Myths and misconception: Origins of the name ‘Kashmir’

Ptolemy's maps: the father of modern Geography [Photo: HistoryExtra]

In this article, the author tries to go beyond the traditionally accepted etymologies behind the origin of the word Kashmir

According to Auriel Stein, in his translation of Rajtaranghani, name ‘Kashmir’ is ancient and linguistic sciences can furnish no clue to its origin nor to analyse its formation.

The ‘mystical’ legend that has been popular for years is that the region was a mythological lake called ‘Satisar’ which was drained by meditation of a sage by the name of Kashyapa, hence Kashyap-Mar (The abode of Kashyap) evolved over centuries to assume the current form, Kashmir.

However, the story is only of mythological importance and is mainly propagated by Indian historians taking clue from 12th century historians Kalhana and Jonaraja, a large portion of whose works are more of mythology and less of history.

There is no linguistic evidence to support this idea, because the whole fable of Kashyapa and his progeny is astronomical.

Had Kashyapa drained the valley of its waters or found his progeny in any part of the valley, its capital would have been termed as Kash-yapa-nagar or Kash-yapa-pur, as is the way with most of the etymologies of that period.

According to the latest geological researches, it has been established that the valley of Kashmir was a lake millions of years back and its water found outlet by the volcanic agency through a narrow gorge at Varmul.

However, in a slight contrast to this, many noted local geologists and historians believe that the valley of Kashmir depicts different geological formations from Pre-Cambrian to recent age, with some missing links, question under debate being the Karewa beds and eviction of water through Varmul gorge.

They state that the drainage of the lake hasn’t been through volcanic eruption or tectonic activity alone, but also through a natural process of erosion of the surface water, which carves its way thought the barriers.

Karewa is Pleistocene formed through various stages by deposition of red clay and silt and rests over the folded Paleozoic-Mesozoic rocks of the Kashmir Basin in the Kashmir Valley floor, above the river alluvium. Most of the cultivated fields in the Kashmir Valley are situated on the Karewa sediments.

It is not totally riverine or lacustrine in origin, however the sub-recent alluvium is actually the river deposit along its banks when it was over flowing with the result total plain area was almost submerged in the form of a lake after the Pleistocene glaciation period.

In later times when human population existed along the foothills and higher places, still Jhelum would overflow and formed widespread flood plain. Gradually, human population shifted towards its banks, particularly along the right bank, constructed worship places and settled down in clusters all along.

It was a natural process that has followed similar patterns in numerous topographies worldwide.

The etymology could hence stem from fusion of two words, ‘Ka’ meaning water and ‘Samira’ meaning wind, or a lake drained or dried due to wind.

The Wular Lake which is now barely a few miles was regarded by Montogmerie as a last relic of the great expanse of water which once covered Kashmir. However, this idea of a prehistoric lake has been abandoned by Mr. R.D. Oldham who studied the “Krewas and the present lakes in Kashmir” in 1903.

In any case no human or special agency, other than nature, played a role in draining or drying these pre-historic waters.

According to one more linguistic interpretation, Kashmir is a compound world and its components: ‘kas’ means a channel and ‘mir’ a mountain. Kasmir could thus mean a rock trough.

Kashmir is actually a deep trough with great mountains as rocky walls.

The emperor Babur in his Memoirs mentions that, “the hill country along the upper course of the Sind or the Indus was formerly inhabited by a race of men called Kas” and he conjectures that the country of Kashmir was so called as being the country of that name.

Wakefield mentions that, “the natives of the Valley itself pronounce its name as Kushmir rather than Kashmir: and Vigne, probably led by this peculiarity propounds an ingenious theory which he states not to be an improbable origin of the name.

It is as follows, “Cush was the son of Ham, and grandson of Noah-Cush begat Nimrod: he began to be mighty upon the earth” Nimrod is supposed to be identical with Belus, the beginning of whose Kingdom was Babel, i.e Babylon, where his name, power and descendants must have spread over different countries eastword”.

Cush, according to this theory, was the founder of the Kash or Cush tribe, which settled in the east.

This tribe founded Kash, a village near Bagdad. These people named rivers, mountains, cities and countries after the name of their ancestor Kash or Cush.

In Mesopotamia, they founded a kingdom, and the Kashan river in that country is a testimony of this fact.

Kashmar, a village near Nishapur in Iran, was also founded by them.

This tribe also proceeded towards Central Asia and founded many settlements. Kashmohra, a village in Merv; Kash, a village in Bokhara; Kashband and Kashania, villages in Samarkand. ’Kash” occurs as the initial of Kashgar, which in the Chinese Turkistan was one of their settlements in Central Asia.

In Mesopotamia, the tribe founded the towns of Kashan, Kashaf and Kashi.

They also moved towards Afghanistan and found settlements at Kashkar, Kashhil, Kashek and Kashu.

Hindu Kush is the name of mountains which are westward continuation of Himalayas and separate Afghanistan from Turkmenistan, they also founded a settlement south of this mountain range known as Kashmor.

This tribe settled in the region now known as Kashtawar, in the Chenab valley of Kashmir. Crossing the Pir-Panjal range. These people spread in the valley of Kashmir.

Kush-tawar, in the Pulwama District, Kashnag, a spring in the Islamabad district, and Isae-Kush village bear the name of this tribe.

The words Kush and Kash occur frequently in names of places in various countries that form the eastern hemisphere. ‘Kush’ can be found in China, Arabia and old Mesopotamia; and the Biblical term Kush was applied to the country known to the ancients as Ethiopia.

The repetition in so many places leads to the inference that these various names have something in common.

Ptolemy, a mathematician, astronomer, natural philosopher, geographer and astrologer who wrote several scientific and geographic treatises, speaks of Scythia “beyond the Imaus, which is in a Kasia Regio”, probably exhibiting the name from which Kashgar and Kashgaria (term often applied to the district) are formed.

Imaus refers to the Himalayas. The country’s people practised Zoroastrianism and Buddhism.

Scythia was a region of Central Eurasia in classical antiquity, occupied by the Eastern Iranian Scythians, encompassing Central Asia and parts of Eastern Europe east of the Vistula River, with the eastern edges of the region vaguely defined by the Greeks.

The Scythians – also Scyth, Saka, Sakae, Iskuzai, or Askuzai, – inhabited Scythia from at least the 11th century B.C to the 2nd century C.E.

In the seventh century B.C., the Scythians controlled large swaths of territory throughout Eurasia, from the Black Sea across Siberia to the borders of China, and maybe, some parts of Kashmir.

The played great role in development of ‘The Silk Road’.

The earliest Chinese reference to Kashmir is dated to 541 C.E which calls the Valley ‘Ku-shih-mi’.

The use of the word, according to Stein, can be traced back to twenty three centuries but the name seems far older.


Articles and oral conversation with geologist/historian Jalal-ud-Din Shah
Auriel Stein’s translation of Rajtaranghani
Being Kashmir by M.D Sufi
“The triple system of orography in Ptolemy’s Xinxiang”
Myth behind the narrative by Khalid Bashir Ahmad
The Karewa’s of Kashmir by Birbal Sahni


Khawar Khan Achakzai is a published author, a medical Doctor by profession, and student of history. 


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