Unknown (or often untold) stories live on in the names of villages and towns in the Pahar region of Jammu & Kashmir. Variably known as the ‘Pahari Ilaqah‘, or the ‘Pir Panjal‘ region, this area has a rich cultural heritage. The names of our settlements preserve rich etymologies and meanings, but this form of history is rarely recorded. Numerous mohallay (neighbourhoods/settlements) exist in Mirpur and the wider cultural area that bear similarities and connections with far away places in North India. Even the word muhallay derives from an Arabic word with currency in Hindi and Bengali. Rajasthan is particularly insightful given the number of ‘Zamindar’ clans in Mirpur with distant origins to this region.
The suffix [-ābād] forms part of many west, central and south Asian place names, meaning “cultivated place” (i.e., a village, city or any populated region). At its root is the Persian word ‘āb‘ meaning ‘water’, from which derives the geographical designation ‘Panjāb’, (literally “the five waters”), a term used to locate the five rivers of the Sutlej, Beas, Ravi, Chenab and Jhelum. It is often attached to the name of the settlement’s founder or a core aspect of the area.
To illustrate this point for readers familiar with the settlements of our grandparents, take the example of Khadimabad, a small market town in the Andarhal region (lit., ‘between the hills’) of Mirpur, Azad Kashmir. In the 1960s, with the flourishing of Chaudhry Khadim Hussain’s marketplace into a small town, the surrounding stores and homes were known as Khādam-ābād, Khadimabad. Following the same pattern, stores owned by Chaudhry Muhammad Khan situated between the villages of Kotli Sarsawa and Pind Khurd (near Chakswari) bore his name, and the area in question was called Khān-ābād, Khanabad.
There are other examples where areas have been named after distant ancestors, whether they had originally settled the area or merely resided in it. Village Sarthala (lit., ‘Saras’-Thallā = Sarthalā, (Salas’ Hill or Hillock), again in Andarhal, is said to be named after Salas Singh Khan, (an ‘Adra’, from the original term “Hada” of the Chauhan with ancestral ties to Old Delhi). The town of Chakswari (lit., Sawari’s Chawk = Chak-Sawāri, i.e., Swari’s market (at the junction of two roads) has similarly been named after Numberdar Sawari Khan. According to the anecdotes of my own great grandmothers, they used to call Chakswari ‘Barnala’ which was probably its original name. According to other anecdotes ‘Palaak’ was named after the ancestress Mai Bhalāka, thus becoming ‘Palāka’.
In addition, the suffix [-stān] is Farsi for “place of” or “country“. It appears in locations all across Central and South Asia, and even in Europe: Pākistān, meaning “land of the pure“; Hindustān “land of the Indus river“; and in the term qabristān (‘graveyard’/’cemetery’). The term qabristān can be found in Urdu, Hindi, Farsi and in our Pahari, as well as other Indo-Aryan languages. The term Englishstān has been used, for example, in the documents of the Raah or genealogy keeper Mir Kabal of Siakh, to denote the area under British rule.
The Imperial Gazetteer of India Provincial Series Kashmir and Jammu (1909) states that Mirpur “is said to have been founded about 200 years ago, by the Gakhars, Mīrān Khān and Sultān Fateh Khān”. An alternate view is that the city was founded by Mira Shah Gazi and Gosain Bodhpuri, both regarded as saints. Mir was taken from the name of the former while Pur from the latter to establish Mirpur “which became the Hindu-Muslim unity and brotherhood”. We find similar names in Bangladesh and in Pakistan, for instance, Mirpurkhas. Pur is found approximately 30 times in the Rig Veda, one of the four Vedas, the oldest scriptures of Hinduism. Pur is often translated as ‘city’, ‘castle’, ‘fortress’, or any kind of settlement. It is used as a suffix in several place names across India, Southeast Asia, Afghanistan and Iran.
We get many place names from the name of the clan or family of people residing there. For instance, there are many villages known as Chaudharian-na-Mohalla, Mohra-Rupyal, Thothala, Kalyalay, Nagyalay, Sasralay, Mistarian-na-Mohra or Mohra-Tarkhana. There are also names which derive from more common nouns or noun phrases: Muriya-na-Mohra (from muriya “boys”); Kuriya-na-Mohra (from kuriyaaN “girls”); Tata Pani (literally “hot water”); and even Kutteya-na-Mohra (from kutteyaaN “dogs”)! At times, the Hindu and Sikh settlement names were changed. In terms of Akalgarh, a rumour as it, that it used to be called Kali-garh, (‘home of the Hindu Goddess Kali‘). Tragically, after the 1947 partition as the area was depopulated of its non-Muslim inhabitants, Akalgarh became ‘Islamgarh’ (‘home of Islam‘).
A more common way of naming places is after geographical features. Hence, there is many a Mera (‘valley’) from near Chakswari to across the river in Chhatro. Depending on the direction and perspective, we regularly hear Aplay-na-Mohra (“the upper village”) or Bunni-Mohra (“the lower village”). There is also the more ambiguous Pahar-la-Mohra, denoting “the other village”, or “the village over there”. Landmarks such as a Kass (“well”, e.g. Jari-kas, Kas-gumma) a ban (“reservoir”, e.g. Kheri-ni-Ban, Ban Dhomal) or a janD (“tree”, e.g. Mithijandi) .
And so many an ‘identity’ we confront in the Pahar has been shaped by small settlements or villages. Each mohra is like a family, and regularly, the dwellers of a settlement are descended from a common ancestor, or have some sense of kinship. It is inevitable for arguments and some form of conflict to take place, but these ought to be resolved and shouldn’t give the village a bad name, which sadly has become a common occurrence in recent years. Overall, the names of areas in the Pahar echo reminders from history of the struggles of others, either in setting up the new community, or instead, in thinking of a unique name to call it!