I just finished reading Sanjeev Sanyal’s Land of Seven Rivers, a book on the history of India’s geography. In most places it turns into a book on history rather than a book of geography, but has lots of interesting fundaes (using that word since I’m unable to find a perfect synonym in English). It is basically a retelling of Indian history with a focus on how what we currently know as India came to be, and the various expansions and contractions in the country over the years.
This is not a review of the book (unless you consider the preceding paragraph as a review). The purpose of this post is about one interesting concept I found in the book. Sanyal mentions that the traditional name for Java (the Indonesian island which houses Djakarta, among others) is “yavadwipa”. Now, while online dictionaries that I just consulted say that “yava” is the Sanskrit word for “barley” or “barleycorn”, the only other time I’ve come across the word has been while performing my parents’ death ceremonies – where the priest chants something to the effect of “offer yava” and then asks you to take some rice in your hand and wash it off with a spoonful of water. It is possible, though, that “yava” simply means “grain” and can refer to any kind of grain, including rice and barley.
Earlier in the book, Sanyal mentions that while wheat and barley originated in the fertile crescent (in and around modern Iraq), where they were first cultivated, rice has an eastern origin. Rice, he mentions, was probably first cultivated in South East Asia and came to India from the east. Taking this in conjunction with the fact that the Sanskrit name for Java is yavadwipa, can we posit that it meant “island of rice”? It may not be that rice originated in Java, but it is fully possible that Ancient and Medieval India imported rice from Java, thanks to which the island got its name.
So over the years “yavadwipa” became simply “yava” which I posit that the Dutch wrote as “Java” (considering that in most of continental Europe J is pronounced as Y), which gives the island its current name. What makes this nomenclature more interesting is that Java is now a major producer of coffee, and if you go by Wikipedia, some Americans refer to all coffee as “java”. It is interesting how the same island which was known for a particular kind of food in the ancient and middle ages is now known for another name of food!
Maybe I should start a brand called “rice coffee”.