Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Sindhu unrestrained, dappled mare!

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Five thousand years ago they came singing their hymns to the earth they discovered for the first time as they wandered across its great face. From the frigid wastes of northern Asia’s steppe land where summers are short, where few trees grow and where the rivers are but piddling streams they came into the subcontinent that was eventually to be called India. They were overwhelmed by what they saw. The swaying forests of lofty trees, the land fertile beyond their wildest imagination and rivers the likes of which they had never imagined. In their ecstasy of discovery, the poets among these early travellers sang hymns — hymns to their gods, to the forests, the good earth and the mighty rivers. This poetry is preserved to this day as the Rig Veda.

Hymn number seventy-five in this vast collection of the most exquisite poetry ever contrived by humans, sings praise to the rivers. There is a frenzy of joyousness and of wonder that words cannot restrain. What shines clearly through is the way these outsiders embraced the land: they were not conquerors; they were homesteaders. But that is a digression. In the main, the star of all the rivers of the subcontinent, so the hymn goes, is the Maha Sapta Sindhu — the Great Seven-fold River: ‘His roar is lifted up to heaven above the earth: he puts forth endless vigour with a flash of light, like floods of rain that fall in thunder from the cloud, so Sindhu rushes on bellowing like a bull.’

And again, unable to resolve if this mighty flowing torrent the colour of liquid graphite is a man or a woman thing: ‘Flashing and whitely-gleaming in her mightiness, she moves along her ample volumes through the realms, most active of the active, Sindhu unrestrained, like to a dappled mare, beautiful, fair to see.’

As one reads these lines, the flesh crawls and the eye mists up for it is not difficult to experience the thrill felt by those poetic travellers as they attained the banks of the Sindhu River in all its spring-time, perhaps monsoon, glory. Unrestrained, swollen by rains or upcountry thaws, it would have spread mile after mile across the great Punjabi plains stretching from the horizon of the rising sun to where it lapped the newcomers’ horses’ hoofs. It was a very ocean; an ocean that flowed. And so they called it Sindhu, Sanskrit for a large river or the great ocean.

Since we may never learn what our earliest ancestors who lived in the cities of Harappa and Moen jo Daro would have called their rivers, it is the Sindhu for us. But few of us call it by the Sanskrit title; we only know it by its Hellenised version. The transformation was simple. From the Sanskrit, the name for the Sindhu went to the Avestan where it was duly pronounced as Hindu, the same way as they transformed the sapt (seven) into haft. The land or asthan watered by this great river was then, naturally, Hindu Asthan or Hindustan.

Two thousand years after our hymn-singing Aryan ancestors had renamed the river (remember it had a pre-Aryan name that we do not know); the Greeks came a-travelling. They borrowed the Persian name but in their usage, the initial h sound is dropped. On Greek tongues the Hindu of the Persian became Indu. Indu, General Mitha’s widow, is thus named after the river that gave us all life and a great civilisation. But the Greeks end their proper names with an s. And so the Sindhu of the singers of the Vedic hymns and the Hindu of classical Avestan became the Indus of the Greeks. For them the land of the Indus River therefore was India.

The first maps that became widely known to Europe in the latter Middle Ages were copies of a chart from the 2nd century CE. Compiled by the Greek geographer Ptolemy, it was naturally in that language and the names that became known in Europe were not Sindhustan or Hindustan and Sindhu or Hindu but India and the Indus. Back in classical times the country that we know as India today was called Bharat after the great warrior prince of mythology and for the Persians the land that we now call Pakistan was Hindustan. For geographical simplicity however, the entire country, Pakistan and peninsular subcontinent, were lumped together by the Greeks into one entity: India.

Over a thousand years later when it came time for the Arab invasion, the significance of the Persian word Hindu was lost and the following centuries were to see the meaning alter altogether. Borrowing from the Persians, the Arabs called the language and the people Hindi. Even later, neither Al Beruni nor Ibn Batuta uses the word Hindi or Hindu to denote religious persuasion. Both use it only to refer to the people. In fact, in a single case, Ibn Batuta uses the word Hindi deprecatingly for a convert to Islam who had even adopted an Arabic name. It was perhaps not until the 15th century that the word Hindu began to signify a religious persuasion.

The point then is that the name India or Hindustan derives from Sindhu. And since this once great river (damn the dams!) flows in what in our part of the subcontinent, we are legitimately the real India and Indians! Those of us who had relatives studying in the West back in the 1950s heard how Westerners, having asked where one was from, ended up saying, ‘Oh, so Pakistan must be a part of India.’ It is not hard to imagine how one would have felt in those days of greater patriotic fervour.

Consider: had our founding fathers been students of classical history and geography wouldn’t they, instead of inventing a new name and a new identity for an ancient people, have gone for the timeless name of India? Had it been so, I do not think we would have been any worse Indians than we are Pakistanis, but I know one thing with certainty: we would not have suffered from our present national insecurity and inferiority. And there was nothing wrong with that ancient identity for it sprang from the mighty Sindhu River that has given us life since time began.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 17 December 2013 at 15:08, Blogger iqbal ismail said...

Very informative. I have learnt so much from your writing. Thank you for sharing!

At 17 December 2013 at 15:31, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Glad that you appreciate this.

At 16 April 2015 at 09:31, Blogger Brahmanyan said...

Excellent writeup on the great Sindhu river.Thanks.

At 16 April 2015 at 10:11, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Thank you, sir. Though many now dispute if they at all came from the north. I will believe only when skeletal evidence of pure Aryan stock going back 5000-6000 yrs is found in India.


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My Books

Deosai: Land of the Gaint - New

The Apricot Road to Yarkand

Jhelum: City of the Vitasta

Sea Monsters and the Sun God: Travels in Pakistan

Salt Range and Potohar Plateau

Prisoner on a Bus: Travel Through Pakistan

Between Two Burrs on the Map: Travels in Northern Pakistan

Gujranwala: The Glory That Was

Riders on the Wind

Books at Sang-e-Meel

Books of Days