Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

What’s in a name? Ask banks.

A look at the fascinating history of bank names in India, from the staid to the nationalistic to the religious and then some

I recently came across an article which said Lucknow Bank of Montreal celebrates its 200th anniversary. For a moment I thought there was a bank in Lucknow by the name which may have started there and then moved elsewhere. Digging a bit deeper, I discovered that the reference was to Bank of Montreal branch in Lucknow—Lucknow, Ontario, that is. (The Canadian town's name, it seems, was inspired by the 1857 mutiny.) 

William Shakespeare famously wrote in Romeo and Juliet, “What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet." Not really. Names do matter and we need to look at history of bank names to understand their importance. 

The historian Charles Kindleberger in a 1974 paper made the following observation: “The affinity of finance and locations is underlined by the fact that so many banks have places rather than functions (Merchants, Farmers, etc.) in their names. (Private banks, where confidence is all-important, are named for people)." 

Take Bank of Montreal, for instance—the name emphasizes the place of origin, an aspect of the bank that the founders perhaps wanted to stress. And in some private banks like, say, JPMorgan or Rothschild, the names of their promoters signalled in a way the quality of the bank. 

The history of banking in India suggests how the names of banks have not just changed over the decades, but also responded to socio-political forces in the country. Let us try and unravel this history. 

India had an established banking culture long before the British bought their own style of commercial banking here. Indigenous banks and moneylenders dotted the country. The banks, like the private banks in Kindleberger's classification, were named after people—the Seths, the Chettiars, the Rastogis and so on. These bankers served several kingdoms and relied heavily on their reputational capital. 

The first bank established by the British in India was Bank of Hindostan in 1770 in Calcutta (though later research suggests they formed banks even earlier). The name makes it clear that the bank was of Hindostan, or India; location-based naming was a convention followed by many early British banks (the Bank of England, for instance). As the British conquered one princely kingdoms after another, this convention spread across the country.  

After Bank of Hindostan, Warren Hastings, then the governor of Bengal, established General Bank of Bengal and Bihar (1773), followed by Bengal Bank (1790, Calcutta), General Bank of India (1790, Calcutta) and Carnatic Bank (1791, Madras Presidency). 

In the beginning of 19th century came the presidency banks, which were duly named Bank of Bengal (though it was first called Bank of Calcutta in 1806, and renamed in 1809), Bank of Bombay (1840) and Bank of Madras (1863). These banks were mainly required to work within their presidency regions of the British Empire's territories in India. 

C.N. Cooke in his 1863 book The Rise, Progress and Present Condition of Banking in India lists several Indian banks which were established by the 1860s. We begin to see some names based on bank functions, such as The Commercial Bank in Calcutta. Most, though, were still named after places like Calcutta, Mirzapore, Cawnpore and Delhi. This period also saw names such as North Western Bank of India (Mussorie) and Union Bank (Calcutta)—similar names crop up throughout India's banking history. 

After the mid-1860s, banking activity came to a halt after most banks collapsed due to either financial shocks or imprudent banking practices. The period 1861-65 saw high levels of speculative activity in banking, especially in Bombay. This stemmed the American Civil War, which led to huge demand for Indian cotton, which in turn necessitated finances for the cotton industry—and banks sprang forward to provide these funds. 

In the early 1860s, a total of 25 banks came up in Bombay (including the presidency bank), all of which ceased to exist in 1865 after the end of Civil War. What is interesting is that out of these 25 banks, 10 had Bombay in the name. This was because the cotton boom was mainly based in Bombay and bankers were trying to signal their connections with the port city—Bombay City Bank, Alliance Bank of Bombay, Bombay Warrant Banking Co. and so on. (For a complete list, check D.E. Wacha's A Financial Chapter in the History of Bombay City.)  

After 1865, only a few banks were established. John Maynard Keynes in his 1913 book Indian Currency and Finance lists a few of these, all named after locations: the Alliance Bank of Simla, the Oudh Commercial Bank (the first bank founded by Indian promoters), the Punjab Banking Company and Punjab National Bank. Out of these, remarkably enough, Allahabad Bank and Punjab National Bank have survived to this day. 

One could say that after Punjab National Bank, most Indian banks were either driven by promoters who were Indian nationalists and gave it a name signalling their intent. The Swadeshi movement had begun to take shape in the 1880s (according to a 2007 book by Dwijendra Tripathi and Jyoti Jumani) and this only intensified after the partition of Bengal in 1905, with the appearance of several "swadeshi" banks. Bank of India (in Bombay; this was the third bank by the same name, but this is the one that succeeded), Canara Bank, Indian Bank and Central Bank of India are among those still running. 

As can be seen, quite a few of the swadeshi banks attached "India" to their names. Over time, the use of the word "national" began to pick up. Examples: Cochin National Bank, Coimbatore National Bank, National Bank of Sialkot (before Partition). So much so that in the period 1946-48, five new banks came up with "national" in the name, compared to three using "India" and one using "Hind". The founders of a bank from Quilon (Kollam today) in Kerala even decided to name it Independent Bank in 1947. 

Alongside this build-up of nationalism in bank names, we also begin to see banks being named after gods/communities. Quite a few banks started out with "Hindu Permanent Fund" in their names, as in Canara Hindu Permanent Fund (Canara Bank now). Additionally, a number of banks were named after local temples, such as Coimbatore Sri Kannikaparameswari Bank and Srinivasaperumal Bank (both in Coimbatore). 

Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, pops up in a number of names: Dhanalakshmi Bank (Trichur, now Thrissur), Lakshmi Vilas Bank (Karur), Laxmi Bank (Ankola), Jaya Laxmi Bank (Mangalore, now Mangaluru), etc. Other gods found Ganesha found favour among the bankers too: Ganesh Bank of Kurundwad and Lord Krishna Bank are prime examples. 

The Christian community, particularly in Kerala opened its own set of banks, with names like Catholic Syrian Bank, Catholic Bank of India, Catholic Oriental Bank and so on.  

Muslims, though, did not venture into banking as Islam prohibits usury. This eventually led Mohammed Ali Jinnah to request the prominent Habib family of Bombay to establish a bank; they duly complied and set up Habib Bank in 1942, and after Partition, this bank was shifted to Karachi. 

Apart from these, several princely states opened their own banks—54, according to an "incomplete count", says the Reserve Bank of India. The names were largely self-explanatory—Bank of Baroda, Bank of Mysore, Travancore Bank, Bank of Bhopal, Hyderabad State Bank. Out of these 54 princely state banks, seven were converted into associate banks of State Bank of India and four remained as private banks—Krishnaram Baldeo Bank (Gwalior), Benaras State Bank, Miraj State Bank and Jammu and Kashmir Bank. 

There were some interesting changes in names as well. Nadar Bank, set up in Tuticorin in 1921 with a focus on the Nadar community, changed its name to Tamilnad Mercantile Bank in 1962 in a bid to broaden its appeal. South India Bank, also in Tamil Nadu (Tirunelveli, to be precise), changed its name to Bank of Tamilnad, helping differentiate itself from South Indian Bank of Thrissur. (Of course, the new name is no less confusing, given the existence of Tamilnad Mercantile Bank.) 

By 1969, at the time of bank nationalization, quite a few of the banks mentioned had been shut down. We had 72 banks, of which 25 had the preposition "of" in the name. Only 11 banks had "India" in their names, of which seven were nationalized banks; two banks had the in their names "national", of which one was state-owned; and another two had "Hindustan", and both were private banks. 

In 1994, when new banks were licensed, there was a sea change in names. It was nearly 50 years since Independence and banks did not feel it necessary to rely any longer on nationalistic sentiment or attachment to specific locations. Regional affiliations did not make sense any more as most of these banks were headquartered in Mumbai. 

Some of the new banks derived their names from the existing financial firms that sponsored them: UTI Bank (now Axis Bank), ICICI Bank, HDFC Bank etc. These financial institutions had gained credibility in their operations, and the attachment of their names to the banks they set up was an exercise in making use of their brands. And then of course, there were names like IndusInd Bank, Global Trust Bank (which eventually betrayed its customers' trust) and Centurion Bank. 

Then, in 2003 and 2005, two new commercial banks were licensed—namely Kotak Mahindra Bank and Yes Bank. The name of the first was obviously based on two prominent Mumbai-based business families—Kotak and Mahindra—taking a leaf from the past. Yes Bank, on the other hand, said its name signalled that the bank was saying “yes" to providing quality in all kinds of banking services. Finally, in 2015, we saw the arrival of Bandhan Bank and IDFC Bank—bandhan meaning "bond" and IDFC being the name of the bank's parent financial institution. 

Apart from the main commercial banks, over the years there have been a number of specialized, often smaller lenders. The first were the local area banks, licensed in 2000—they had to attach "Local Area Bank" to their names to differentiate themselves from other banks (examples: Capital Local Area Bank, Coastal Local Area Bank). 

Next on the list are the small finance banks and payment banks licensed in 2014. The 10 small finance banks, though they are headquartered at different places, do not carry associate their names with any particular location, with the exception of RGVN (North East) Microfinance Ltd, based in Guwahati. This is surprising change in itself, as earlier the majority of small banks were named after either location or community. The new bunch sport monikers such as Disha (direction), Suryoday (sunrise), Ujjivan (new life) and Utkarsh (prosperity)—this is mainly because most of these small finance banks were earlier microfinance lenders, and the names were chosen so that they would express optimism. 

As for the 11 payments banks, most are owned by large corporate houses such as the Aditya Birla Group, Bharti Airtel, Cholamandalam, Vodafone, Reliance, Sun Pharmaceuticals and so on, and as such carry their names. Since the very concept of payments banks is brand new (they only accept deposits and facilitate payments, and are not allowed to issue loans), this is clearly another instance of the owners relying on their established names to generate a sense of trustworthiness. 

All in all, I think we can confidently say that names do matter—in banking, at least. 

Amol Agrawal is a PhD student at IIM Bangalore working on Indian banking history. He writes a blog called Mostly Economics. 

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