So how close are Sanskrit – the Rig Vedic language of India, and Avestan – the ancient language of Iran and the mother of Persian.

In his book ‘Encyclopedia of Indo-European Culture’, the author Douglas Q. Adams states, “The close similarity of the earliest attested Indo-Iranian languages is clearly evident if we extract several lines from the Avestan hymn to the Iranian god Mitra, and provide it with an inter-linear translation in the language of the Rigveda of ancient India….”.

A page from ‘Encyclopedia of Indo-European Culture by Douglas Adams

Here is a look at Avestan hymn that Douglas Adams is referring to. The Avestan hymn says: “tem amavantem yazatem, surem damohu scviatem, mitram yazai zaotrabayo“. It the same as the Sanskrit “tam amavantam yajatam, suram dhamasu savistham, mitram yajai hotrabyah” with a few phonological changes. It means , “this powerful deity, strong among the strongest, Mitra, I offer my libations to…”. The Iranian god Mitra is the same as the Rig Vedic god Mitra.

Says Douglas Adams, “‘…. Linguistics remark that the similarity between Iranian and Indic is not only one of grammar and general lexicon but even the references to the means of ritual offering in the two languages derive from a common ancestor which speaks for a common cultural background. This common background is also reflected in the sharing of names for rivers and common deities, albeit some of the earlier deities common to both were demonized in the later religious reforms of Zaratustera…”.

For example, the Greeks called what is today known as Mazandaran in Iran by the name Hyrcania – a distortion of its earlier name ‘Verkana’. The name Verkana is recorded in the inscription of Behistun, dated somewhere between 522 – 468 BC.

The word ‘Verkana’ is itself a distortion of the Sanskrit ‘Vrka’ (वृक) which means ‘wolf’. The Sanskrit ‘Vrka’ distorts in Avestan (ancient language of Iran) to ‘vehrko’, also meaning ‘wolf’. Therefore Hyrcania is translated as ‘Wolfland’.

But why did the name Verkana change to Mazandaran. And what does Mazandaran mean? The etymology of Mazandaran is traced to Persian mazandaran, literally ‘the gate or the valley of the giants’. Persian itself derives from Avestan. In Avestan the word for giant is ‘mazainya’. Now Avestan is phonologically very close to Sanskrit and can be easily decoded with it. ‘Maza‘ is a distortion of Sanskrit ‘maha’ which means huge, large or giant. The Persian ‘dara’ meaning ‘door’ is the same as the Sanskrit ‘dwar‘ with a dropped syllable, also meaning ‘door’.

Hence what was once known as ‘Verkana’, the land where the wolves roamed, at some point saw the advent of an organized culture, the influence of the Vedic gods, such as Mitra, Varuna and Indra, saw its name change to the more ancient form of Mazendaran.

Thomas Burrow, in his book ‘The Indo Aryans’ stated that the name Mazandaran contained the name of Indra, he said that ‘daran’ was a distortion of ‘Indra’ and that since Ahura Mazda, the Zoroastrian god is actually ‘Asura Mitra’, the first part of the name Mazandaran refers to Zoroastrian god Mitra who is the same as the Vedic god Mitra and that the second part of the word had more to do with Indra, rather than ‘dara’ or ‘door’.

This point has been debated much. Any which way it is fairly clear that at some point Indians descended on what is today known as Iran along with their Indic culture. What is of note is that even before this wave, Sanskrit ‘vrika’ was already known in Iran, suggesting that the language was universal.

Nevertheless the Indic culture as a part of the Mittani rush, reached Mesopotamia. Burrow states in his book ‘The Indo Aryans’ that though some Indians moved to Mesopotamia along with the Mittani, a group stayed back in Iran or were already well established in Iran. He was of the view that the many sites with Sanskrit names especially of mountains, rivers and lakes of Iran attest to this fact. More than cities and kingdoms and cities, the mountains, rivers and lakes tend to retain in their ancient names.

The Zagros Mountains for example gets its name from a group of people who came from the sea into Iran. They called themselves  ‘Sagara‘ (सागर) or ‘sea’. Zagros is distorted ‘Sagara’.  That name is undisputabaly Indian. Burrow also says that Lake Urmia, the largest lake in Iran, is named after Sanskrit ‘urmi’ (ऊर्मि) or ‘wave’. This lake has had many names of which the most ancient is Urmia, which translates as ‘puddle’ in Assyrian. 

Amongst the sites in Iran which seems to have Indic influence is Kurangun, most likely dedicated to Vishnu. Then there is the Ramsar spring. The name says it all. Click here for more details on Kurangun and here for a bit more on Ramsar.

Suggested Links:

1. Encyclopedia of Indo European Culture by Douglas Q. Adams 

2, The Sanskrit Language by Thoms Burrow
3. The Avestan Dictionary
Handbook of classical antiquity: by Richard Nelson Frye
5. A Textbook of Urdu: In the Roman Script by J. Williat


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