Pakistan stands on some of the most ancient land in the world with cities and towns whose history stretches back many millennia. The names of these cities are tales within themselves speaking of the days of yore. Did you know that Peshawar’s ancient name actually was city of flowers, that Sialkot is named after a Punjabi folk hero, that Gwadar means door of the winds or that the Margalla hills are named after a dragon king?
Of the ancient Roots of names within Pakistan.
The name of Chitral has many unconfirmed etymologies but can be derived from the Sanskrit term ‘Ksetra’ for field. The word Chitral also means field in the Chitrali language and is pronounced as ‘Tchetrar’ which is similar to Ksetra. Khowar which is the most archaic Indo Aryan language in the world still retains the most original Sanskrit words in unaltered or slightly altered form.
It’s name is derived from the ancient Sanskrit name of the swat river i.e. Suwastu which means fair and noble dwelling area or generally a good place to live in. Swat also later had a kingdom called Udyaana which literally meant Garden due to Swat’s beauty. Udyaana has many mentions in the accounts of ancient Buddhist travelers.
Bannu is derived from the ancient Sanskrit name of a river which ran through it i.e. Varnu. The earliest mention of it comes from Panini which speaks of the river and it’s surrounding as Varnu. The word Varnu in Sanskrit often linked to burning or generally the sun.
We also witness a similar phenomenon in the name of Benares in India where the river Varuna from which it derived its name was altered into Benares.
The neighbouring Gomal and Kurram valleys are also named after ancient Sanskrit names of rivers i.e. ‘Gomati’ and ‘Krumu’.
Although the origin of Swabi itself isn’t known, Swabi holds within it Hund; the capital of Hind Shahis and the last capital of Gandhara. Hund is derived from the name Udbandapur which meant “City on the river”. It also contains the town of Salatura (now known as Chota Lahore) which produced 2 great ancient people:
One was Panini who is considered the father of linguistics. His texts called the Ashtadyahi is one of best early linguistic works in the world.
The second man was the monk Marananta who travelled to the kingdom of Baekje and was the first to introduce Buddhism in Korean peninsula.
The region of Hazara got its modern name in 1399 when Amir Timur was credited to have left a garrison of 1000 Karluk Turks in the region on his departure from the Indus region. The 1000 men garrison was known as Hazara and thus the name. In ancient times it was known as Urasa/Urasha. It’s people and it’s king Abisares fought against Alexander at the rock of Aornos (Pir Sar Mountain). They later joined Chandragupta and Chanakya’s ‘Tribal Army’ against the Nandas, laying the foundation of the Mauryan Empire.
The town was founded by Hari Singh Nalwa, one of the most crucial characters of the Khalsa Empire. He took over Hazara, Peshawar and Multan for the Sikhs. Hari was killed by the Afghans in Jamrud in 1837.
Peshawar has had more than 12 different ancient names in various languages. With the passage of centuries and the emergence of the city in the horizon of various languages and cultures, its list of names kept increasing. However, it had one original name. One theory states the origin to be ‘Purushapura’: City of men, however this is not confirmed. The oldest, almost 2000 year old, reference to it in the form of an inscription refers to it as Poshapura (city of flowers). This name is possibly derived from the Sanskrit word Pushpa for flower.
This was corrupted into Parashawar until in the 1500s it was renamed Peshawar by Akbar from the Persian words Pesh-Awardan meaning the first coming city or the frontier city.
Thought we donot have any ancient source which refers to potohar’s origins, according to Dr. Ahmed Hassan Dani its name is possibly derived from the Sanskrit words Prshta (Back) – war (area). It’s name is said to signify its location at the back of the Indus River.
Taxilla – Margalla Hills:
Both Taxilla and Margalla hills have multiple etymologies but could possibly derive their name from an ancient Serpent king. Takshasila could possibly mean the Naga Taksha’s Rock whereas Margalla coming from Mar-e-Qila (Serpent’s fort) could also be a reference to it. Taksha was referred to as one of the 8 great dragon kings in eastern mythologies.
Many theories exist on the origin of the name of Lahore, though none are confirmed. What we do know is that Lahore was the name of the banks of the Irvati (Ravi River) and not of a city. Most accounts refer to the city as Mandahukur. Possibly linked to the Vedic Madra tribes.
Sialkot derives it’s name from the ancient Punjabi folk charachter Raja Sal and it’s name means The fort of Sal. Raja Sal was the father of Raja Rasalu who is the greatest punjabi folk hero. His tales include his travels in Punjab fighting demons. The ancient town of Sialkot was known as Sagala which fought a strong battle against Alexander and killed a number of high rank Macedonian officials but was razed. It was also the wonderful seat of Menander of the Indo-Greek Kingdom.
The roots of Multan are in Sanskrit from the words Mool – Sthan meaning the ‘base area’ or the ‘root area’. This is also attached to the old name of Multan i.e. Mulasthana. The name possibly signifies Multan’s status due to the sun temple of Multan and as the center of the Solar Cult of South Asia.
The name of the city of Larkana is derived from the name of the upper Sindhi tribes who settled in its neighbourhood i.e. the ‘Lariks’. Before the modern city, it was a fertile land in the Mughal period known as ‘Chandko Pargana’.
It is not properly known what both Sukkur and Bhakkar mean although the former is possibly derived from the word ‘Sakhar’ for favourable.
The city itself is new however the Rohri hills of Sukkur played an instrumental role in the dawn of civilization in South Asia.
The origin of this name is also not properly known, however most people view the name to be linked to Mai Kolachi; a Baloch fisherwoman who is associated with the tale of founding a fishing village near Lyari, laying the foundation of the modern city of Karachi. Other theories also exist.
The name of Quetta is supposedly derived from the word Kwatt for fort since the town is said to be originated from a fort in which the old city is located. It’s earliest history comes from the invasion of Mahmud Ghaznavi over the region.
Kalat just like Quetta also means a fort but in the Persian language.
It was the capital of the Khanate of Kalat and a wonder of a city. Surrounded on all sides by high walls with a moat around them and gardens within. At the days of its zenith it is said to have resembled the old city of Herat.
Makran’s etymology is also divided into 2 theories.
The first one states that the clearly Persian name is derived from the words Mahi – Khoran i.e. Fish eating due to the fisherman of the Makran coast who traditionally ate fish as staple diet. 2300 years ago when Alexander passed through Makran, the people he met were given the name Ichthyophagi – Fish Eaters.
The second theory states that the name is derived from the words Mak – Kiran which means coast of the Maka tribe who were the ancient inhabitants of this region. Maka itself is persiansed version of the ‘Magan’ which was the Mesopotamian name of Makran neighbouring Meluhha (IVC).
The word Gwadar comes from the Balochi word ‘Gwat’ for ‘winds’ and the Persian/Balochi word ‘Dar’ for ‘Door’. The name itself means “Door Of The Winds”. It could be a product of the strong sea winds of the Makran Coast.
The city of Mirpur supposedly derives its name from a man named Miran Shah Ghazi who founded the old city around the mid 17th century. According to some Miran was a tribal chief but according to others he was a religious Saint.
Kotli is possibly derived from the words ‘Koh’ and ‘Telli’ which in the local dialect of the region means ‘surrounded by hills’ or ‘Below the hills’.
No one has ever been fully successful in discovering Gilgit’s origin word. But it is known that the locals refer to the city as ‘Glit’ and most in the olden days called it ‘Sargin Glit’ meaning “The Happy Place of Gilgit”.
Chilas’s ancient name is said to have been ‘Shiltas’ or ‘Silvata’. Both in Sanskrit and Shina ‘Sila’ means rock which is a possible nod both to the rocky environment of the region and Chilas’s ancient rock inscriptions. Chilas has more rock inscriptions than any other place in the world, more than 35,000 have been found. These include primitive pre historic rock and cave drawings as well as modern Buddhist petroglyphs. Chilas being the primary crossing of the auxiliary routes of the Silk route made it very famous in ancient travelers and hence many people also drew here.
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The Proto Indo Aryans – T. Burrow.
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Hari Singh Nalwa – V. Nalwa
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Tales of the Punjab – F. A. Steele.
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The Geographic Journal Vol. 7 (1896)
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Gazeteer of the Multan district.
Archaeological survey of India Vol. 5
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The Making of modern Sindh – H. Khuhro
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