Harking back : How Ptolemy saw Labokla 2,000 years ago

By Majid Sheikh

Dawn, June 15 , 2014


Almost 2,000 years ago a great Egyptian Greek mathematician, astrologer, geographer and astronomer made some deft calculations -- using what was to be later called Ptolemy’s Theorem -- to calculate the location of Labokla, or Lahore. It was then, by him, designated a ‘great city’ of the known world.

The original map of the world, as Claudius Ptolemy (the Latin version being Klaudius Ptolemaeus) drew it in 115AD, exactly 2,000 years ago sitting and working in Alexandria in Egypt, shows the sub-continent much smaller than the current maps depict them to be.

The Americas did not exist in the mind, or imagination, of scholars then. China was smaller than it actually is, and Africa he got exactly right. It took another 1,500 years for new maps to appear thanks to the Polish mathematician and astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) who showed the world, with mathematical calculation, to be round.

He had to suffer for this blasphemy, like Ptolemy, at the hands of the priests, who used their assumed ‘divine right’ to pontificate that the Earth was flat.

Our interest in Ptolemy in this piece is his amazing knowledge of the fact that Lahore was a ‘great city’.

His treatise describes its exact location with a map putting it in its correct alignment, right down to the last degree. His treatise puts it at 128-33-20’, which was an amazing approximation 2,000 years ago. We now know that earlier scholars like Homer did not know of the world beyond Egypt, Greece, Sicily and parts of Italy.

Beyond mid-Italy the world was ‘a void’ he claimed. But then came Herodotus, the ‘father’ of history and a great traveller, and we have before us just enough information for Ptolemy to put together his view of the world, a view that remained in vogue for another 1,500 years. Ptolemy’s original work was translated into Arabic, and then into Latin.

Ptolemy writes: “Labaka, or Lohkot, which in Sanskrit is written as Lavakota, is two degrees east of the town of the Bhattias, and it is a grand and great city named after Lo, son of Rama”.

This obviously means that in the known world as it was called then, Lahore was a known habitation of great significance. That Ptolemy was able to quote its Sanskrit version comes as no surprise, given that the forces of Alexander had reached his city, which was renamed Alexandria after his death from malaria there.

But the detail of his geography is amazing. Alexander’s scholars had learnt Sanskrit, which opened the door to Western learning, especially mathematics.

Then Ptolemy goes on to write: “To the south-east of Labokla, on the mounds of Amba and Kapi, brother and sister, after whom is named the fort is the town of ‘Amakatis’. He then


a verse: “Amba-Kapi pai larai, Kalpi bahin chhurawan ai” -- ‘When strife arose between Amba and Kapi, their sister Kalpi made it up’.

Modern researchers pin down this exact location as Sheikhupura, with a 1,464 Latin translation ‘Geographia’ naming, in bracket, the town as ‘Shekohpur’. This is the city of Sheikhupura, which he cites as a great grain market.

Of great interest to a pen pusher like myself, is the Ptolemy description of Alexander near Lahore: “Alexander crossed the Hydraotes (Ravi) to prepare to take Labokla from the north. But as he prepared to attack, he got news of the Kathaians preparing a huge army. So he headed towards Sangla”.

This is exactly how Arrian described events. This news saved Lahore from Alexander, and this was after the Puru of Lahore had tactically retreated to join the grand alliance against Alexander.

But what amazes most is the fact that Ptolemy had a very exact idea of the names used for the rivers and land of what is today Pakistan. He clarifies that the “Persian use of ‘s’ is pronounced as ‘h’, and for this reason the great Sindhu river came to be called by the Arabs and Greeks as ‘Hindu’.

As such there is no such word as ‘Hindu’. From this the land is called Hind, and from Hind came the word ‘Indu’.

“The Greeks call ‘Indu’ as ‘Indus’”. From the word Indu came the word ‘India’, a creation of different languages trying to use the same word. In classical Sanskrit language the word ‘Sindhu’ means ‘the protector’, as it also means ‘the great divider’. For anyone coming from the West this huge river, especially when in full flood, divided the lands to the west from the sub-continent.

It should not come as a surprise that when Ptolemy so accurately marked Lahore on his map, Delhi

did not exist, though Peshawar did, as did Taxila. By his time Harappa had disappeared, victim to climate change, repeated foreign invasions, food shortage because rivers were rapidly changing course, with unmanageably huge cities being hit by floods.

Lahore on its mounds remained intact, as it had before and after Ptolemy, the Greek of Alexandria.

Published in Dawn, June 15th, 2014




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