More than 120 million Hindu pilgrims are expected to descend on Uttar Pradesh’s Prayagraj, formerly Allahabad, for this year’s Kumbh Mela, the largest gathering of humanity. For Hindus, Prayagraj sits at the confluence of three sacred rivers – the Ganga, the Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati. Among the major rituals at the Kumbh is the shahi snan, or “royal bath”. It is done on specific days when bathing in the rivers is considered especially holy. This year, the first shahi snan took place on January 15 and the main bath on February 4. The third bath is on February 10.
It may seem surprising that a central ritual of a major Hindu festival is described with a Persian word – “shahi”, derived from “shah”, or king. In contemporary South Asia, vocabulary derived from Sanskrit is often seen as “Hindu” while words rooted in Urdu or Persian are branded as “Muslim”. The example of shahi snan, however, is less strange than one may expect. From early medieval times to the present day, Hindus and Muslims have borrowed from each other’s religious vocabularies, with sometimes surprising results.
Old tradition of borrowing
The first examples of this cross-pollination of religious vocabulary date back to the early centuries of Islam in India. Sanskrit texts and inscriptions produced during that period drew upon existing Indic religious vocabulary to make sense of the new religion their authors were encountering.
One such example is a Sanskrit inscription from Somnath, Gujarat, dated to 1264 AD. It records the endowment of a mosque by Nuruddin Firoz, a Muslim trader from Hormuz, Iran. In The Shaping of Modern Gujarat, Achyut Yagnik and Suchitra Sheth argue that the inscription represents an attempt to “translate Arabo-Muslim concepts using Sanskrit vocabulary”.
The inscription begins with a salutation (om namostute) to Allah, who is given four Sanskrit epithets – vishwarupa (universal form), vishwanatha (lord of the universe), shunyarupa (whose form is the void) and lakshyalaksha (who is visible and invisible).
Firoz is described as a supporter of his faith (dharma-bandhava) and the mosque a site of dharma (dharma sthana), where worshippers earn merit (punya karma) and hold special religious festivals (vishesha-puja-mahotsava).
The inscription’s date is recorded as year 662 of Prophet Muhammad, teacher (bodhaka) of the sailors (nau-jana) who follow vishwanatha, which can be interpreted as a name for Shiva or Allah.
Ranabir Chakravarti notes that according to the inscription, “this pious act [of building the mosque] on the part of a Muslim merchant was welcomed, and...also enjoyed considerable local support” from non-Muslim officials, including Somnath’s town council, the provincial governor as well as the ruler of Gujarat, Arjunadeva.
R Nath, a historian of Mughal architecture, points to another such Sanskrit text, produced a few centuries later in Gujarat to guide architects employed to construct mosques. It’s narrated from the point of view of Vishwakarma, the divine architect in the Hindu pantheon, who describes a mosque thus: “There is no image and there they worship, through dhyana (contemplation), the formless, attribute-less, all-pervading Supreme God whom they call rehamana.” Rehamana comes from rahman, meaning gracious in Arabic.
There were rulers across medieval India who encouraged this mingling of religious vocabularies. When Adil Shah Farooqi IV, ruler of the Khandesh sultanate in modern-day Madhya Pradesh, dedicated a mosque in Burhanpur in 1590, he chose to place a Sanskrit inscription, along with an Arabic one, in the mihrab, the niche indicating the direction of Mecca. Its first verse is carefully phrased to align with both Hindu and Muslim beliefs. In fact, it is composed as a shloka in the anushtubh meter which will sound familiar to anyone acquainted with Hindu prayers.
avyaktam vyaapakam nityam gunaatitam chidaatmakam
vyaktasya kaaranam vande vyaktaavyaktam tam ishwaram”
Homage to the Holy Creator.
I praise that Lord who is both manifest and unmanifest.
The unmanifest is pervasive, eternal, beyond all qualities,
and composed of consciousness,
And [yet is] the cause of what is manifest.
Common language in the south
Beyond historical examples, is this mingling of religious vocabulary happening in modern South Asia? It indeed is, in both northern and southern parts of the subcontinent.
While Muslims across Pakistan, North India and Bangladesh generally speak about their faith using Arabic or Persian vocabulary, Muslims in South India employ a hybrid religious vocabulary. Islam arrived in South India much earlier than in the north, brought by maritime traders rather than by imperial conquests or missionaries. The religious vocabulary of many South Indian Muslims draws not only from Persian or Arabic, but also from Sanskrit and Dravidian languages.
In Kerala, for example, many Muslims use the word “niskaram” for the daily prayers instead of the Persian namaaz or the Arabic salah. Niskaram comes from the same Sanskrit root as “namaskaram” and “namaste”, meaning to bow or salute.
Kerala’s Muslims colloquially refer to the fasting month of Ramadan as “punnya masam”, or holy month. Interestingly, some Malayali Hindus use the same phrase to describe the month of Karkidakam, during which the Ramayana is traditionally recited or read. The Malayalam and Tamil word for ritual fasting, “nombu”, is used by both Muslims and Hindus.
This mingling of religious vocabulary can be seen in literature as well. Vasudha Narayanan has discussed several examples of Sanskritic and “Hindu” vocabulary in the Sirappuranam, a 17th-century epic poem about the life of Prophet Muhammad that is considered a gem of Tamil Muslim literature. In it, the poet Umaru Pulavar describes Muhammad as “the light of the four Vedas which showed the path in the world”. Unconventionally, the four Vedas referenced here are not the four Hindu Vedas; rather, they represent the Islamic scriptures: the Torah, Psalms, Gospel and Quran.
Indeed, the poet goes on to describe the Quran as “the Sacred Veda which came from the tongue of the Prophet”. Additionally, Pillaittamil, a Tamil genre of devotional texts addressed to Hindu deities in their child forms, has been adapted by Tamil Muslim and Christian writers to venerate such figures as Jesus, Mary, Muhammad, and Fatima.
In coastal Andhra Pradesh, Afsar Mohammad writes that for Muslims, Telugu rather than Dakhni Urdu is becoming the primary language of Islamic knowledge. As literacy in Dakhni declines among rural Muslims in Andhra, publishers of Islamic literature have turned to Telugu, resulting in an influx of Sanskritic vocabulary. Allah, for example, is described as “vishwaprabhu”, or the lord of the universe.
Shared devotion in the north
Unlike in South India, Hindus and Muslims in North India and Pakistan have largely distinct religious vocabularies. Much of this is due to how Islam entered the region and how different communities interacted with each other as well as the impact of Partition. Still, there remain many interesting examples of the mutual borrowing of religious vocabulary.
This is especially the case in Sufi Muslim poetry, which has organically incorporated several Indic religious concepts and characterisations over the centuries. Two popular Indic motifs used by both Hindus and Muslims for appealing to the divine are “naiya laga do paar” (take my boat across the sea of life or suffering) and “bhar do jholi” (fill my bag).
Muslims often use these exclamations to address Allah, Muhammad, or a Sufi saint in qawwalis, whereas Hindus employ them to address gods and goddesses in bhajans.
The origins of some of these motifs may lie in ancient scriptures. Indeed, hymn 99 of the first book of the Rigveda states: “Sa nah parshadati durgaani vishva naaveva sindhum duritaatyagnih”. It translates as, “May Agni carry us across this world of difficulties and perils like a boat over the sea.”
Other motifs may be rooted in ascetic practices that were common across the subcontinent. Wandering ascetics would often beg for alms by lifting their garments up to create a jholi, or bag. Thus the exclamation “bhar do jholi”, found in both bhajans and qawwalis, likely originated in the actual experience of alms-seeking. For the Swaminarayan Vaishnava sect in Gujarat, Makar Sankranti is also celebrated as “jholi utsav”, a day when giving alms to swamis and sadhus is seen as particularly meritorious.
Sometimes, Hindu and Muslim religious icons are addressed by the same name or epithet. Jhule Lal, the syncretic deity venerated in Sindh by both Muslims and Hindus is a prominent example. To Hindus, he is associated with the gods Vishnu and Varuna. He is considered the patron god of the Indus river, who incarnated to protect the Hindu community from forced conversion. Muslims varyingly use the name Jhule Lal for either the Sufi saint Lal Shahbaz Qalandar or Khwaja Khizr, a mystical figure from the Quran.
While there are significant differences in Hindu and Muslim accounts of who Jhule Lal actually is, both communities revere him in similar ways. It is unclear which version of Jhule Lal emerged first, but it is probable that Muslim and Hindu understandings of the figure co-evolved over time. For instance, the qawwali Damadam Mast Qalandar in praise of the Muslim Jhule Lal is also used by Sindhi Hindus. Steven W Ramey argues that this “suggests that Hindus adopted and reinterpreted Sufi practice”.
Similarly, both Hindus and Muslims use “kali kamli wala”, wearer of the black shawl, to describe Krishna and Muhammad, respectively. A famous Punjabi qawwali, for example, describes Kamli wale Muhammad and some Krishna bhajans
invoke “Kali kamli wala mera yaar hai” and “Ladla Kanhaiya mera kali kamli wala”. The original context of “kali kamli wala” likely applied to Krishna. By some accounts, he would wear a black shawl while herding cows, and “kamli” is probably derived from “kambala”, the Sanskrit word for woolen blanket. As Muhammad is also said to have worn a shawl or cloak, the phrase was possible for Muslims to adopt. For many people, such as the Urdu poet Rahi Masoom Raza, Muslims’ use of Krishna’s epithet for their prophet serves as an example of South Asia’s pluralistic culture.
We also observe that South Asian Sufi mystics are often venerated using Indic religious symbolism and language. The qawwali Kirpa Karo Maharaj Moinuddin addresses the saint Moinuddin Chishti as “maharaj”, or emperor, a title often used to address Hindu saints. Or, consider the famous qawwali penned by Amir Khusro, Aaj Rang Hai, in which he describes his master Nizamuddin Auliya as “jag ujiyaro”, illuminator of the world. This trope can also be found in Hindu devotional poetry. In the Hanuman Chalisa, the poet Tulsidas uses the description “hai parasiddh jagat ujiyara”, or “your fame illuminates the world”. Amir Khusro lived a few centuries before Tulsidas, but it is likely this phrase was generally popular in medieval North India, and both poets employed it independently.
A bridge of understanding
Complex interactions between Hindus and Muslims over several centuries have produced a rich, and sometimes surprising, intermingling of religious vocabularies throughout South Asia. This constitutes not just a translation of religious concepts from one language to another but also the adoption or assimilation of ideas and imagery – in ways that still remain compatible with each religious tradition’s foundations.
We have touched upon just a few examples but there are many more. Indeed, specific instances of this confluence are often so organic and seamless that they go unnoticed, unless examined through historical and linguistic research.
Some Hindus have argued that the Kumbh Mela’s bathing ritual should be Sanskritised to “rajyogi snan”. But it seems “shahi snan” is here to stay, for now at least. Googling “shahi snan” yields over 7,00,000 results, while “rajyogi snan” returns a measly 17,800.
This “common language” of Hindus and Muslims can serve as a bridge of understanding between the communities. Attempts to deliberately undermine it would damage the vibrant, pluralistic cultures that South Asia has cultivated over many centuries.
Nikhil Mandalaparthy is a master’s student at the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy. Hamza Shad is a graduate of the University of Chicago, where he studied economics and political science.