What's in a Name? The Case of Sindhu and Indus

“What’s in a name?” Take the case of Sindhu the original name of River Indus. Different people and different platforms discuss it in different ways. The mere fact that they still discuss the name that has been anglicized since centuries is important.

Last month I had been directly involved in two discussions on the subject. First was on the facebook of Central Trading Zone launched by Saleem Aziz. It was about how the name was changed. The second was a serious conversation that revolved around the question why do we still use the name Indus and not Sindhu?

To begin from the very beginnings will answer the first question. It takes us to the times when ancient rishis watched “The Rivers come forward triply, seven and seven and Sindhu in might surpassed all the streams that flowed.” This is just one line from a hymn in the tenth book of Rig Veda, the sacred Sanskrit text that mentions river Sindhu for the first time. According to Max Muller, the German translator, Veda was compiled around 1500 BCE, probably on the very banks of Indus. The spectacular scenery and the might of Indus had inspired the composition of hymns on Sindhu. The River, considered sacred, is further described as the lord and leader of the moving floods, active as a dappled mare, mighty as a bellowing bull, kind as a mother to her calves, rich in gold, rich in ample wealth for whom Varuṇa, the water god, cut the channels for its forward course.

Certainly, river was primary, the country around had no name, and was identified only by the river, hence the Indus region was known as Sapta Sindhu, the land of seven rivers. According to some experts it is a referral to Indus’ delta, ridged with its ever shifting branches rushing to the Arabian Sea. Sindhis call it Lar, the slope, the name also used for lower Sindh. Sapta Sindhu is also identified with Punjab, which is now left with five rivers but is still called by the numbers of its rivers, Punj, five and aab, water.

The process of Sindhu’s name change began with the arrival of Achaemenids when they conquered the land, converted it to a Persian satrapy and recorded it as Hapta Hindu. This is when letter ‘s’ was changed to ‘h.’ However, soon after Alexander’s conquest of Darius’ satrapy, Megasthenes, the Greek ambassador to the court of Chandragupta Maurya, recorded the region as Indos ( Indus) by dropping the initial ‘h’ and ending it with ‘s.’ Ending place names with ‘s’ was a common practice of Greek chroniclers and hence we come across Indus kingdoms such as Musikanus, Oxykanus, Portikanus, to mention a few. The suffix kanus is also spelt as kanas and the only remnant in Sindh of these versions is Larkana (without s). From Greek chronicles the name Indus crept into Latin and then to Old English and French which resulted in their own versions of Ind and Ynde.

With the passage of time Persian version Hindu extended beyond the land of Sindhu to Bharat Varsha, the old name of India. Hence Hindu came to be applied to Hindustan (the country), Hinduism(religion) Hindi (language) Hindukush (mountains), Hindu (person), Hindura (a piece of furniture, the Sindhi swing) but it was never applied to the river which is known to the world by its Greek version Indus. And then came the Arabs. They counted Sindh and Hind as two different countries. They also referred to the river as Aab-e-Sin, The water of Sin (or Sindh) the name is shortened to Abasin. Mehran is yet another name for Indus and the only other example of suffix ‘ran’ for river name is Puran, an abandoned tributary of Indus in lower Sindh. Ironically an ordinary Sindhi calls Indus simply a darya, river.

The question why we call Sindhu Indus? was asked wistfully by a respected Sindhi Hindu. Here are some of my thoughts. If water worship ever existed in Indus Civilization then Darya Panthies, a Hindu sect of River worshippers in Sindh, deserve the credit for valiantly preserving the practice in some form until mid-twentieth century. It’s logical that not much of this sect is known after the Partition. Sindhi Hindus, in general suffered the worst under Partition as they had to say farewell not only to their ancestral homes but also to their beloved river. They must have drawn some solace from the fact that Sindhu continued to remain in the Indian national anthem. They have also reconciled to fulfill their urge of embracing Indus at its course that traverses through Ladakh district. Sindhu Darshan festival is now celebrated annually at Leh in India to highlight the River as an example of communal harmony and peace.

As far as the present inhabitants of the Indus region are concerned they may not have any memories of the long lost water cults performed in the Great Bath complex of Moen jo Daro, but Pakistani Sindhi Hindus and Muslims alike revere Udero Lal, the river related saint also known as Darya Shah, River King. Lal’s origins are lost in the murky past, he is considered to be a mythical figure but he is also confused with Lal Shahbaz Qalandar. He may not be an eqvivalent of ancient Varuna, but he is considered to be an avatar of the immortal Khwaja Khizr, the sage of Islamic tradition. Khizr guides the mortals through the labyrinth of life. He too is an elusive character appearing in different time zones and different stories throughout the Islamic World. Lal’s identification with Khizr has led to his other title Zinda Pir, the Living Pir. And like Khizr he too rides a fish, the image that abounds on Indus seals and in Islamic iconography depicting Khizr.

Fish symbol will require another blog; suffice it to say here that Udero Lal’s fish is identified with palla, which is more known for being the queen of Sindhi cuisine and less for its heroic struggle of swimming against the current. Whereas in Japan, carp, another fish that swims upstream against the current stands for courage and determination. Legend has it that Khizr too swam against the current and finally reached the island in upper Sindh where he rests in peace.

According to Islamic tradition, Khizr is the one who had guided Zulqarnain (another name of Alexander the Great) to Aab-e- Hayat, the Water of Life. Various locations are cited for the source of Aab-e-Hayat, Indus, is considered to be the most likely source.

Did Alexander seek immortality? “When Alexander sought he did not find what Khizr found unsought.” Nizami says so profoundly what history tells us coldly of an ironic end; Alexander died young in his early thirties.

Names get mingled through the mists of time, but the truth behind them does not change. Their power is not lost, call it magic, call it mystique. Thousands of years ago the might of Sindhu had given birth to the largest and most non-violent civilization of the ancient world. It may sound surreal to say that in this day and age when a handful of Mullas on one side and Hindu fundamentalists on the other side are flaring up hatred between innocent Hindus and Muslims non-violence can prove to be the most effective weapon against their monstrous mission.
The doctrine that holds all forms of life sacred and avoids any form of violence against fellow human beings, animals, insects and even plants is rooted in Indus Civilization. It runs in the blood of Hindu, Jain, Buddhist and Sufi philosophies. It is also the the common heritage that Indians and Pakistanis possess in a divided land so let’s give non-violence a chance. Call it Ahimsa or whatever; Ahimsa by any other name won’t hurt.

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  1 comment for “What's in a Name? The Case of Sindhu and Indus

  1. mashaikh@hec.gov.pk'
    Shaikh M. Ali
    December 30, 2012 at 3:42 am

    Wow. Beautiful tracing of history for the mighty Indus. As far as Sufism is concerned, everything is in the Name. If you get it wrong, you are left astray 🙂

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