Thursday, October 14, 2010

The meaning of Hindu Kush

Hindu Kush is the name of a mountain range in Afghanistan, one that you have to cross or somehow bypass when going from Central Asia to India. It is commonly said that the name means “Hindu-slaughter”, since the straightforward dictionary meaning of kush is “killing, slaughter”. That is what I learned in my first year in Indology from the famous professor Pierre Eggermont. Now, an Indian self-described secularist challenges this received wisdom, so let us find out the truth at the source.

A certain Rajesh Sinha has addressed Hindu forums with the following claims: “Right-wing Hindus invented baseless stories and fabricated history in order to sow seeds of hatred and enmity between the Hindus and the Muslims. One of their latest fabrication is the ‘Hindu-Killers – Hindu Kush’ myth. They hijacked the word and attributed a different meaning to feed their extreme nationalist ideology and incite the ignorant Hindus. Shrinandan Vyas published a dubious articled based on fabricated references arguing that the Muslims committed genocide against the Hindu population. Obviously this is far from the truth and Insha’Allah (God-Willing), I will dispel this myth since it is a great hindrance to many Hindus to discover the true history of Islam. (…) Shrinandan Vyas deliberately supplied fabricated references to credible sources to strengthen his argument that the ‘Hindu-Kush’ really stands for ‘Hindu-Killers’ (…): ‘All standard reference books agree that the name Hindu Kush of the mountain range in Eastern Afghanistan means 'Hindu Slaughter' or 'Hindu Killer'.’”

Since an Indology professor unconcerned with the Hindu-Muslim conflict told me the same in tempore non suspecto, it is plausible enough that standard reference books would do likewise: “Most of his references (fabricated) are from Encyclopaedia Britannica. He writes that the Encyclopaedia Britannica states: 'The name Hindu Kush first appears in 1333 AD in the writings of Ibn Battutah, the medieval Berber traveller, who said the name meant 'Hindu Killer', a meaning still given by Afghan mountain dwellers who are traditional enemies of Indian plainsmen (i.e. Hindus).’ This statement is nowhere to be found in the Encyclopaedia Britannica nor in Ibn Battutah's writings.”

Note that the statement obscures the specifically Islamic angle and attributes the expression to the “traditional” enmity of the “Afghan mountain dwellers” for the “Indian plainsmen”. This sparing of Islam would be typical of contemporary reference works. If a Hindutva hothead had invented the quotation, he would not have missed the opportunity to make it accuse Islam somehow, quod non. Not having a copy of the Encyclopaedia Britannica handy, we will nonetheless be able to show that the quotations is very probably authentic, simply because it is truthful and its reference to Ibn Battuta is easy to find and to verify. If a quality reference work like the EB speaks out on the topic Hindu Kush, we may expect it to cite the proper sources, and that is what it does in Shrinandan Vyas’s citation.

At any rate, we are in a position to cut out the middle-men, both the EB and Mr. Vyas, and go straight to the original.

According to Rajesh Sinha, “Ibn Battutah (full name, Abu 'abd Allah Muhammad Ibn 'abd Allah Al-lawati At-tanji Ibn Battutah ) was a medieval Arab traveller and the author of one of the most famous travel books. He never alleged that the name Hindu Kush means ‘Hindu Killer’ or ‘Slaughter’ but rather, he affirmed that it means ‘Mountains of India’.”

In fact, “Mountain of India” translates a similar-sounding expression, Hindu Koh. Hindu is the Persian equivalent of Sindhu, and originally meant “India”, or “Indian”. Koh is the Persian word for “mountain”, as in the name of the famous diamond Koh-i-Nûr, “mountain of light”. It is entirely likely that the name Hindu Kush came about as a sarcastic twist on the older name Hindu Koh, viz. on the occasion of an actual mass-killing.

According to Sinha, the EB states: “The name Hindu Kush derives from the Arabic for ‘Mountains of India’.” That is unlikely. Would the learned EB make such mistakes? Kush does not mean “mountain”, and the word that does, Koh, is not Arabic but Persian, as is the word Hindu. Perhaps Sinha’s allegations of “fabrication” are a projection of his very own conduct?

Here is his nod to the true story behind the term: “I will still have to clarify the meaning of ‘Hindu Kush’ for the sake of argumentation. Britannica Encyclopaedia states: In the Pashto language of Afghanistan, it is called ‘Hindu Koh’ which means ‘Mount India’.” Pashto is an Iranian language close to Persian, and in both, Hindu Koh does indeed mean “Indian Mountain”; but not Hindu Kush.

Sinha continues: “Furthermore, the name Hindu Kush did not first appear in 1333 AD in the writings of Ibn Battutah but appeared on a map published circa AD 1000. Britannica Encyclopaedia states: Its earliest known usage occurs on a map published about AD 1000.” But does this refer to the original name Hindu Koh, or to Hindu Kush? Sinha is not good at discerning between the two. At any rate, nobody claims that the term was invented by Ibn Battuta, only that he used it. There were already mass slave transports in 1000 AD, when Mahmud Ghaznavi raided India. And note that the population from which slaves were taken, was not defined as “Indian plainsmen” but as Indian non-Muslims.

So let us finally bypass all the querulous claims by our zealous secularist and see for ourselves what Ibn Battuta himself says. In the bilingual Arabic-French edition Voyages d’Ibn Battûta, texte arabe accompagné d’une introduction, by C. Defremenery and Dr. B.R. Sanguinetti (1854, reprint by Editions Anthropos, Paris), on p.84, we find the Moroccan traveller’s account: “Another motive for our journey was fear of the snow, for in the middle of this route there is a mountain called Hindû Kûsh, meaning ‘Hindu-killer’, because many of the male and female slaves transported from India die in these mountains because of the violent cold and the quantity of snow.”

So there you have it. Yes, Ibn Battuta testifies that Hindu Kush means “Hindu-killer”, and he records it as an already existing name. He also testifies that the name was occasioned by a Muslim mistreatment of Hindus, viz. their massive abduction as slaves to Central Asia. In his account, the name does not refer to one particular incident of slaughter, but to the frequent phenomenon of caravans of Hindu slaves crossing the mountains range and losing part of their cargo to the frost. So, Rajesh Sinha, well on his way to becoming an “eminent historian”, is wrong. I don’t know whether he is deluded or deliberately lying, both are ailments common among his tribe.

While we are at it, we may lay to rest another misconception concerning the name Hindu Kush. It is sometimes claimed that the term refers to the occasion when the Uzbek invader Timur transported a mass of Hindu slaves and a hundred thousand of them died in one unexpectedly cold night on this mountain. This is a case of confusion with another incident, where indeed a hundred thousand Hindus died (were killed) in one night by Timur’s hand. That was in 1399, when Timur, fearing an uprising of his Hindu prisoners to coincide with the battle he was planning for the next days, ordered his men to kill all their Hindu slaves immediately, totaling a hundred thousand killed that very night.

Ibn Battuta lived a few generations earlier, and he mentions “Hindu Kush” as an already well-established usage. In his understanding, the reference was not to one spectacular occasion of slaughter, nor of mass death by frost, but of a recurring phenomenon of slaves on transport dying there. The number of casualties would not amount to a hundred thousand in a single night, but over centuries of Hindu slave transports by Muslim conquerors, the death toll must have totaled a far greater number.


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शांतीसुधा said...

Nice and informative article. Many thanks for this. I have a query! What is the word "Kush" means in Sanskrit as it is used as a name of one of the twin son's of Rama in Ramayana and also in Maharashtra at Trayambakeshwar there is a sacred tank (which has live streams inside) named Kushawarta (Kush+awarta). This Kushawarta is considered to be so secrete that people's belief is: if somebody suffering from any skin dieses get cured after bathing in it. Can you throw any light on meaning of the word “Kush” in Sanskrit?

Raghu said...

Read this, and circulate it to who ever you can.

अश्वमित्रः said...


All I know is that, in Sanskrit literature, कुशः is a type of sacred grass, out of which seats are also made for sages sitting at sacrifices. I guess there will be no connection with the similar sounding words dealt with in the article.

Bhuvan said...

The more pertinent question is, what does the word "kush" mean in Persian/Pashto?

CHAKRAM said...

They built mosques on our temples and shown them as proud symbols of their victory over hindus. And Hindu kush name stands as their word to remind hindus being sold as slaves.

Manmath said...

Very nice article. But you may also have mentioned that this man RAJESH SINHA seems to be a Muslim writing under a Hindu name- since his reference "Insha-Allah" gives up the game.

अश्वमित्रः said...

I'm sure that's his real name. His use of that phrase is certainly an affectation.

Harish said...

To those wondering about the meaning of Kush, as pointed out at the beginning of the article it means "kill/slaughter" in Farsi.

Note for example the Urdu word "Khud Kushi" now used in Bollywood to refer to "suicide" instead of Atma Hatya.

And now this kush has nothing to do with the kusha grass of Sanskrit.

Shankara said...

Khush is to kill or death as in Persian word Khud Khushi for suicide, translating to self death . Here it literally translates to Hindu Khush meaning Hindu Death

Harish said...


Just a correction, it is Kush not Khush.

Khushi means happy in Farsi where as Kushi means death/slaughter/kill.

B.N.Gururaj said...

Slave trade was actively promoted by Islam and Muslim mauraders of the yore. Gypsies are said to be Indians of this period, who have eventually spread out in the entire European continent. Prof. Harsh Narain and Prof. KS Lal have also written about the en masse death of Hindus who were transported through this route as slaves. Now, Rajesh Sinha, whoever he is, is trying to reinvent the history. A new upcoming lefitst historian for whom, truth is of no consequence, as long as it serves the secular agenda.

Sarvesh K Tiwari said...

Thanks Dr. Elst for taking this up.

The Secularist argument of Hindu-kush having etymologically developed from "-koh" is also patently false. If the argument had any merit, what is the reason why the "-koh" in the names of **ANY** single other hill around the Khyber ranges of Afghanistan not similarly got etymologically converted into "-Kush"? We do find many hills of the Himalayan passess in Afghan retain the '-Koh' word to mean Hill. Some examples: Safed-Koh, Ambar-Koh, Pase-Koh, Man-Koh, Kamber-Koh, Sapal-Koh, Sera-Koh, Feroz-Koh, Shib-Koh, Zer-i-Koh Khwaja-du-Koh, Koh-i-baba, Koh-i-Safi, Koh-i-Soleman, Koh-i-Mondi, Koh-i-Qaf, Koh-i-Amroda... there are many more hill / Hill-district names in Afghanistan that retain the Arabic-Persian title of 'Koh' without corrupting into Pushto 'Kush'. Now, can seculars name some positive examples to demonstrate where 'Koh' did become 'Kush'...


omK said...

India like stories. A country of liars with magnifying glasses.
I intend to create a CD album of fusion lounge downtempo indian music by the name of "Hindu Couch". Let me slaughter tradition. YakYakYak (hairy bull).

omK said...

@ I like you Shanti. You made me laugh with your throwing light into the well.
Tell me: If I just into the tank with a wheelchair, do I get new tires?
just loafing

patriot said...

'Kushtan' in persian means 'to kill' whereas 'Koh' is a mountain. So 'Kush' clearly has a lot to do with death.

शंकर शरण said...

Thanks for clarifying the dispute for all.

Khoti said...

The word Hindu was a secular term which was used to describe all inhabitants of the Indian subcontinent (or Hindustan) irrespective of their religious affiliation. It was only towards the end of the 18th century that the European merchants and colonists referred collectively to the followers of Indian religions as Hindus.

The earliest known use of this name "Hindu Kush" was by the famous Arab traveller, Ibn Battta c. 1334, who wrote: "Another reason for our halt was fear of the snow, for on the road there is a mountain called Hindu kush, which means "Slayer of Indians," because the slave boys and girls who are brought from India die there in large numbers as a result of the extreme cold and the quantity of snow."

However, this interpretation is usually considered to be only a "folk etymology." Numerous possibilities for its origin have been put forward, including:

1) that the name is a corruption of "Caucasus Indicus."

2) In modern Persian, the word "Kush" is derived from the verb Kushtan - to defeat, kill, or subdue. This could be interpreted as a memorial to the Indian captives who perished in the mountains while being transported to Central Asian slave markets.

3) that the name refers to the last great 'killer' mountains to cross when moving between the Afghan plateau and the Indian subcontinent, named after the toll it took on anyone crossing them;

4) that the name is a corruption of Hindu Koh, from the (modern) Persian word Kuh, meaning mountain. Rennell, writing in 1793, refers to the range as the "Hindoo-Kho or Hindoo-Kush";

5) that the name means Mountains of India or Mountains of the Indus in some of the Iranian languages that are still spoken in the region; that furthermore, many peaks, mountains, and related places in the region have "Kosh" or "Kush" in their names.

6)that the name is a posited Avestan appellation meaning "water mountains."

It must be noted that the mountain range between Hindu Kush and Karakoram is known as "HINDU RAJ"

white pawn said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
white pawn said...

Hello Sir.. Love your articles.. they are so informative and eye opener!

Keep enlightening us!

white pawn said...

One Question:
When Alexander came to India.. I remember reading that he too came through same mountain pass of Hindu Kush.

Please tell me what was the name of the mountain (Hindu Kush) during Alexander's time?

white pawn said...

Thanks for sharing additional info.. Hindu Raj I didn't knew.. till I saw it on Google maps too..

Its amazing how names of places come into existence

LisaDavis said...

This post is some 3-year old now. I note that no commentator has checked Encyclopedia Britannica to verify Mr. Sinha's allegation that "This statement is nowhere to be found in the Encyclopaedia Britannica." Perhaps like Koenraad Elst, no one has access to EB.

I happen to have access to many old versions of EB. Here is 1911, 11th edition. Since this 100 year old publication is past copyright period protection, and in public domain, I can quote the two relevant paragraphs; the 2nd paragraph mentions Ibn Battutah; in 1911, EB spelled his name bit differently.

So, older versions of EB did include "Hindu Kush means Hindu killer", with some clarification. Rajiv Sinha made a mistake in claiming otherwise.

Quote from Encyclopedia Britannica 1911 edition:

Hindu Kush is the Caucasus of Alexander's historians. It is also included in the Paropamisus, though the latter term embraces more, Caucasus being apparently used only when the alpine barrier is in question. Whether the name was given in mere vanity to the barrier which Alexander passed (as Arrian and others repeatedly allege), or was founded also on some verbal confusion, cannot be stated. It was no doubt regarded (and perhaps not altogether untruly) as a part of a great alpine zone believed to traverse Asia from west to east, whether called Taurus, Caucasus or Imaus. Arrian himself applies Caucasus distinctly to the Himalaya also. The application of the name Tanais to the Syr seems to indicate a real confusion with Colchian Caucasus. Alexander, after building an Alexandria at its foot (probably at Hupian near Charikar), crossed into Bactria, first reaching Drapsaca, or Adrapsa. This has been interpreted as Anderab, in which case he probably crossed the Khawak Pass, but the identity is uncertain. The ancient Zend name is, according to Rawlinson, Paresina, the essential part of Paropamisus; this accounts for the great Asiastic Parnassus of Aristotle, and the Pho-lo-sin-a of Hsiian Tsang.

The name Hindu Kush is used by Ibn Batuta, who crossed (c. 1 33 2) from Anderab, and he gives the explanation of the name which, however doubtful, is still popular, as (Pers.) Hindu-Killer, "because of the number of Indian slaves who perished in passing" its snows. Baber always calls the range Hindu Kush, and the way in which he speaks of it shows clearly that it was a range that was meant, not a solitary pass or peak (according to modern local use, as alleged by Elphinstone and Burnes). Probably, however, the title was confined to the section from Khawak to Koh-i-Baba. The name has by some later Oriental writers been modified into Hindu Koh (mountain), but this is factitious, and throws no more light on the origin of the title. The name seems to have become known to European geographers by the Oriental translations of the two Petis de la Croix, and was taken up by Delisle and D'Anville. Rennell and Elphinstone familiarized it. Burnes first crossed the range (1832). A British force was stationed at Bamian beyond it in 1840, with an outpost at Saighan.

JamesB.BKK said...

Whether cold or the sword was the direct cause of any of these described events, human intention was the proximate cause. Thus, "slaughter" fits for describing the human action causal element. "Killing" suggests passivity at work.