom era, this was a suburb from where bundles of paan used to be supplied to the viceroy of the Ahom Kingdom’s western Region - the Borphukan. At that time, the area was called Paan Joganiar Khel (a habitation of paan suppliers). A sugar godown set up by an Englishman got the neighbourhood Chenikuthi its name. Although after the change in ownership, a Rajasthani trader shifted it elsewhere, the name of the place remained. 

Tokobari found its name from the abundant toko palm plantation in the locality. Noonmati was earlier known as ‘Lonmati’ - lon, which translates to ‘salt’, and mati, meaning ‘soil’. The Khanapara locality too has an interesting history to narrate. This used to be an eating point for cartmen and their bullocks before they started their journey on the winding terrains of Shillong. Looks like this stopover for khana never changed its name.