In the ancient time when we were Sapta Sindhu (land of seven rivers) we had floating cities. Cities, ancient and modern, are kept afloat by water. The fact has been more obvious in the past because of man’s direct dependence on flowing and still waters as the taking out water from aquifers was not only difficult but risky. This is one of the reasons that so many of old cities, towns and human settlements have water or hint of it inbuilt in their very names.
Water is crucial to life. In Rig Veda (X.29.3) the world is described as “originally water without light (Salilam apraketam)”. Aap in Vedic/ Sanskrit, Aapas in Avestan language and Aab in Middle Persian means water. ‘Aab’ in the modern name of our homeland Punjab has the same meaning. The Bible says: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.” The presence of God moving over waters gifted them the power to create and sustain life. Rig Veda’s water without light is made transparent by the Bible’s siprit of God moving on it. Thales, the first Greek philosopher, says that life has originated from water.
The languages of Indo-Iranian family apart from having Aap and Aapas also use another name for water; Sar. ‘Sar’ rhymes with ‘sur’ as we find it in the English verb surround. Sarovar and sarvar are derived from it meaning a body of clean water, freshwater lake and water reservoir.
In the Iranian province of Mazandaran there is a city called Ramsar. In the past it was called Sakhtsar. In both the names, old and new, Sar is there. Remember the city lies on the coast of Caspian Sea. Lake Mansarovar is a sacred high altitude freshwater lake which is fed by glaciers of Mount Kailash in Tibet. Four rivers originate from the Mount Kailash and the Lake Mansarovar: Sutlej, Indus, Brahamputra and Karnali. In the north of Pakistan we have breathtaking snow-clad Babusar Pass at the height of 13,691 feet. In the West Punjab we have a comparatively new city of Sargodha [Godha’s water/ pond]. In the south of the Punjab there is a sacred shrine known as Sakhi Sarvar. Before the partition of the Punjab, it used to host the biggest festival; Mela Sakhi Sarvar. ‘Sung’ [a group of fellow travelers/pilgrims, caravan] on foot would travel hundreds of miles from faraway cities such as Gurdaspur to reach the shrines. On the way people from different areas would continue to join and swell the ‘Sung’. It would comprise the people of diverse faiths; Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs. The shrine is purposely called Sakhi Sarwar [a Persian word which means chief, leader, lord] giving it an Islamic touch while it’s actually Sakhi Sarvar. Sarvar means water, lake. There isn’t much difference between the pronunciations of the two but people are made to believe that it’s Persian word.
Erasing and distorting history is our favorite national pastime. The place is an ancient sacred site located on the bank of a stream coming from hilly slopes of Suleman mountain range and predates Muslim rule in the region.
After the Arab/Turk conquest the word ‘Sarvar’ imperceptibly changed into ’Sarwar’. That conquerors either demolish old sacred sites of vanquished people or rename them is no surprise. Here is how Shah Husain, great rebel saint of Lahore, uses the word in his verse; “Dhand purani kuttiyan lukki / asaan sarvar maanh dhutiasay [The dogs have licked the old stinking pool dry / While we have been washed clean by freshwater]”.
Across the border Amritsar houses the Harmandir Sahib, one of the holiest Sikh places of worship. Originally it was a Gurdwara built around a man-made pool by Guru Ram Das in 1577. Muktsar [pool of liberation/emancipation] is a city in East Punjab where Guru Gobind Singh fought his last battle in 1705. We have beautiful Soan Sakesar area with many pristine lakes in district Khushab. Here Sar and Aab point to water. We have villages called Balaksar and Saral in the Chakwal district. There is a small river called Sarsa which flows from Himachal Pradesh. Entering Punjab it joins the river Sutlej in district Rupnagar. The name is self-evident. In Punjab’s literature we come across the words Sar, Sarvar, Sarovar used by different poets and writers. Baba Farid first uses this word in his couplet [Shlok] “Fareeda, so ee sarvar dhundh leh, jithun labhi vath / chhapar dhundhin kya hovae, chikkar dubbay hath [O Farid, find the freshwater stream to get the thing of substance /exploring the stinky pond would get you nothing but hands immersed in slush]”.
There are also other words related with water and its flow from which our cities and towns have taken their names. The ‘vaan [n half pronounced]’ means a step well, a well, a hamlet close to a well. On Lahore Multan highway ahead of Pattoki we have a small town called Vaan Radha Ram which has been changed to Habibabad with the express purpose of cleansing it of our Hindu past. There are yet other words related with water such as vahan, vaah that gives names to some of our old hamlets, villages and towns. Vahan and Vaah mean flowing water, a stream, water channel etc. Neela Vahan [Blue pond] is a stunningly beautiful freshwater lake in Soan Sakesar region. The ancient town of Bhutta Vahan lies on the bank of long dried up river Hakra in district Rahim Yar Khan.
The oral history claims that the town is the birth place of celebrated heroine Sassi. Another Punjab’s river lost in the sands of time is none other than legendary Sarasvati deified in the ancient religious literature. Here again we find ‘Sar [water]’. Interestingly it shares the last part of its name with another much loved river Eravati, now called Ravi, which has been the lifeline of Lahore, Harappa and Multan.
Strangely, when population was sparse and water abundant, our people almost worshiped water. The act of wasting and polluting it was treated as a serious moral and social crime. Now when we have exponentially increased population and depleted sources of water, we needlessly waste and pollute water to satisfy our insatiable lust aroused by the capitalist ideology of infinite consumption. Can we afford infinite consumption and wastage on a planet that is finite? — firstname.lastname@example.org
Published in Dawn, June 7th, 2021