From Meluha to India, the many names of 'Bharat' across centuries

When Droupadi Murmu sent out invites for a G20 dinner, calling herself 'President of Bharat', she set off a heated discussion that is rather puzzling, if taken at face value

The lion capital of the Ashokan pillar which is the national symbol of India, aka Bharat, is a survivor from a time when both Ashoka's empire and the world at large — from Europe to China — recognised it as 'Hindustan' as well (photo: IANS)
The lion capital of the Ashokan pillar which is the national symbol of India, aka Bharat, is a survivor from a time when both Ashoka's empire and the world at large — from Europe to China — recognised it as 'Hindustan' as well (photo: IANS)

Kavya Dubey

When President Droupadi Murmu sent out invites for the dinner she was hosting for the global leaders and guests at the G20 Summit, she described herself as 'President of Bharat'.

It set off a heated discussion that may have abated temporarily, but is likely to be headed for a vociferous revival.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi also chose 'Bharat' as his country's name at the G20 Summit. Rumours, predictably, are rife that the 'Republic of India' and 'We the People of India' are both heading for a name change.

But it may help to be reminded that India has had many names over the centuries of its existence. And every name India has ever had historically had a specific connotation—and its own legitimacy.

India, as we have known it for decades, is a name most popularly used by the British, true, but its origin goes way back to the times when the concept of colonisation (at least as now understood) barely even existed.

Over two millennia ago, when the Persians reached the Sindhu river (or the Indus, from the Greek Indos, which itself derived from the ancient proto-Persian Hindos/Hindus), they mispronounced it as 'Hindu' — and so the land beyond the 'Hindu' came to be known as Hindustan and its people began to be called Hindustani.

Hindustan was the preferred name for the Subcontinent, as used by the Persians, the Greeks, and all the way to the Delhi Sultans and the Mughals. That name not only remains in use still, but also continues to carries a lot of cultural weight, especially in the context of its many musical and literary traditions.

Going back to ancient references to India, though, it was around 300 BCE that Megasthenes, the ambassador of the Greek ruler Seleucus Nikator I at the court of Chandragupta Maurya, wrote of India in his book Indica, which survived in fragments that have been reconstructed by modern historians.

Around 200 BCE, however, Chanakya in his Arthashastra refers to the Indian subcontinent as 'Jambudweepa', inspired by the jamun fruit, native to this region and climate. 'Jambudweep' referred to the combined Aryavarta and Dravida, two regions marked by a riparian divide.

From the time of the Vedas, the seers of the age called the northern half of the subcontinent Aryavarta and the southern half Dravida. Both these regions are recorded in the Manusmriti and the Puranas, where Aryavarta (meaning 'the land of the noble') is described as the region that stretches from the Himalayas in the north to the Vindhyas in the south, and which stretches breadthways from modern-day Gujarat to Madhya Pradesh and on to Varanasi, and from the Bay of Bengal to the Arabian Sea.

Dravida was mentioned as the land to the south of the Vindhyas, the peninsular land upon which the three great bodies of water converge — the Indian Ocean, the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal. The name Dravida is a combines 'dravya' (meaning water) and 'vida' (a place of meeting).

With more rulers came more names: Nabhivarsha, Ilavativarsha and Bharatavarsha, to name a few. Bharatvarsha, however, is a much older name than Bharat, which is now a popular alternative name for India, and also included in its Constitution. It is said to have existed between the first and ninth centuries BCE.

Bharat is a name that finds mention in the Rig Veda too (circa 1500 BCE). It mentions a Bharata clan as the principal tribe of the region that is now north India.

Additionally, Bharat follows from king Bharata, heir to the Kuru dynasty, which comes down to Dushyant and Shakuntala from the epic Mahabharata.   

Going further back, there is  Meluha or Melukhkha, the Sumerian name of a prominent trading partner of the region in the Middle Bronze Age. Although Meluha has not been conclusively identified, most scholars associate it with the Indus Valley Civilisation.

Sumer is the earliest known civilisation in the southern Mesopotamian region, which is now largely south-central Iraq. Sumer is said to have emerged during the Chalcolithic and early Bronze Ages between the sixth and fifth millennium BCE.

A popular novel by Amish Tripathi, The Immortals of Meluha (Westland Press, 2010), describes Meluha as an empire covering the modern Indian regions of Kashmir, Punjab, Himachal Pradesh, Delhi, Haryana, Rajasthan, Gujarat and the whole of Pakistan, along with parts of eastern Afghanistan.

Fast forward to modern times: In 1947, when the British withdrew from this colony, there were three names that coexisted and were interchangeably used by the leaders of our freedom struggle: India, Hindustan and Bharat.

In fact, Mahatma Gandhi was all in favour of 'Hindustani' being the country's national language, as was Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose.

In 1949, when the Constitution was drafted, the official name of the country was also decided—though there remained a split over choosing Bharat vs India, which turned into a peaceful compromise. 

In 1950, when the Constitution came into effect, its Article 1 confirmed the alternative official names of India: "India, that is, Bharat, shall be a Union of States."

India is used in official communications in English, while Bharat is the country's name in nearly all Indian languages. Given this convention, the G20 invites sent out by the 'President of Bharat' were a deviation.

While the ruling dispensation denies that the name of the country will be changed officially, it has made it abundantly clear that Bharat will be used more often in official communications, language irrespective.

Congress stalwart and popular historian Shashi Tharoor agrees that both names carry value, and that “while there is no Constitutional objection to calling India 'Bharat', I hope the government will not be so foolish as to completely dispense with 'India', which has incalculable brand value built up over centuries".

He added: "We should continue to use both words rather than relinquish our claim to a name redolent of history, a name that is recognised around the world."

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