Ekti Nadir Naam: Ramblings through the etymology of River names in India

Above: Dry Chandrabhaga from Maharashtra. We have at least 5 Chandrabhagas in India! Photo: Parineeta Dandekar


“I’m going to buy vegetables from the banks of Ganga. Coming?” (“गंगेवर चालले आहे भाजी आणायला. येणार?”). This was my Grandmother’s Sunday morning ritual. I always jumped at the opportunity: it meant going to the local market skirting Ganga and staring at colorful heaps of vegetables, patting dewlaps of humongous cows settled in islands, stealing guilty glances at sadhus who sold fascinating stuff: owl claws, deer musk pods, Giant Entada seeds..but most of all, it meant observing the filthy and beautiful river from the Ghats. I lived in Nashik, on the banks of Godavari and Godavari was our Ganga.

Vegetable market on the banks of Godavari Photo with thanks: superdave.blog.com

Vegetable market on the banks of Godavari Photo with thanks: superdave.blog.com

Later when I started working on rivers, I made a blunder. I argued (ineffectively) that Dhauliganga River in Uttarakhand did not have any hydroelectric project across it, despite being told patiently that I’m mistaken. Well, it turned out there are two Dhauligangas in Uttarakhand: one in Mahakali Basin and the other in Upper Ganga Basin. (Emmanuel Theophilus tells me that there are duplicate Kali, Kosi, Ramganga as well!)

River Etymology, the origin of river names is a fascinating subject which offers a peep into the lost culture, history and even geography of Indian subcontinent, as also the world.  I’m sure there must be solid work done of the subject in India, but the problem is it’s not easily available in the public domain. This post is only an introduction to the intriguing features of colloquial and classical names of rivers in India, a very brief glimpse into the possible meaning of some names and some beautiful coincidences from far away places.  If you can throw more light of some these issues, we would be indeed grateful.

One of the inspirations for this thought came from Ritwick Ghatak’s movies based on rivers: from Subarnarekha, to Padma in Komal Gandhar to Titash in Titash Ekti Nadir Naam. A brilliant documentary on Ghatak by Anup Singh is also called as Ekti Nadir Naam: Name of a River[i].

A still from Titash Ekti Nadir Naam Photo: worldcinemafoundation.org

A still from Titash Ekti Nadir Naam Photo: worldcinemafoundation.org

Our identity as Indians is entwined with rivers. As we know, ‘India’ is derived from Indus, which originates from the Old Persian word Hinduš, which in turn comes from Sanskrit word Sindhu, the Indus River. In the Rigvedic Nadistuti Sukta, gender of Sindhu River is unclear, while all others are feminine. In Pashto dialect, Sindhu is Abaseen[ii], or Father River, it’s also called as Sengge Chhu or Lion River, in Ladakh and Sengge Zangbo, again Lion River in Tibet[iii], both male.

The femininity and masculinity of river names is puzzling. Most rivers in India (including tribal names) are feminine. At the same time, we have several male rivers. The most celebrated is of course the Brahmaputra. As Dhiman Dasgupta puts it, even the parent river Yarlung Zangbo is male. So is one of its important tributaries: Lohit. West Bengal has many rivers with Vedic male names like Damodar, Rupnarayan, Barakar, Barakeshwar, Ajoy, Pagla, Jaipanda, Godadhari, Bhairav[iv]. Most of these are from south Bengal. This came up in an interesting facebook discussion in which friends like Parag Jyoti Saikia gave wonderful insights. Why such density of male rivers in southern West Bengal? Dhiman Dasgupta tells us that it may have something to do with the destructive nature of these rivers and the fury of their floods.

Any other explanations?

Dr. Dinesh Kumar Mishra, in his delightful introduction to Kakasaheb Kalelkar’s seminal work on rivers Jeevan Leela, tells us about Sutlej: ‘Shatadru’ of the Vedic times…Shatadru meaning “of hundred ways”, indicating the many paths Sutlej takes in her ( his?) descent. Kakasaheb talks about these multifarious paths of rivers as “Mukta Veni” or “Yukta Veni”, literally translating into ‘freeflowing hair’ and ‘braided hair’ of a tumbling river. Talking of hair ( and digressing further!), Western Ghats of Maharashtra actually has a river named Hiranyakeshi: the Golden-haired one. Possibly named after the golden sunrays which sparkle in the river cascade as she arises from a dense forest.

The MuktaVeni/ Cascading Dibang! Image: Google Earth

The MuktaVeni/ Cascading tresses of Dibang! Image: Google Earth

In tribal traditions, we find some singular male rivers. Like Rongeet in Sikkim. The tale of Rongeet and Rongnue[v](Teesta) is sung at Sikkimese weddings. Its goes: Rongeet and Rongnue were legendary lovers who decided to descend down the plains after seeking blessings of Mt. Khanchendzonga. Rongeet was led by a bird and Rongnue by a serpent. Rongnue took serpent’s meandering path and reached the plains first at Pesok to wait for Rongeet (Teeshtata?). Rongeet was misled by the spirited bird and flowed up and down, fell down at places and was late to arrive. According to the lore, being a male he was upset to see his Rongnue already waiting at Pesok! It took a lot of sweet persuasion from Rongnue/Teesta to convince Rongeet that it was not his fault that he was late and she early 🙂

The story of Chandra and Bhaga[vi] to form Chandrabhaga (no not the one you know!) or Chenab in Lahaul Spiti, Himachal Pradesh is also strangely similar. It’s said that Chandra, the daughter of Moon with her origin at Chandra Taal was in love with Bhaga, the son of Lord Sun, originating at the Suraj Taal. They decided to go upto Baralachala Pass and then come down from opposite directions to meet at Tandi and get married. Chandra easily meandered down to Tandi, while the path of Bhaga was not so easy. Chandra was worried not to find Bhaga and went back all the way to Keylong to find him. She saw him making his way arduously through a steep gorge. Finally they met at Tandi to form Chandrabhaga.

Now the interesting part is there is a Chandrabhaga in West Bengal too near Birbhum, then there is a Chandrbhaga near Ahmedabad in Gujarat, one near the Konark Temple in Puri (also with an associated Sun God story) and the famous, worshipped Chandrabhaga in Pandharpur, on the banks of the Vitthal Temple. Dinesh Kumar Mishra ji tells us that there is a Chandrabhaga in Bihar too, now called as Chanaha. And the story of one name for many rivers does not end here.

Yamuna: The water pirate?? After this blog was published, Mr. Ramesh Athavale got in touch with me with very interesting insights and information. He said, it seems that river which ‘pirates’ ( such a harsh word for rivers!) water from another river is called Yamuna. He referred to a paper and work of a renowned Geologist Dr. K S Valdiya and sure enough, Dr. Valdiya tells us about 3 such cases wherein a new channel has been formed, desiccating the older river/channel (In the context of Saraswati, he calls it ‘beheading of Saraswati’!). In all these cases, the new pirate channel is called as “Yamuna”. First example is branch of Chambal which led to diversion of water from ancient Saraswati, leading to its desiccation. In another example, before 1720’s, Brahmaputra used to meet the Bay of Bengal through Meghana, without joining Ganga as it does now. Between 1720-1830 it abandoned this older path to meet Ganga through a new channel which was called, yes, Yamuna! In another case,  Dhanasiri captured the headwaters of Kapili/Kopili which flowed from Meghalaya to Assam and this “Pirate Channel” is again known as Yamuna! It may also be a coincidence that all these channels are Yamuna, but Sanskrit meaning of “Yama” is also a “twin”!

Do you know more about this?

Garuda Purana talks of Vaitarni as a river marking boundary of this and the netherworld and there’s a Vaitarni (Baitarni) in Odisha. But Maharashtra has a Vaitarna/ Vaitarni too which originates in the Western Ghats of Nashik and flows down to the Arabian Sea. This Vaitarna originates just a few kilometers away from Godavari, but while the footsteps of Shiva are worshipped all over near Godavari’s origin in Brahmagiri and her descent at Trimbakeshwar, Vaitarna does not have such luck..

We know Godavari originates in Nashik and goes on to become the longest river in the Peninsular India. But there is one more Godavari in Nepal! Funnily enough there is also an Indravati in Nepal.. Indravati is Godavari’s important tributary flowing through Chhattisgarh.

Krishna in Maharashtra is affectionately called as Krishna Mai or Krishnai (Mother Krishna), and to be sure, there is a Krishnai in Meghalaya, which is a part of the Brahmaputra basin!

Gomti is a tributary of Ganga and there is Gumti in Tripura, flowing to Bangladesh, the river has Tripura’s biggest and most infamous dam. Ganga is used interchangeably with “River” and we have many Gangas: from Gori Ganga ( Fair Ganga) to Kali Ganga ( Dark Ganga), from Van Ganga (Forest Ganga) to Bal Ganga (Child Ganga)

Iravati is the classical name of Ravi, one of the Punjab Rivers, but there is one more Iravati as well. Irrawaddy (Pali form of Iravati) forms by the confluence of N’Mai and Mali Rivers of Myanmar (Burma) which originate from the Himalayan glaciers. While Ravi flows on into Pakistan to meet Indus River, Irrawaddy flows into the Andaman Sea.

A comment from Sarika reminded me that there are two Kaveris as well! One is the famous ‘Cauvery’, the lifeline of Karnataka and Tamilnadu, while one is a tributary of west-flowing Narmada. In fact, Omkareshwar sits of the confluence of Narmada and Kavery!

And this trend crosses boundaries too. Did you know that Hong Kong has a Sutlej River? and also a Jhelum and also a Beas?! This possibly happened circa 1860s when Punjabi Sikh soldiers were recruited by the British in Hongkong as Police and security forces. Long Valley, one of the largest freshwater wetland in Hongkong is a “doab” of Sutlej and Beas. Perhaps these smaller alluvial plains reminded the Punjabi soldiers of their fertile valleys back home? Any insights?

Some believe that at least in some cases, river names were replicated to cash on or to recreate the grandeur of original rivers. According to Indologist Saili Palande-Datar: “The myths are created around it to legitimize it and eventually you have your own sacred place to sustain trade, increase commerce and allied activities around it and attract religious pilgrims (tourists!).”

I’ve been to river Shastri in Ratnagiri in Sangameshwar, Maharashtra whose main tributary is Alaknanda just like the Ganga! The confluence of Shastri and Alaknanda is also deified like Devprayag. (Shastri’s name is said to have originated from the very many Shastris (Priests) who performed river-related poojas in Sangameshwar 🙂

Dhiman Dasgupta maintains that people carried names with them as they moved. “Ancient Indic (read Vedic) people carried names along with them. The original Saraswati and Sarayu (as mentioned in Ramayan) are in Afghanistan & Iran. Original Yamuna is the main goddess of Persia. There are many such examples of Etiology of names. In addition the inventory of names in Archaic times was extremely limited.”

Vedic or classical Sanskrit names come in their lilting best in Karnataka. The state has rivers like Shalmala, Netravathi, Kumardhara, Payaswini, Souparnika, Swarna, Arkavathy, Aghanashini, Kabini, Vedavathy, Kumudavathi, Sharavathy, Vrishabhavati, Ghataprabha, Malaprabha, etc. Melodius names indeed. After working along some of these rivers, I can vouch that Kumardhara, Aghanashini, Netravathi, Swarna are as beautiful as they sound! (Mr. Ganesh Nayak suggests Shambhavi as one more rivetting river names from the state.) Kerala also has lovely river names, like Manimala, which literally means a ‘string of beads’.. Adornments remind one of the Vietnamese ‘Perfume’ River (Sông Hương or Hương Giang) called thus because of the flower orchards upriver, which lend a heady perfume to the waters, or even the Pearl River in China.

A tributary of Netravathi Photo: Parineeta Dandekar

A tributary of Netravathi Photo: Parineeta Dandekar

However, some view these classical names differently. Saili says: “Sometimes, I feel that just as different females in Kalidasa’s literature are named in creative classical way, they have done it with the rivers. I would, however, be interested in knowing the names of the rivers in tribal and remote areas, I guess that they would have more practical, every day name and quite apt as well. They might have some more natural sounding names. Even if a political domination is overthrown the hegemony of the mainstream vedic and puranic Hindu religion is too hard to resist.”

In a facebook conversation a friend [vii]who is a strong advocate for regional languages said: “The imposing intrusion of Sanskrit in most regions of India has played a significant role in river names, especially in the Hindu states – that is why you see names similar in Nepal but not in China.”

Some colloquial names offer remarkable insights into the nature of rivers. For example, in Nashik we have a river called Waghadi. I once asked someone who stayed on the banks, why Waghadi? (Wagh is a Tiger in Marathi) I was told that the river is very flashy. It floods suddenly in rainy season and pounces like a tiger on whoever that comes in its path! Mula basin in Pune where I worked for some years has a river called Walki, which means the dry river. (Incidentally Mula and Mutha Rivers in Pune sound especially dry and unromantic! Any idea of the stories behind these names?)

Shastri basin in Ratnagiri has a tributary called Gadgadi which tumbles down a mountain and I was told by an old man that it is Gadgadi (the Thundering one) because it carries bed load of boulders down with the floods, thundering down on its way. Bav Nadi again in Ratnagiri tells us about the huge and treacherous potholes (Bavs) in the river bed. Then there is the in-your-face Potfodi and Doifodi (Stomach and Head breaker!) again pointing out to the dangerous nature of these rivers. Mahesh Mhatre, Managing Editor or IBN Lokmat Channel tells me of a river called Saitani in Gadchiroli, likened to the devil, due to her treacherous floods!

Gujarat has its share of classical Sabarmati and Rangmati and Rukmavati, but it also has a River called Bhukhi (The hungry one) and one called Utavali (impatient or restive)! Rajasthan’s Alwar District has a river called ‘Jahajwali(One with the boats).

I’m sure there would be many such examples in local dialects across the country, I could only draw a few from Maharashtra, do let us know if you know more from your region. This nomenclature seems like an exploration into local geography and hydrology and is significant to document as such. We also have local dialect moulding classical names into endearing local connotations like Godaari for Godavari in Andhra and Poddha for Padma in Bangladesh or radicle transformations like Charmavati into Chambal and Vetravati to Betwa!

Some regions have a specific word prefixed or suffixed for rivers. Dr. Latha Anantha says, “The term Aar or Puzha (both meaning river in Tamil and Malayalam) are tagged with the name of many rivers.  Like Chalakudy Puzha, Periyar, Pandiyar, etc.” Similarly, Chhu means a river in Bhutan, Sikkim and Tawang region, so tautologically when we say Nyamjangchhu River or Rathong Chhu River, we are saying river twice!

Nilim Dutta from Assam tells me that “Many of Assam’s rivers, Brahmaputra’s tributaries, starts with the word ‘Di’….Dihing, Dibang, Dikhou, Dikrong etc. ‘Di’ is the Bodo word for ‘Water’ and the Bodos are considered the earliest settlers of the Brahmaputra Valley.”

Dibang valley in upper stretches Photo: Rezina Mihu

Dibang valley in upper stretches Photo: Rezina Mihu

Then, there are some mostly coincidental wonders which happen along the way. Ganga is formed after Bhagirathi and Alaknanda merge in Uttarakhand, but when Ganga forms its delta, it again splits into Padma and Bhagirathi! Similarly, Godavari is formed by the sangam of a smaller Godavari and Gautami at Nashik but thousands of kilometers in the downstream, at the Godavari Delta, it diverges again into Godavari and Gautami!  Yes, these are only river names, but the way they denote unity and continuity of the concept of river seems surreal.

A Russian folk tale tells us about a lost child who tells people to go find her mother, who, according to the little girl, is the most beautiful woman in the whole wide world. Well, many River people have also thought of their own rivers as the mightiest ones in the world! Zambezi, Rio Grande, Parana, Chao Phraya, Mahanadi, Guadalquivir, Mississippi, Sindhu all tend to mean “Greatest River” or “River as big as the Sea” or “King of Rivers”!

Volga in Sogdian language actually means a vein or a blood vessel.

And finally, many river names denote a unique quality inherent to a river: that which is becoming rare day by day: its flow. Ancient Greek ‘Tigris’ is said to have evolved from original Sumerian Idigna which means “Running Waters” , Bosna [viii]likely from the Illyrian Bosona which means “flowing water”, Waikato River in Maori also means “Flowing Waters”, Jordan means to “descend” or to “flow down”, Rhine, from the archaic German Rhine, which in turn comes from Middle High German: Rin, means “to run or to flow”, same is the case with Reno River in Italy.

And Ganga means the same. As Ravi Chopra and even Union Minister for Water Resources Uma Bharti have said eloquently in their addresses, Ganga itself comes simply from Gam Gachhti: That which flows.

With more rivers dammed and less rivers flowing, running or even crawling, we may have to start looking for more apt river names…like Walki, the dry one perhaps?

Parineeta Dandekar, SANDRP (parineeta.dandekar@gmail.com), 

with inputs from Himanshu Thakkar 


[i] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YRjNDsoswLM

[ii] http://cs.mcgill.ca/~rwest/wikispeedia/wpcd/wp/i/Indus_River.htm

[iii] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sênggê_Zangbo

[v] http://www.actsikkim.com/teesta.html

[vi] Bajpai, Lahaul and Spiti, a forbidden land in the Himalayas, Indus Publishing

[vii] Thanks Rohit Rao!

[viii] A major river in Bosnia-Herzegovina

11 Comments on “Ekti Nadir Naam: Ramblings through the etymology of River names in India

  1. simply interesting . Pl bring this in a book-form.
    there iare literary referances also like stotras, kavanas on rivers, for example Shankaracharya`s stotra on Narmada describing her attributes in a flowery language. As you have undertaken such project, myself ready to help and cto collect the data. Thanks for sharing.


    • Thanks a lot Ushaprabhaji for your comments as well as your generous offer to help.

      We would keep working on this and I will get in touch with you. Yes, ancient references and River Mahatmyas, either in Sanskrit, Prakrit or any other regional languages are also very interesting.



  2. Added this information on 2nd March 2015:
    Yamuna: The water pirate??
    After this blog was published, Mr. Ramesh Athavale got in touch with me with very interesting information. He said, it seems that river which ‘pirates’ ( such a harsh word for rivers!) water from another river is called Yamuna. He referred to a paper and work of a renowned Geologist Dr. K S Valdiya and sure enough, Dr. Valdiya tells us about 3 such cases wherein a new channel has been formed, desiccating the older river/channel (In the context of Saraswati, he calls it ‘beheading of Saraswati’!). In all these cases, the new channel is called as “Yamuna”. First example is branch of Chambal which led to diversion of water from ancient Saraswati, leading to its dessication. In another example, before 1720’s, Brahmaputra used to meet the Bay of Bengal through Meghana, without joining Ganga as it does now. Between 1720-1830 it abandoned this older path to meet Ganga through a new channel which was called, yes, Yamuna! In another case, Dhanasiri captured the headwaters of Kapili/Kopili which flowed from Meghalaya to Assam and this “Pirate Channel” is again known as Yamuna!


  3. Great read! Glad to see the differences between the sanskrit tradition and those in vernacular. Look forward to more reflections and insights..


  4. Very interesting and elaborate article!!!
    But I missed something about Narmada and Tapi. In the entire book on background of Narmada parikrama, Go.Ni. Dandekar used Reva as alternate name for Narmada river..I would like to read something about these names too.


    • Thanks Sarika.
      Indeed Narmada is one of the most enigmatic names as well as Rivers of India. Narma-da literally means bestower of grace and there is some confusion about Rewa: some say it alludes to the ‘noise’ the river makes, while some say its because of her sand banks.. Im not certain, but would like to know.

      About Tapi/Tapti too, I dont know the exact story behind the name. One story goes that Tapi is Sun’s daughter, and Sun god fashioned her out of himself only to save himself of the increasing heat (Taap). Incidentally, of all the River Mahatmyas in Marathi ( Krishna, Godavari, Bhima, Purna or Payosni), Tapi Mahatmya written in 1702 by Lukhanath Solanki seems to be the oldest. Maybe it will hold some cue to the name… Do let us know if you find out more.
      Thanks and warm regards,
      parineeta dandekar
      PS: Incidentally this also reminded me that Omkareshwar is at the confluence of Narmada and Kaveri, so we have one more Kaveri!


  5. Very interesting : the way this nice piece of informaton is presented and the discussion and comments. Informative with equally beautiful photographs .Thanks . The concept of “Yamuna water theft ” is just surprising and thaught provoking. By the way sarawati also exists in varoius places. The lost one, the saraswati in malwa ( near ujjain,saraswati in gujarat. Diana eak has given a very interesting possible explanation for replication of names of places,tirthas etc in indian culture and its relevance to geography


  6. Loved reading this article.. Very informative and giving rise to several thoughts too..
    I have read that Mekang in Cambodia has also borrowed the name from Ganga. There are also multiple Saraswati rivers all over India e.g Uttarakhand, Gujrath etc. in addition to the original extinct one. You have mentioned about ‘Male’ rivers, Shon or Son a major tributary of Ganga meeting her at Patna is also mentioned as ‘Nad’.
    Wonderful topic indeed..


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