GlossaryTerms used in A River of Life

The words below are from the Glossary section of the travel book A River of Life. Many of these words appear on the website, either in extracts from the travel book A River of Life or the extract from the novel Delhi Deadlines. There are also examples of some of them in the Gallery section. They are collected here with brief explanation and some additional information, including which language of the Indian subcontinent the words belong to (Hindi, Tamil, Sanskrit, etc.). Links to the areas of the website they connect to are included where appropriate. As the list is quite compendious, A-Z hyperlinks are provided below.


ahimsa   [Sanskrit, literally 'do no harm']. The religious principle of non-violence towards living things. Practised by Gandhi in his non-violent struggle against imperial rule.

Akbar the Great   Son of Humayun, and third emperor of the Mughal Empire, ruling from 1556 to 1605. Born 1542, died 1605. A great patron of the art and architecture. More tolerant of non-Islamic faiths than his father and grandfather had been.

amrita   [Sanskrit]. A drink of the gods, the nectar of immortality.

arati   Also spelled aarti [Hindi]. A part of puja in which small lamps using ghee are offered to one or more deities. Common part of evening worship on the Ganges, as at Varanasi.
  » Mentioned in this article on Varanasi.

Arjumand Bann Begum   Also known as Mumtaz Mahal, wife and great love of Shah Jahan, for whom the Taj Mahal was built in commemoration of her death.
  » See the Taj Mahal in the Gallery section.

Arjuna   [Sanskrit, literally 'bright']. One of the Pandava princes, heroes of the Hindu epic the Mahabharata.
  » See the bas relief called Arjuna's Penance at Mamallapuram in the Gallery section.

arrack   Also spelled arak. A distilled alcoholic drink sold in India (and other parts of Asia). Called patta in Malayalam, the language of Kerala, one of the Southern states where illegal sales of arrack are a major problem, resulting in frequent government bans, and many deaths each year.
  » Used in the opening of the novel Delhi Deadlines.

Ashoka   Aka Ashoka the Great, grandson of Chandragupta, ruler of the Mauryan Empire from 273-232 BC.

ashram   [Sanskrit/Hindi]. A spiritual hermitage, usually located far from urban centres. Residents often perform spiritual or physical exercises, including various forms of yoga.

Aurangzeb   Sixth and final true emperor of the Mughal Empire, ruling from 1658 to 1707. Born 1618, died 1707. Expanded the Mughal Empire to the south. A devout Muslim, undoing much of the religious tolerance of his immediate predecessors.

autorickshaw   A three-wheeled cabin cycle, motorized version of the cycle rickshaw. Common throughout Asia, often under other names (auto, tuk-tuk, bajaj).
  » See this example of an Indonesian bajaj in the Gallery section.

Babur   First emperor of the Mughal Empire, ruling from 1526 to 1530. He was a descendant of Timur through his father, and Genghis Khan through his mother. Hence the name of the dynasty, Mughal, the Persian word for Mongol. Born 1483, died 1530.

baksheesh   [from Persian بخشش bakhshīsh]. A gratuity for a service, alms given to beggars, or money given to help oil the wheels of bureaucracy (i.e. bribe money).
   » Mentioned in the article about dawn at the ghats of Varanasi.

barfi   A popular sweet made of condensed milk and sugar.

basti   A term for Jain temples, used especially in the South.

Bhagavad Gita   Part of the sacred Hindu text the Mahabharata.

bidi   Also spelled beedi [Mawari]. A hand-rolled cigarette, made of tobacco flakes wrapped in a tendu leaf. Cheaper than conventional cigarettes, and more lethal, resulting in greater inhalation of nicotine and tar, and a higher incidence of oral cancers. Reports indicate that deaths due to smoking in India will be 1 million per year during the 2010s, or around 1 in 10 of all deaths.
  » Mentioned in the Wanderlust article.

chai   Indian tea. Although recipes vary, it generally comprises strong black tea, milk, sugar, and a mix of spices including ginger and cardamom. The word comes from Chinese ('cha') via Persian ('chay').

Chandragupta   Founder of the Mauryan empire, which had its capital at Pataliputra, modern-day Patna.
   » Mentioned in the article on Chandragiri.

chappals   [Hindi]. Sandals, usually leather.

chenda   [Malayalam]. A cylindrical drum used in Kerala and Karnataka.

chhatri   [Hindi, literally 'umbrella']. Dome-shaped architectural pavilions, used widely used in palaces and forts, or in funeral sites. Classic examples are buildings of the Taj Mahal, and a key part of Lucknow's 'garish style'.
  » See examples in the Gallery section;
  » see also the Taj Mahal.

Cholas   Ancient Tamil kings, feudatories of the Pandyas. They dominated Southern India for many centuries. Their sea power allowed them to bring Sri Lanka and parts of Southeast Asia under their control. The Chola-mandala, land of the Cholas, gave its name to the east coast of India, the Coromandel Coast.

chowkidar   [Urdu]. A watchman or gatekeeper.

Clive, Robert   Aka Clive of India, b. 1725, d. 1774, secured India for the British crown by establishing a military presence in the south of the country.

copra   [Malayalam]. The sun-dried flesh of coconut from which oil will be extracted.

darshan   [Sanskrit]. Used to refer to a vision (blessing) of a deity in Hindu worship, leading to heightened consciousness. Can also refer to being in the presence of a highly revered person (e.g. guru).
   » Mentioned in the article about the temple at Thanjavur.

Deccan Plateau   [Bengali, literally 'south'], a wedge of land defined by the Western and Eastern Ghats, and the Satpura Range far in the north which separates it from the Gangetic plain. The average elevation is 2000 feet. It covers most of central and southern India and extends into either different states.

dhaba   [Hindi]. Local restaurants (truck stops) along Indian highways.
   » Mentioned in the article about the 'jeetee'.

dhams   Four major pilgrimage places which define the borders of Hinduism: Puri in the east, Dwarka in the west, Badrinath in the north, Rameswaram in the south.

dhoti   Rectangular cloth worn by men, wrapped around the waist.

digambara   [Sanskrit, literally 'sky-clad']. One of two main sects of Jainism. They do not wear any clothes, hence their name.

dosa   Pancake made from rice flour and lentils. Especially popular in southern states,

Dravidian   Fescribing the language or peoples of the south of India. The four main Dravidian languages are: Tamil; Telugu (state language of Andhra Pradesh), Kannada (of Karnataka), and Malayalam (state language of Kerala).

Durga   [Sanskrit]. Fierce form of the goddess Devi, depicted with multiple arms, riding a lion or tiger, slaying demons.

Ganesh   The tubby elephant-headed god of Hinduism, remover of obstacles.
   » See this image of Ganesh in the Gallery section.

Gangetic plain   A large fertile plain defined by the Ganges river. Although the vast majority lies within India, it extends on the western side into Pakistan, and on the eartern side into Bengladesh.

Ganj   [Hindi, literally 'neighbourhood']. A common suffix for place names, as in Paharganj (Delhi), Taj Ganj (Agra), Hazratganj (Lucknow).

ghat   [Hindi/Bengali]. A series of steps leading down to a (usually holy) river or other body of water. Famous ghats in India include those of Varanasi and Haridwar, which lead down to the Ganges. In Bengali-speaking areas, the steps of the ghats often lead down to small bodies of water, such as small ponds. The word ghat also refers to a 'difficult mountain pass', and, by extension, to the mountains themselves; hence the Eastern Ghats and Western Ghats mountain ranges.
   » Mentioned in the article about dawn on the ghats at Varanasi;
   » also used in the article about the ghats at Varanasi.

ghee   [Sanskrit]. Clarified butter from cow's milk.

gopuram   [Tamil]. A monumental, ornate tower at the entrance of a Hindu temple, especially in southern India, or temples around the world where there is a significant Tamil population, as with those of Singapore.
   » Mentioned in the article about the temples at Thanjavur;
   » also shown in the gallery section on India;
   » as well as the one on Singapore.

gurdwara   [Punjabi]. A place of worship for Sikhs.
   » The Golden Temple in Amritsar is a major gurdwara.

halwa   [Arabic]. Oily sweets made from sesame paste, butter and sugar.

Hanuman   Monkey god, faithful servant of Rama and a central character in the Ramayana. He is highly venerated in the South.

holi   [Hindi]. The Hindu festival of colour, celebrating the end of winter and the advent of spring.

Humayun   Son of Babur, and second emperor of the Mughal Empire, ruling from 1530 to 1540, and again from 1555 to 1556. Born 1508, died 1556.

Jahangir   Eldest son of Akbar the Great, fourth emperor of the Mughal Empire, ruling from 1605 to 1627. Born 1569, died 1627. His reign is known for its strong economy and political stability. Expanded the frontiers of the empire.

Kali   [Sanskrit]. The goddess of death.

Kalki   Literally 'white horse', the final incarnation of Vishnu, in which guise he will ride through the world brandishing his flaming sword and destroy the wicked and the last of the demons, allowing for the renewal of the world.

karma   [Sanskrit, literally 'deed' or 'act']. The consequence of natural acts, and the universal principal of cause and effect which governs all life.

Kathakali   [Malayalam]. Indian dance-drama depicting scenes from the Hindu classics.
   » See this image of Kathakali dancers in the Gallery section.

kettu vallam   Traditional Keralan longboats, long and narrow and sharp-prowed, transporting cargoes beneath awnings of woven coconut fronds.

Kim   A novel by Kudyard Kipling, first published serially from 1900 to 1901. Set between the Second and Third Afghan Wars (between 1881 and 1893), notable for its detailed descriptions of the people, religions, and culture of India.

Kipling, Joseph Rudyard   English novelist, poet, short story writer, born 1865, died 1936. His most famous works celebrate India under Raj times. Born in Bombay, moved to England when he was five. Famous works include: Kim, The Jungle Book, The Man Who Would Be King, and the poem If. First English-language writer to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature (1907).

Krishna   [Sanskrit, literally 'black']. The eighth incarnation of Vishnu. Usually represented with blue skin, though sometimes depicted as black-skinned.

kumkum   [Sanskrit]. A powder made from turmeric or saffron, used especially for religious purposes. It is usually applied to the forehead, considered the most holy part of the body in the Hindu religion. Different marking have different signification, e.g. three horizontal white lines and a dot indicates followers of Siva; a dot of red is often used during puja; a red line between the parting for women is a symbol of marriage. Kumkum powder is also used (liberally!) during the festival of holi.

laxmi   Also spelled Lakshmi [Sanskrit]. The Hindu goddess of wealth and prosperity, the consort of Vishnu.

lingam   [Sanskrit]. Symbol of the Hindu god Shiva, often interpreted as a symbol of male creative energy (the phallus). Frequently seen with the yoni, symbol of female creative energy. Used for worship in temples.
   » Mentioned in the article about the temple at Thanjavur.

load shedding   Another word for 'rolling blackout'. In India, electricity supply outstrips demand by around 10%, meaning power cuts are an inevitable part of life, even in the country's capital, though rural areas are worst affected, with some cuts lasting half the day. Especially common during the hot season. North India is more often affected than the South.

Lok Sabha   [Hindi]. Literally the House of the People, India's lower house of parliament. It is directly elected by the electorate for a five year term.

Mahabharata   [Sanskrit]. One of two major Sanskrit texts of ancient India (the Ramayana being the other), detailing the fates of the Kauravas and Pandava princes. An important philosophical work. The Bhagavad Gita forms part of the Mahabharata.

mandapam   [Sanskrit]. Pillared outdoor hall.
   » See this example in the Gallery section.

mandir   [Sanskrit]. A Hindu temple.

masala dosa   A dosa filled with spiced potatoes.

Mauryan Empire   Empire founded by Chandragupta in 322 BC. Its capital was at Pataliputra, modern-day Patna. The empire extended across all of northern India into Pakistan and Iran.
   » Mentioned in the article on Chandragiri.

Megasthenes   Greek ambassador and explorer, author of the Indica. Born c. 350 BC, died c. 290 BC.

moksha   [Sanskrit]. Release from the cycle of rebirth, achieved through meditation and contemplation. It is sought during sannyasa, the fourth and final ashrama (stage of life) of Hinduism, during which believers withdraw from the world and dedicate themselves to spiritual pursuits.
   » Mentioned in the article about dawn at the ghats of Varanasi.

Mughal   Emperors of India from 1513-1757. The term is also used to describe styles of gardens, architecture, and painting, blending Islamic, Persian, Turkish and Indian styles. Also refers to a style of cooking (Mughlai cuisine) developed on the kitchens of the Mughal emperors, used extensively in North India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.
   » Mentioned in the history section on The Mughals.

Mutiny of 1857   Also know as India's First War of Independence, the Great Rebellion, or the Sepoy Mutiny. Began as a mutiny of sepoys in army of the East India Company on 10 May 1857 in the town of Meerut. The exact cause is still open to dispute, though one of the flashpoints was requiring soldiers to bite off the paper cartridges for their rifles, greased with beef and pork fat, which is against both the Hindu and Muslim religion. The Mutiny led to the East India Company being dissolved one year later, reorganisation of the army, and the formation of the British Raj, with India directly governed by the crown.

nagaswaram   Also spelled nadaswaram, nadhaswaram or nathaswaram [Tamil]. Popular double-reed wind instrument of South India, with a large dark wood body and flaring wooden bell. Played at most Hindu weddings and temples of South India, usually accompanied by tavil drums.
   » Mentioned in the article about the temple at Thanjavur.

Nandi   Bull, Siva's mount.
   » See this example in the Galery section.

paan   [Hindi, from Sanskrit parna, 'leaf']. A digestive of betel leaf, areca nut, and lime, sometimes with tobacco added, which stains teeth a vivid crimson colour. Consumed in many Asian countries. Studies have shown that betel leaf and (in particular) areca nut are carcinogenic, and chewing paan leads to increased risk of oral cancer.

Pandyas   Ancient Tamil kings, feudatories of the Cholas.

Pooram   [Malayalam]. Annual festival of Kerala to mark the summer harvest, at the height of which caparisoned elephants are marched through the streets.

prasad   [Hindi]. A religious offering (usually edible) in Hinduism and Sikhism. Once offered it is considered blessed and is usually then consumed by the worshippers.

puja   Also spelled pooja [Sanskrit]. A religious ritual of reverence, performed at home or in temples, during which worshippers give offerings to a deity in order to receive blessing.
   » Mentioned in the article about the ghats at Varanasi;
   » also used in the article about the temple at Thanjavur.

Puranas   [Sanskrit, literally 'of ancient times'], sacred texts of the Hindu religion.

Ramayana   [Sanskrit]. One of the two great Hindu epics (the other being the Mahabharata). It details the journey of Rama, an incarnation of Vishnu, and his attempt to rescue his wife Sita who has been abducted by the king of Lanka.

rani   [Sanskrit]. Queen, mainly used for a raja's wife; also used for queens who rule in their own right, such as Rani of Jhansi.

Rath Yatra   [Oriya]. Chariot festival, such as that held annually at Puri.
   » See an example of a Rath Yatra chariot in the Gallery section.

saddhu   [Sanskrit]. An ascetic monk, whose life is dedicated to achieving moksha. Often seen wearing ochre-coloured clothes, which symbolises their renunciation of worldly things.
   » Mentioned in the article about dawn on the ghats at Varanasi;
   » Also used in the article about India's beggars.

sangam   [Sanskrit, literally 'confluence']. An auspicious point where important rivers meets, as with the Ganges River and the River Yamuna at Allahabad.

sapta puri   [Sanskrit, literally 'seven cities']. The seven most sacred cities in India, namely Ayodhya, Mathura, Haridwar, Varanasi, Kanchipuram, Ujjain, and Dwarka.

sati   The act of a recently widowed woman immolating herself on her husband's funeral pyre. The term derives from the goddess Sati, consort of Shiva, who similarly immolated herself. The practice has been banned in India since since the Raj times (1829).
   » Mentioned in the article about dawn on the ghats at Varanasi.

Shah Jahan   : [Persian, literally 'ruler of the world'], son of Jahangir, and fifth emperor of the Mughal Empire, ruling from 1628 to 1658. Born 1592, died 1666. Builder of many important monuments of India, including the Taj Mahal in Agra and the Jama Masjid in Delhi.
   » Mentioned in the article in the History section;
  » see also the Taj Mahal in the Gallery section.

Shilappadikaram   : The Lay of the Ankle Bracelet, a secular narrative by Prince Ilango Adigal. One of the great epics of the Tamil language, dating from the 5th century.

shilpa shastras   : [Sanskrit], canonical texts which blur the distinction between art, science, and religion. They are used in architecture, dancing, acting, etc. and govern such things as measurements, techniques, quality, colour, gender (e.g. female versus male stone for sculpting).

shvetambara   : [Sanskrit, literally 'white-clad'], one of two main sects of Jainism.

sikhara   [Sanskrit, literally 'mountain peak']. The part of a Hindu temple over the sanctum sanctorum. It is usually the tallest part of the temple, often visible from outside.
  » See this example in the Gallery section;

Siva   : also spelled Shiva [Sanskrit], part of the trimurti (with Brahma and Vishnu), often worshipped in the form of the lingam. Often depicted as the Cosmic Dancer.

stupa   [Sanskrit]. Literally meaning 'heap', a stupa is a mound-shaped structure which contains Buddhist relics (often of the Buddha himself), used as a place of worship by Buddhists.
  » An example of a stupa in Central India can be seen in the Gallery section;
  » There is also an example here at Borobudur, in Central Java, Indonesia.

Tagore, Rabinranath   Bengali author and philosopher, first non-European winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. Born 1861, died 1941.

tavil   Also spelled thavil [Tamil]. A barrel shaped drum from South India, used in temple music and festivals in South India. Often played as an accompaniment to the nagaswaram.
   » Mentioned in the article about the temple at Thanjavur.

thali   [Hindi, literally 'plate']. A meal available in eateries throughout India, often all-you-can-eat, typically including rice, dhal, vegetables, roti, papad, dahi, and pickle. Served on a big plate, from which it gets its name, with small bowls or indentations for the side orders.

thuggee   [Hindi]. Refers to the acts of Thugs, assassins and practitioners of ritual murder on behalf of Kali, the goddess of death. Origin of the English word 'thug'.

tilak   [Hindi]. A mark, usually on the forehead. Used daily or on religious occasions. The mark can have various designations, e.g. two streaks of white around one of red to identify followers of Vishnu.

tirthankara   [Sanskrit]. The 'crossing makers' of Jainism, also called 'jina' (victor), the last of whom, the prophet Mahavira, founded the religion sometime in the 6th century BC. His predecessor, Parshvanatha, lived a quarter of a millennium earlier. According to Jain belief, each cosmic age has 24 tirthankaras, who begin as giants (if the age is one of decreasing purity) but decrease in stature over time. Hence the often gigantic portrayal of tirthankaras in places such as Gwalior in Northern India and Sravanabelagola in the South.
   » Mentioned in the article about Indragiri;
   » an image of Gomateshwara, the second tirthankara, is in the Gallery section.

torana   [Hindi]. A gateway used with certain Hindu and Buddhist architecture, e.g. a stupa.
   » See this example in the in the Gallery section.

tykhana   An underground chamber, built for shelter during the summer months. The tykhana in the British Residency in Lucknow is a famous example.
  » Used in the opening to the novel Delhi Deadlines.

vada   [Tamil]. Fried food, common in Southern India, usually eaten at breakfast time. Similar to a doughnut. Usually made from lentil and rice flour.

varna   [Sanskrit]. Caste. There are four divisions: Brahmins, the priestly class; Kshatriyas, the warriors; Vaisyas, the trading class; and Sudras, the artisans. Below all of these divisions are the untouchables, those so low as to be without caste.

Vasco da Gama   15th/16th century Portuguese explorer, the first to sail direct from Europe to India (landing at Calicut in 1498).

vedas   [Sanskrit, literally 'knowledge']. Ancient texts written in Sanskrit. They are the oldest sacred texts of Hinduism and the oldest written in the Sanskrit language.

Vijayanagar Empire   Empire founded in 1343 by two Hindu brothers, Bukka and Harihara, at Vijayanagar, in Southern India. The empire lasted for over two centuries. The ruins are scattered through the fields outside Hampi. Information about its history is provided by European chroniclers such as Paes and Nuniz.
  » Images of the ruins of Vijayanagar at Hampi are in the Gallery section.

Vishnu   [Sanskrit]. The blue-skinned god. Part of the trimurti, with cosmic creation, preservation, and destruction personified by Brahma, the creator, Vishnu, the preserver, and Siva, the destroyer.

wallah   [Hindi form vala]. Suffix indicating a person involved in a particular kind of activity, for example autorishaw wallah, chai wallah, dhobi wallah.

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The first instalment, A River of Life, Book 1: Travels in the North, is available separately (e-book format only) via or The second instalment, A River of Life, Book 2: A Tour of the South, is available via or


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