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.