The Dawn: Jan 2, 2015

Punjab Notes : Punjab: some of its ancient names

Mushtaq Soofi 

Description: A young girl carries a water pot over her head as she heads for home during sunset on the outskirts of Lahore, Punjab. — AFP/File

A young girl carries a water pot over her head as she heads for home during sunset on the outskirts of Lahore, Punjab. — AFP/File

Punjab can rightly be proud of its history and societal legacy as it is the home to one of the most ancient civilisations generally known as Harappa civilisation. What Dravidians, who lived in this land before the arrival of the Aryans, called it remains still unknown because the script of the Dravidian language has so far not been deciphered. Sometime after the appearance of Aryans in Punjab the Rishis (saints/seers) of the invading tribes composed Rig-Veda, the oldest religious scripture in the world, which names this land Sapta Sindhu, the land of seven rivers. Sapta means seven in Vedic Sanskrit/Sanskrit from which we have derived Punjabi word Satt (seven). Sindhu in Sanskrit means sea.

The mighty Indus River had been so huge that to the Aryans it looked like a sea. So the oldest name of Punjab we come across is Sapta Sindhu that perhaps encompassed greater land mass than the present day Punjab.

The seven rivers mentioned in the Rig-Veda are Indus, Vitasta (Vehit/Jhelum), Asikni (Chenab), Prusni/Eravati (Ravi) Vipasha (Beas), Sutudri (Sutlej) and Sarasvati (which dried up). The name of Sapta Sindhu comes up at several places in the Rig-Veda. In its chapter (Mandal) 8 it’s written “who will save us from our mortal enemies in the Sapta Sindhu?” . The conflict between the invaders and the invaded was not yet over. The holy book, Zend Avesta of Zoroastrians, also gives us the geographic description of this land. It says ‘I, Ahur Mazda, had created the fifteenth country. It is Hafta Hindva whch is spread over seven rivers’.

In the great epic Mahabharata (1500 B.C to 1700 B.C) we find at several places the description of Punjab in terms of its geographical position and socio-religious structures. Punjab was called Aratta and its people Balhika. “Where these five rivers, Shatadru, Vipasha, the third Iravati, Chandrabhaga and Vitasta flow and where there are Pilu-forests and (where) Sindhu is the sixth to flow out, this country is called Aratta…”.

Another verse says “that (region) where these five rivers, emerging from the mountains flow, this Aratta (country) is called Balhika where the Arya should not stay even for two days”.

The third verse goes like this; “Aratta is the name of the country. Balhika is the name of the people and are generally abused as Vasatis, Sindhus, and Sauviras”. Incredible! It’s the same country that had been glorified and venerated in the Rig-Veda. It’s being denigrated because of its rejection of the strict caste rules that came to hold sway in the Gangetic plains where the Aryans, who were pushed from Punjab, ensconced themselves. Mahabharata declared Punjab to be inhabited by demons. “Two demons, Vahi and Hik, lived in the river Vipasha. Their descendents are called Vahik. They were not created by Prajapati (God).

In the latter Sanskrit literature we find the same name for Punjab. The last author to mention this name was a Kashmiri, Shahyman Matt in the mid eleventh century. Panini also used the word Vahik for Punjab, his homeland, in his universally celebrated book of Sanskrit grammar ‘Ashtadhyayi’.

The meaning of the word, Panini explains, is ‘a region free of religious orthodoxy’. By explaining the word Vahik, Panini has in fact explained why the advocates of the caste system were hostile towards Punjab and its people. Lord Buddha also commented about the social structure of the Punjabi people in the following words; ‘Ayyu hattu ada sohoti/ Dasu hatto ayyu hoti’ (These people have two classes, freemen and slaves. They can easily change their class). Another name of Punjab was Madra or Madra Desa. Panini writes about the Madra Janapada as a part of Punjab with its capital at Sakala or Sangla, modern Sialkot. Greek armies led by Alexander invaded Punjab in the 4th century. They called it Penta Potamia, five rivers, which reminds us of Panjnad mentioned in Mahabharata. Buddhist literature describes Punjab as Uttra Path.

Historically the word Punjab as the name of our region appears for the first time in the travelogue of Muslim traveler Ibne-Batuta who came to India in the 14th century. It’s literally Panjnad rephrased. Panj means five and Nad means river i.e. the land of five rivers. Both the words are indigenous. Panj means five and Aab (in Persian) means rivers. It is a compound made of a Punjabi and a Persian word. It is not surprising that this word has come to stay because it gives us the actual geographical description of the region. Any other description whether it is ethnic, religious or socio-political will be inadequate in the sense that it is bound to be one-dimensional in view of the historical fact that the ancient society of the region has been the product of ethnic, religious, cultural and social diversity and plurality.

Punjab has always been a pelting pot in the subcontinent. Its vast fertile plains watered by so many rivers have created spaces for diverse people who came here in search of food and shelter. It will not refuse a shade to those strangers who have lost their home as long as its rivers continue to flow. —

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