The historical names of Bharat, India

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Three Indian soldiers from Sattagydia, Gandhara and Hindush and a Saka haumavarga on the Tomb of Xerxes (c.480 BCE). License: CCA 2.0 Generic

by Jayaram V

The first wave of humans arrived in the Indian subcontinent about 55,000 years ago by the earliest migration routes. Their continued presence and repeated migration from adjoining regions resulted in a genetically diverse population and the development of a unique civilization in the Indus River basin and contiguous areas beginning about 9000 years ago. It gradually led to the formation two unique civilizations, the Indus Valley Civilization and the Sindhu-Saraswathi Civilization between fourth and third millennium BCE. While the former disappeared into the annals of world history due to climate and other problems, the latter spread eastward and southward into the Gangetic Valley and from there eastward and southward about 2000 BCE.

The Vedic civilization which evolved from these developments became the defining aspect of Indian subcontinent for several centuries and the core aspect of present-day Hinduism. By the twelfth century BCE, Vedic civilization was flourishing in several parts of India as it reconciled with other traditions and cultures which are now an integral part of Hinduism. By the fifth century BCE, India witnessed the emergence of large empires and notable dynasties such as the Nandas and Mauryas and alternate belief systems and philosophies such as the materialism of the Lokayatas, Vaisheshika and Samkhyas, the fatalism of the Ajivikas, Jainism, Buddhism and several other schools of thought which disputed the fundamental Vedic beliefs and doctrines. Although contact with India was limited around that time due to geographic barriers which isolated it from all sides, India was known, although vaguely, to the outside world by different names. Interestingly, all the names by which it is currently known, except one, are foreign in origin. We present here the list of names by which the country was known to the people in the past and how the name India came into existence.


Until modern times, the Indian subcontinent was ruled by hundreds of rulers, confederates, republics and dynasties. The number may be even in thousands. People in each kingdom identified themselves with their rulers and considered people from other regions as rivals or friends depending upon how they allied with their rulers. However, cutting across these geographic boundaries they also believed that they shared a common history and ancestry with all the people in the subcontinent. Since the earliest times, for most of them the whole landmass of the Indian subcontinent had a sacred origin and a greater purpose in divine creation. They called it Bharat or Bharatavarsha or the land of the Bharatas. The name may have also been derived from the legendary king Bharata, the progenitor of the Bharata tribes, who established their sway over several principalities between the rivers Saraswathi and Yamuna. We do not know who the real Bharata was since some accounts claim him to be the son of Rishabha and some of Dushyanta. The Bharatas ruled many principalities in the later Vedic period and fought many battles with other tribes in which they emerged victorious. By the time of the epics and the Puranas, the name Bharata Khanda represented greater India or the whole subcontinent, consisting of modern India and all the countries adjoining it, including Afghanistan, Nepal and Myanmar. After India became independent in 1947, the name Bharat was officially incorporated into the Constitution in 1950 as its official name along with India.


In ancient times the Indian subcontinent was known to the people of Persia, Greece and beyond as Hindu or Sindhu. The Zoroastrians called the north western India, the land of the seven rivers (Sapta Sindhu), as Hapta Hindu, replacing the ‘s’ with ‘h’ in their pronunciation. In the sixth century BCE the Persian king Darius conquered three provinces in the Indus Valley region, Gandara, Hidush, and Sattagydia and incorporated them into his empire. The names appear in the Achaemenid inscriptions. The name ‘Hidush’ was a variant of ‘Hindush’ or ‘Sindhu’ since the nasal ‘n’ was silent in the ancient Persian, and in the proto-Iranian languages the letter ‘s’ sounded as ‘h.’ Archeological evidence suggests that soldiers from the province of Hidush fought on behalf of the Persian kings during the time of Xerxes and Darius. They probably played an important role in their victories since they were depicted on the tombs at Naqsh-e Rostam and Persipolis, including the tomb of Xerxes. They also appear in some reliefs on Persian monuments as carrying gifts to the king.


To the Buddhists the Indian subcontinent was the land where the Buddha was born. They called it Jambudvipa, which literally means the land of the Jambu (rose apple) trees. The name also appears in the Hindu Puranas such as the Markendeya and Brahmanda Puranas. In the Hindu and Buddhist texts it is the innermost of the seven continents surrounding the sacred Meru Mountain where flows the sacred river of Jambu. According to the Buddhist texts, Jambudvipa is the only place where beings have an opportunity to attain the knowledge of Dharma and become enlightened. The name appears in a few inscriptions of Ashoka in reference to his own empire. The name became popular in Buddhist circles with the ascendence of Buddhism within and outside India and its growing influence. According to Mahavamsa when Ashoka’s son Mahinda visited Srilanka, he introduced himself to the king as an emissary from Jambudvipa.


Hindu texts such as the Dharmashastras refer to the Indian subcontinent as Aryavarta, the land of the Aryas or noble people. It was a reference to warriors, administrators and influential people in society who wielded power and prestige but not to a particular caste or community although some tend to misinterpret it. The name, ‘Arya’ might have originated from the warrior clans of early Vedic settlers whom the European historians called Aryans, but overtime it became a generic name or title to distinguish people of noble origin. According to some the name Aryavarta applied to only certain regions of Northern India. However, it cannot be true since by the time of Buddha and Mahavira, Vedic religion was practiced in different parts of India and people who practiced Vedism came from different backgrounds due to the sociopolitical development which took place in the region. The Dharmashastras, which identified the land as Aryavarta do not give the impression that they were meant for people of Gangetic Valley only. Their instructions were meant for all people who abided in the Vedic Dharma irrespective of where they lived. Further, most of the Indian kings, provincial rulers, village heads and administrators were not Kshatriyas by birth. They came from diverse backgrounds. Some of them, such as the Bactrian Greeks, Kushanas, Sakas and Pahlavas were foreigners. Some such as the Nagas and Barashivas were tribals. Also, politically or geographically there was no clear demarcation between the North and the South. Rulers from the South such as the Satavahanas held their sway over several northern provinces, while rulers from North ruled parts of the South. The name also appears in Buddhist and Jain texts. The Buddha was known as Aryaputra, which suggests that it was not confined to Vedic people or used for certain castes.


The words Hind, Al-Hind, Hindu, Indostan, Hindistan and Hindustan were used by Persians and foreign travelers who visited India to refer to the land and the people who inhabited it. The Persian scholar and historian, Al Biruni (1020 AD) called it Hind. The Arab historian, El-Masudi, called it Al-Hind. The names, Hind and Hindustan, became popular both in India and outside, and especially in the Muslim community and Islamic nations after the conquest of Northern India by Muslim rulers in the early medieval period and the formation of the Delhi Sultanate. As is evident from the 10th century Persian text Hudud al-Alam and earlier texts, although in the early stages its use was limited to certain territories, subsequently the name Hindustan was used to refer to the whole subcontinent. Abul Fazl, the Chronicler of Akbar, extended the boundaries of Hindustan to include the adjoining islands of Sri Lanka (Sarandip), Western Indonesia (Ache) and Malaysia (Malagha) also. The Europeans who followed the Persians and Mughals and opened their trade posts and colonies continued the practice of using the names Hindustan and Hindustani for official purposes to refer to the land and its people and culture. The Muslim leaders who advocated the two-nation theory wanted the name to be associated with areas where the Majority of Hindus lived in contrast to the Muslim majority Pakistan. However, it was rejected by the leaders of National Congress. The name Hindustan is still used by many Indians and foreigners, although it is not an official name. However, every Indian knows what it means and represents.


Tianzhu was the name used to denote India in ancient Chinese chronicles. The name was probably a variant of the same Persian ‘Hindu’ or ‘Sindhu’ transliterated into Chinese as Tianzhu. Other names for India which appear in old Chinese texts are, Yuandu, Tiandu, Yinteja, Wutianzhu and Indaka. In Japanese, Tianzhy became Tenjiku, and in Korean Cheonchuk. For the ancient Chinese, Tianzhu was the land of five regions (Wu Yin), which lay to the west and consisted of a central region surrounded by four regions in four directions. A detailed description of Tianzhu is found in the Record of the Western Regions (Xiyu Zhuan) compiled by Fan Ye, which states that the region was situated south east of Yuezhi (South Central Asia ruled by Yuezhi), bordered by a large river. Its people rode on elephants during warfare. Since they practiced the way of the Buddha, it was their custom not to kill or attack anyone. It had several states each ruled by a king and hundreds of towns, each with a governor. According to the text, at that time Tianzhu was ruled by the Yuezhis (probably Kushanas). The land produced elephants, rhinoceros, tortoise shells, copper, gold, silver, iron, lead and tin. People in the region traded with the Romans (Da Qin).


Hodu or Hoddu was the Biblical Hebrew name for India, which is mentioned in the Book of Esther of the Old Testament. It states that king Xerxes ruled 127 provinces from Hodu in the East to Ethiopia in the west. The word was also probably derived from the Sanskrit Sindhu only.


The English name, India, was derived from the Greek Indika (Indica) or the Latin Indos, which might have also been derived from the Sanskrit Sindhu or Hindu. The Greek historian Arrian mentioned India as Indoi or Indou. The names ‘Indos’ and ‘Indian’ were used by Herodotus in his book, the Geography. Although he had no direct knowledge of the geography of the land, he used the word ‘Indian’ to refer to the people who lived in the lower Indus basin to the east of Persia. By the time of Alexander, India, in the Hellenistic world meant the land which existed beyond the River Indus. Subsequently, Megasthanese, the Greek ambassador to the court of Chandragupta Maurya, identified the whole subcontinent as India. The Italian traveler, Marco-Polo (1271-1295 ADE) who travelled to China along the Silk Road called it Greater India. Ignatio Danti called it Indostan. According to some accounts, the name India appeared in the Latin work of Lucian and in King Alfred’s translation of Paulus Orosius. Subsequently, during the Tudor period it became Indie in Middle English probably due to the French influence. The name India became popular in English usage since 17th century as the Europeans began establishing their colonies in the subcontinent.

Other names

For a long time, India has also been known to the native people by other names, which are mostly religious in character, as Vedabhumi (the land of the Vedas), Punyabhumi (the sacred land), Matrubhumi (motherland), Dharmabhumi (the land of Dharma), karmabhumi (the land fated to be the birthplace due to karma), janmabhumi (birth place), pitrbhumi (the land of ancestors), Bharata Mata (Mother India) and Brahmavarta. Historically, the last name meant the land between the Rivers Saraswathi and Dristavadi. However, as many Indians agree, it represents the whole country where Brahma is considered the creator god and progenitor of all beings.

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Suggestions for Further Reading


1. Names for India, Wikipedia

2. Achaemenid conquest of the Indus Valley, Wikipedia

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