What’s in a Name

  • Dr Abid Ahmad
  • Publish Date: Jun 16 2017 9:08PM
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  • Updated Date: Jun 16 2017 9:08PM
What’s in a Name

On the origin and meaning of the word ‘Kashmir’


Kashmir is not just a locale. It is mystery that inspires awe among its admirers and inhabitants alike. Its landscape is like that of a fairy-land that arouses curiosity and tempts one to embark on a visit. Kashmir’s unique cultural ethos has evolved over thousands of years and has retained an antiquarian flavour that is both exotic and axiomatic. Its history intertwines with its immediate surroundings as well as far off places, trade routes and ancient centres of civilisation. It’s where myth and history intersect. And if Kashmir is a mystery, so is its name. 

The word “Kashmir” is an enigma. It has been interpreted from historical, linguistic and religious points of view. But its meaning remains as elusive as ever. 

Interestingly, there are what seem to be variants of the word “Kashmir” in several countries. There is Kashmur in China as well as the more famous Kashghar, one of the oldest cities in the world. Then, there is Kashmorah in Pakistan and a village in Hormozgam province of Iran that is spelt and pronounced exactly as Kashmir. Iran also has Chah-e Kashmir, or the Well of Kashmir, in the Khorasan province. Afghanistan too has a location called Kashmir as do some Central Asian republics. 

Some scholars decode these names to consist of two parts, “Kash” being the common denominator. Kashghar, for example, is said to consist of “Kash” meaning precious stones and “ghar” meaning house. 

Kashmir is said to be made up of two Sanskrit words “Ka” and “Samira”, together meaning “the land from which water was drained by Ka or Prajapati (the Lord)”. However, this explanation is less plausible. There are many places to its north whose names consist of the syllable “Ka” such as Kashghar, Kakakhel, Kaghan, Karakul and Karakoram. So, from geographical perspectives, the name doesn’t seem to be exclusive to the valley. 

The name Kashmir is a part of the creation myths of this land, myths that are deeply mired in religious lore. The Hindus believe that Kashmir was originally inhabited by demons that were exorcised by the saint Kashyap, after whom the place came to be called “Kashmir”. A Muslim version of the creation myth says Prophet Solomon had the water of the inundated valley drained through a mountain pass near Baramulla by the genie Kashu and the fairy Miran. Thus, the place came to be identified as “Kashu-Miran”, and eventually Kashmir. Because of its this, the Persian chroniclers referred to Kashmir as Bagh-e Sulaiman, or the Garden of Solomon.  

There’s a Buddhist version too. Buddha flew over the valley during one of his proselytising missions and told his disciple Ananda that Arhat Madhyantaka would establish his rule and spread his teachings in this place. Years later, Arhat was once meditating when the dragon overlord of the valley beseeched him for his blessings. In turn, Arhat asked for space to keep his two arms. The dragon conceded. Arhat used his spiritual powers to inflate his body so much that he occupied the whole valley. As he kept stretching himself, the lake dried up, revealing the Kashmir valley. 

The native people refer to this place simply as Kashir and not Kashmir. It is mostly in Sanskrit classics like Nilamat Purana and Persian historiography that we find it mentioned as Kashmir or Kashmirah or Mulk-i Kashmir. Interestingly, the word “Kashmir” is masculine while “Kashir” is feminine. 

Although the word “Kashmir” is commonly claimed to have Sanskrit origins, several scholars have strong reservations. Sir Aurel Stein, author of The Ancient Geography of Kashmir, believed the word “Kashmir” came from the ancient Naga linguistic lore. The historian and critic Mohammad Yusuf Taing, commenting on the etymological origins of the word “Kashmir”, says it must be the linguistic vestige of the Nagas, who were wiped from the valley by the invading Aryans long before the emergence of Sanskrit in the area. He believes the word predates the recorded history of the place. His theory that the native Kashmiris were Dravidians who were driven down to the south of India by the invading Aryans has evoked much interest among scholars and researchers in and outside Kashmir. 

Taing has published a series of six papers, which seek to show commonality between the Kashmiri language and South Indian Dravidian languages. He has listed a number of words that are common to the two sets of languages. He is of the opinion that like the Naga lore, the word “Kashmir” remains an enigma. It indeed is.