When thinking about travel, often our minds drift towards the mystical and exotic, expanding our horizons and exploring that which we deem to be unfamiliar. Due to its geographical distance as well as, probably, its perceived cultural distance from Westernism, one of the mental destinations is usually India. When the word “India” is mentioned, we tend to conjure images of exotic spices, colourful clothes, mysticism, Holi festivals, yoga, and the British Raj. But before losing ourselves in the vastness that is Indian culture, perhaps we should explore where the name “India” came from.
As could probably be assumed from ancient Roman trade routes or from the conquests of Alexander, our word India comes from Greek via Latin. However, the overall origins of the word are even older than that. Our first exposure to a place remotely close to being called “India” occur in the 5th century BC: the Greek Herodotus refers to “the Indian land” and “Hinduš” is listed as one of the conquered territories of the Persian king, Darius I. Interestingly, all of these definitions come from one single Sanskrit word, Sindhu, which, though it means “river,” was often specifically translated to mean the Indus River. Therefore, in the minds of Westerners from the 5th century BC onwards, the word “India,” at least in its literal sense, has specifically referred to anyone living South of the Himalayas and East of the Indus River.
Though we have been calling them Indians for over 2500 years, most Indians themselves, during this time, have referred to their land as “Bhāratavarṣa.” This name was originally referenced from the Vishnu Purana, where it is written, “The country (varṣam) that lies north of the ocean and south of the snowy mountains is called Bhāratam; there dwell the descendants of Bharata”. Before this, the name Jambudvipa was used to denote the land that is India. But, much like Bhāratavarṣa, this name also derived from Hindu texts which describe a religious significance to the land.
Though, in modern terms, the first British colony in India was established in 1618, the word has been in our language since the days of Old English. The first known mention of India can be found in King Alfred’s Anglo-Saxon translation of Paulus Orosius’ History of the World (c. late 800’s AD), where it is written that: “where mount Caucasus is on the north….these are the borders of India”. Looking at a 1523 entry of the State Papers of Henry VIII, we can possibly see part of the reason for an increase in Western interest: “Gold..brought hither from the Indias.”