Of Foreigners & their Blades

Throughout history natives have given names to foreign communities. These names are often derogatory, or just corrupt form of the appearance of people or their place of origins. Perhaps, these name offer a stronger sense of identity to the native community.

Over time, in the age of political correctness and civility, many such words have fallen out of favour and have been replaced by technical terms, that nevertheless, often refer to the place of origin.


By Mughal School [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

One such word that has somewhat survived and is still in used, is firangi. A word often used, generally to refer to a foreigner, and specifically used to refer to a person of Caucasian descent. I haven’t heard this pejorative used to refer to a foreigner who is not Caucasian. One of the popular theories of the etymological roots of the firangi is that it is a portmanteau of fika and rang — pale and colour — and therefore applies to Caucasians. Far from the truth.

Firangi derives from the Arabic word al-faranji. This word was used to refer to Franks (Germanic people who conquered Gaul in the 6th century and controlled much of western Europe for several centuries afterward), The Arabics derived the word from the Latin – Franci. The word came into being with the Crusaders, most of whom were Franks.

Around the 16th century, the word had gained a different distinction in India and lent meaning to weapons, rather than to refer to certain people. The Western Euopean sword-blade was finding favour with the Mughals and was called the firangi. However it was made popular by the Marathas, which they bought from the Portuguese. The Portuguese did not manufacture this blade however, they only imported and traded it. Therefore the use of the word firangi was still associated with Western Europe and not with the Portuguese. Interestingly,

The origin of the ethnic name [Frank] is uncertain; it traditionally is said to be from the old Germanic word *frankon “javelin, lance” (compare Old English franca “lance, javelin”), their preferred weapon, but the reverse may be the case. [Link]

Further, during the 16th century:

Syphilis was known in India as the Portuguese disease, or firanga or firangi roga, terms that identified it with the firangis (‘Franks’), or Europeans. According to historians, the disase was first recognised in India in 1498 after the arrival of Vasco-da-Gama, who had left Portugal in 1497.

It is perhaps due to the trade of the Marathas that the word has been strongly associated with the Portuguese, and it seems they referred to the commodity than the people. However, certain documents describe different names for various European traders in India:

Amongst the merchants the Portuguese (Firangi), the English (Ingraz), the Dutch (Valandaze), the French (Francese), the Danes (Dingmar) and hat wearing (Topikar) merchants carry on trade, and commerce.


  1. Dutta, Tarun Kumar, and Subhash Chandra Parija. Emerging and Re-emerging Infectious Diseases. New Delhi: Jaypee Brothers Medical Pub., 2013. 118. Print.
  2. Darpan, Mahesh. “पुर्तगाली-बंगाली एंथनी फिरंगी – Navbharat Times.” Navbharat Times. Navbharat Times, 5 May 2014. Web. 11 Mar. 2015.
  3. “Firangi (sword).” Wikipedia. 27 Nov. 2014. Web. 30 Nov. 2014. .
  4. Kadam, Umesh. “French-Maratha Relations: India in the 17th Century.” ResearchGate, 21 May 2014. Web. 15 Mar. 2015.

Zat and Sawar

When we think of titles conferred on people, it is easy to relate to them especially the ones like Mahatma (great soul) or Sardar (leader) and such. It is interesting to note that in Mughal times there was a significant background to the way titles were conferred. You may have heard of the commonly used jagirdar and mansabdar, if you have been interested in any aspect of the history of the Deccan. In any case, it is not uncommon to to have Jagirdar as a surname in Maharashtra. If you have seen Hindi movies in the ’70s and the ’80s then you know Gajanan Jagirdar.

According to Wikipedia, the word jagirdar is derived from jagir and sardar. Mansabdar, probably was derived the same way. But we will let that pass for this post. While reading, Parties and Politics at the Mughal Court, 1707-1740, I stumbled upon the terms: Zat and Sawar. While the context of it all made sense regarding what these two terms went, I felt the need to know more and I found some information that was fairly interesting.

[Before I start, a quick note: Ideally, I think, these should be spelled as Zaat and Sawaar because of the way they are pronounced, however most authoritative historical texts, books and documents spell them as zat and sawar, so I shall go with the same spelling.]

While I am not sure of the etymology of these words I suspect that zat is the same as the near-Hindi word (zaat or jaat) meaning breed, caste or class. Sawar refers to horses; a ride, perhaps linked to Sawari.

The zat and sawar were parameters of defining a mansabdar’s “level”. Before this system was introduced, there was a single parameter – the count of horses that a mansabdar maintained during Akbar’s times and therefore (possibly) the subsidy that he received in exchange for that. Mansabdars didn’t often maintain the required troops or horses, and this new, fairly elaborate system was used to classify mansabdars.

The zat was a rank conferred by the king on the mansabdar, whereas the sawar was a count of horsemen that were to be maintained. The actual number of horses that they had to maintain is a different and interesting story.

There were three levels of mansabdars and this was a factor of the zat and sawar count.

The mansabdar at the highest level was the one who had equal zat and sawar, e.g. 4000 zat and 4000 sawar. The second level was when the sawar was half the zat, e.g. 4000 zat and 2000 sawar. The lowest level of mansabdar was when the sawar was less than half of the zat.

One would imagine that a mansabdar with a sawar of 10 would have 10 horses, but this wasn’t so. And for good reason. A sawar of 10 was to maintain 20 horses. There were to be three backup horses for the first 3 sawar, 2 backup horses for the next 4 sawar and no back up for the last 3 horses in the sawar of 10. So you had 20 (9+8+3) horses for a sawar of 10. The good reason being that the backup horses would come in use in case for fatigue or death of the mounts.

The system was actually more elaborate than what I have presented.

However, I shall leave that for when I compare this with the Saranjam system employed by the Marathas. It would be an interesting study, given that the Marathas were well versed with the Mughal mansabdari system, given that a few Marathas actually served as mansabdars or jagirdars for the Mughals.

Primary References:

Chandra, Satish. Medieval India: from Sultanat to the Mughals. Revised ed. New Delhi: Har-Anand Publications, 2005.

Secondary References:

Chandra, Satish. Parties and politics at the Mughal Court, 1707-1740. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Kadam, V. S.. Maratha confederacy: a study in its origin and development. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers, 1993.

“Mansabdar: Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.” Wikipedia. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mansabdar (accessed November 10, 2007).

An Etymological Question

In the book, Genghis Khan: Life Death and Resurrection, by John Man, I stumbled upon the word – Subedei. This is the name of one of the four generals of Genghis Khan – known as the “four hounds.” The variants of that name include, Subotai, Subedei, Tsubotai, and the preferred spelling Sübeetei (Chinese). Something about this name and some further clicking from one link to another was a path to a thought – a theory.Here I go, with the theory (yes, yet another).

I believe this is another example of a person who became a word. Like Louis Pasteur. A small background, before I begin: Subedei is a Mongol word. According to the Wikipedia article on Subedei, he is also know as “Subedei Baatar (meaning Subedei Warrior/Hero in Mongolian history books)” Baatar, seems to be a common word in Mongolian – Starting from the capital – Ulan Baatar (spelling variants to this exists too, Ulan Bator, for example). I’ll stick with Baatar for this article. Ulan Baatar translates to Red Hero, named in the honour of Damdin Sükhbaatar.

And coming back to the theory, I believe that the word Subedar in Hindi (Hindustani, to be more precise), is a derivative of Subedei. Apart from his other conquests, he fought significant wars in Central Asia – I’d assume that given his fame – he lived in the history books of that time – for some time. So the word must have remained in memory for some time – let’s assume a couple of hundred years – for the sake of my theory – and that the word eventually became a more generic one – to mean a lead – in an army. Subedei died in 1248. A little more than hundred years later, Timur-e Lang was born (1336) and ruled most of Central Asia until 1405. Along comes Babur in 1526 – after the First Battle of Panipat – and establishes the Mughal Empire. Mughal, being the Turkish word for Mongol. Pretty long winded, but I’ll now get to the point.

This is how I think the word Subedar, though a title now, came as a variant of Subedei via Mongolia. The reason, by the way, about the background of Ulan Baatar earlier, is that I noticed a word, in the book, Subotai the Valiant: Genghis Khan’s Greatest General by Richard A. Gabrielbagatur. It gives the same meaning to this word as baatar – brave, valiant, hero. Bagatur – again – closely resembles Bahadur – the Hindi word for brave, valiant, hero. Richard Gabrial further works on this word and mentions that the Russian word – bogatyr – is a derivative of bagatur.

This theory has been confirmed.

The Subedar theory however is suspect, a bit fanciful even. (Just this indulgence, however, has helped me stumble on a few things of note.) The reason why my theory may fall to pieces, is that it’s likely that the word is an extension of the word suba, meaning district, collection of villages etc. and anyone who was responsible for such a suba, would aptly be called Subedar.

But if bahadur travelled from the steppes of Mongolia via Uzbekistan to India, there may be a glimmer of hope for subedar.

PS: If you do have ideas about the root of Subedar, I’d love to hear from you – help my theory – either ways.