What’s in a name?

  • Muneeb Haroon
  • Publish Date: Dec 6 2017 10:19PM
  • |
  • Updated Date: Dec 6 2017 10:19PM
What’s in a name?

Hilarity if you leave it to a Pakistani toponymist | It’s quite a story, too


What’s in a name? That which we call a rose


By any other word would smell as sweet.

– William Shakespeare, 

Romeo and Juliet

I recently happened to watch a YouTube video produced by a “university” in Pakistan about Lahore’s Shalimar Gardens. When I heard one of the “experts” saying the name comes from the expression “Saala Maar”, my jaw dropped to the floor. The Urdu expression, one expert helpfully explained, means “murder of wife’s brother”. Apparently, the Mughal emperor Jahangir murdered his son’s brother-in-law and where his corpse fell, the spot came to be known as Saala Maar. The aggrieved son, Shah Jahan, would later lay a garden at the spot, and over time its bloody name would be corrupted to Shalimar.

The experts wouldn’t let facts get in the way of their beliefs. And the fact is that Lahore’s Shalimar Garden was christened after its namesake garden in Kashmir which was laid out during Jahangir’s reign and took its final shape under Shah Jahan. The Mughals loved Kashmir, not least because it offered escape from the unbearable heat and dust of the Indian summers, and ended up laying many gardens in the scenic valley. One of them happened to be a place called Shaala Maer. A poem about the garden, written by the Mughal governor of Kashmir, tells us that it was built by Jahangir in 1632 AD and named Farrah Bakhash. Shah Jahan improved it and added another garden called Faiz Bakhash. Together, the two gardens came to be referred as Bagh-i-Shalimar, or the Shalimar Gardens.

Around 1640 AD, Ali Mardan Khan, the governor of Lahore, informed Shah Jahan that a great engineer had come into his service and he could build a canal to bring fresh water to the city from the Ravi river. The canal would greatly improve irrigation. He also thought they could build a garden around the canal in the city. The emperor loved the idea. Work began in earnest and the garden was ready in less than two years. The garden was named Shalimar, as is established by its tareekh, or date, written thus:


Shah Jahan’s Lahore garden consisted of seven connected gardens, but only four survive now. Two of them are called Farrah Bakhash and Faiz Bakhash, just like in the Shalimar Gardens of Kashmir.

Rai Bahadur Shiv Narayan Shameem, a well-known Kashmiri expat who lived in Lahore at the turn of last century, says the place we call Shaala Maer in Kashmir was known as Shaali Maali when King Parversain built the city of Srinagar around the time of birth of Christ’s birth, and erected a structure at this place. Narayan says Shaali Maali is the name of a flower in Sanskrit. This claim is a conjecture at best because none of the great historians of Kashmir mention it. Kalhana doesn’t mention Shalimar in his Rajtarangini. Jonaraja, Sirivara, Suka or Prajyabhatta also do not mention Shalimar in their Rajtaranginis.

It is more likely that Shaala Maer is simply a Kashmiri name, literally meaning “jackal’s canal”. Indeed, many Kashmiri place names are rooted in the word shaal, or jackal – Shaala Naar (jackal ravine), Shaala Taing (jackal hillock) and Shaala Gam (jackal village).

Lahore’s Shalimar Gardens fell into disrepair after the Sikhs conquered Punjab. Maharaja Ranjit Singh had most of the garden’s marble taken out and sent to be used for construction of the Darbar Sahib in Amritsar. He was also convinced that the name Shaala Maar was vulgar, so he rechristened the gardens to Shehla Bagh, a name that persisted well into the British Raj.