Turkistan, What’s in a name?

I must admit that I was a bit confused about what Turkistan meant when I first encountered this name in my travels in Central Asia. My confusion partly stemmed from my rudimentary knowledge of the region as that encompassing five countries with the suffix -stan and largely populated by various Turkic tribes. I, therefore, didn’t expect a city, which is located in Kazakhstan to be called Turkistan. The central Asia region in the past was referred to as Turkestan by the Persians in ancient times, though no one country exists today with that name. To further compound this, Turkey, which refers itself as Turkiye is located in Anatolia away from Central Asia. Central Asian countries would prefer to keep the distinction between Turkic and Turkish. As I find in many circumstances in my travels, many of my preconceived assumptions and expectations are muddled if not wrong.

Out of curiosity, I did some reading about the name Turkistan. The city was called ‘Hajrat-i Turkistan’ or the Saint of Turkistan, after the Sufi Saint Khoja Akhmat Yassavi, who lived here. It turns out that when the Russians captured the city and the region, they called the larger region they had conquered Turkestan, based on the name of the city.

The Turkestan region was earlier occupied by the Chinese dynasty Qara Khitai. Qara Khitai monarchs considered themselves as the Chinese emperors, carrying the Chinese emperor legacy after the fall of Tang Dynasty. What’s interesting, Central Asians and other countries still use the name Cathay derived from that empire to refer to current China. (A layman like me can relate to this name with the Hongkong based airline.) This name is however considered derogatory by the mainland Chinese, especially if used by the internal Turkic minorities like Yughurs.

While we are at the topic on Stan, I also can’t resist discussing about Hindustan. The name is derived from the land in the river valley Sindhu or Indus. The river which lies in the territory of Pakistan is now extinct. Unfortunately, the name Hindu and consequently Hindustan now gets more associated with the religion than with the river. On the other hand, the anglicized derivative of the name, ‘India’ carries with it the secular connotation, possibly because of the constitution of the country.

It is true ‘that which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet’. But I am not sure if this also applies to places. Place names carry a lot of history, culture and human emotions with them. Their interpretations differ from person to person and one community to another. None of that can be conveyed in names with just one or two words. I therefore think that I need to dig deeper into the origins of the place names I visit and write about, to clear off my own assumptions and prejudices and second, to let others form their own understanding based on the information.

Finally, I wonder what the American Indians think about all this!

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Raju Kocharekar

Raju Kocharekar

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