A.H. Habibi


Vara is an ancient term which is believed to be the root of many Aryan words. Under this name, king Yama, established the first civilization and development in Bactria. Since this word has importance in Aryan languages, and our history, I would like to discuss the linguistic and historical connotations of the word in this article.

The foremost book which provides us information about this matter is Vendidad, a collection of texts within the greater compendium of Avesta. In this book we see an important and interesting description of the name and from this account we can also envision the layout of the Bactrian city and its style of architecture which resulted in the start of civilization in Bactria.

  It has been noted in Vendidad: “That Ahura Mazda instructed Yama to construct Vara, each side of which was to be as long as the playground for horse racing. It is to contain the eternal fire temple  and one pair of different varieties of cattle, sheep, dogs and birds. The city should also include tall fruit bearing trees. Hunchbacks, lunatics, lazy, liars, envious, foul-mouthed and disabled persons should not be allowed in the city. A stream of water, the length of a hatra (about one mile long) should flow through the city. The city is to have green lawns. The main part of this construction should have six roads in the center of the city, in addition three secondary roads should extend from the main roads. The main roads should be large enough to accommodate one thousand men and women while the secondary roads  are to harbor six hundred persons. The city should have one gate and one opening. Yama should implement Ahura’s orders. He thus constructed Vara from mud and built a large building inside it which included a court, lodging, and a passage where people, animals, trees and birds were raised.”[1]

In this way Vara was built and laid the foundation of the first civilization in Bactria. This historical structure was famous in other periods also and its name changed with the passing of time. The moniker is alive at the present time and the ancient mounds of dirt, of the old city of Balkh, are known as Vara.

The ancient Vara of Yama later became the center of Zoroastrianism and one of his three sons, Isadwastar, became the priest of this temple and he was given the title, immortal lord of the Vara.[2] The name Vara, which was the moniker of this historical building and was later converted to a Zoroastrian temple in Bakhdi (Balkh), became famous among the Bactrian and Indian Aryans to the extent that its roots are found in most Aryan related languages and it has been preserved to this day. There are many figurative forms of the word in Sanskrit. As such var means an enclosure, yard and place of worship of Hindus, varra is a quarter section of a city, and varrie meaning a court and garden,[3] are words related to this root. About two centuries later, during the time of Buddhism, the word haar, springs from this root. Since Buddhism is an offshoot of the teachings of Zoroaster, the temple of this hub of Zoroastrianism, become an important center of Buddhism.

This change of religion converted the famous fire worshipping temple of Bakhdi into a Buddhist house of worship and the Avestan vara transformed to the Buddhist vahar. It is from this Buddhist root that the names Bahar and Naubahar were derived later.[4]

Some historians are of the opinion that the temple was originally a Buddhist center of worship, but if we are to refer to the period of Avestan civilization, we see that, according to the writings of Avesta, the auspicious Yama had placed tall banners and the eternal fire of  worship at the temple and Zoroaster also manifested his religion there.

Hence we can say with certain plausibility that, after the dissolution of Zoroastrianism, the Avestan Vara became Vahar during the Buddhist period. This word found so much influence in Buddhism that most of the Buddhist temples were named Vahar, and tall banners were erected on temples  emulating the Bactrian temple. The famous Arab historian, Belazari, during the Arab conquest of Sind in 861 CE, talks about a number of these imitations which were decorated with red banners.[5] In short we can say that the Vahar of Balkh was a Zoroastrian fire-worshipping temple and later became a Buddhist idol-worshipping temple. Most historians agree with this statement and Zukov, the famous orientalist, considers Naubahar as the Buddhist Nauohar.[6]

When Hsuen Tsang, the Chinese traveler, visited Balkh during the 7th century, he records the name of this temple as na-ow-awaihar, which was considered as the center of Buddhism at the time.[7] During the Arab conquests, a large number of temples in Sind, were named Nauhahar. Like Belazari, the writer of Chachnama, also refers to this name and talks about the presence of the idol-worshipping temples of Naubahar in Sind.[8]

Islamic historians also discuss Naubahar. Al-Masa’udi states: “The structure of Naubahar is strong, tall and composed. Its green banners are attached to tall poles which can be seen from a great distance.[9]

Ibn Al-Faqia Hamdani writes: “Naubahar was built by the Barmakians. These people are idol worshippers, and they built their temple in front of the Qaresh house of worship. Its dome is 100 yards  tall and 100 yards wide around which are 360 rooms for disciples with water faucets. Their leader is called Barmaka. The emperors of China and Kabul come here to worship the great idol.[10]

Yaqut Hamavi, the renowned geographer and historian, states: “The Barmakians were a venerable family in Balkh. The Nauhabar temple of this family was renowned and there were idols on four sides of the structure. In spring people covered the temple with flowers. It was named Naubahar. The tall banners of the temple could be seen as far as Termez. The kings of China and Kabul worshipped there.[11]

Regarding the temple of Naubahar of Balkh, Qazwini states that it is one of the largest idol-worshipping temple which has been embellished with silk and jewels. It is 100 yards long and 100 yards wide. Its original builders were the Barmakians.[12]

From these statements of Islamic historians and geographers it is evident that the Naubahar of Balkh was famous during the early part of Islam. It is possible that the original Avestan Vara eroded with the passing of time and, according to Yaqut, was rebuilt by the Barmakians and its name evolved from Nauvara to Nauhara to Naubahar.

It is not my intention to write about the history and events which were associated with this temple over the eons but I would like to emphasize the linguistic significance of the name which converged from Vara to Vahar and finally to Bahar. Those who are familiar with entomology know that when words change and transition their roots do not transform. The letters (و wow) and ( ب bae) often switch and it is possible that the Avestan Vara, converted to the Sanskrit Varr, Bara and the Buddhist Vahar converged to Bahar. If we are to look at Persian literature we find many examples where bahar has been used to mean an idol-worshipping temple. Since the Avestan Vara was originally a fire-worshipping temple and later became a Buddhist temple therefore all idol-worshipping temples were first called Vahar and later Bahar. Shams Fakhri writes:

     Nauroz arrived with the spring wind

     Its grace will turn the place into Bahar.

Ferlawi states:

     Your face is like the spring flower

     Imitating the idol of Bahar.

Nezami interjects:

     The graceful Bahar was in Balkh

     With red flowers blooming all around.

Mansur Razi explains the meaning of an idol-worshipping temple in the word bahar (spring):

     It is the bahar of idols and banners

     Like the tresses of my beloved.

Farukhi states:

     It is autumn and the grass is forlorn

     Waiting for the green bahar time.

The word bahar, which in Persian literature was referenced to mean an idol-worshipping temple, is related to the old Vara and Vahar, whose original meaning in Avesta, may have been a fortress and later attained the metaphoric meaning of a temple.

Another form of this Avestan word is bara in Persian which is used until the present time and the barow of Pashto. In Persian the word meant a fortress or fortification. Khaqani states:

     A hundred bara are better than the bara of Alexander.

According the some researchers the last part of the Persian word, dewaar (wall), i.e. waar is from the same root and in Pashto barra means a stone wall or the wall of a stone dam. Such a wall is built around the pasture of grazing animals. The word, in this form, is in use with the same old root and according to philological structure the letter (wow و) has been converted to (bae ب). Khushal Khan says:

     After all the tongue knows

     The difficulty to pronounce barra.

Rahman elucidates:

     Make a barra and grow your crops.

Based on this historical and linguistic background we see different forms of this word in Aryan languages as follows:

Vara in Avesta           The Yama fortification in Bakhdi (Bactria)

Varr of Sanskrit                  Enclosure

Vari of Sanskrit                  Court, garden, open space

Vahar                        Temple

Baro of Persian                   Fort, fortification

Var (Persian)             Used as suffix of devar

Wall of English         

Bara or barra of Pashto      Dam, fortification, stone wall

This is an explanation of the development of this Aryan word. Even though its meaning has changed over time but the essence of the word has remained the same. It needs to be mentioned that (nau and bahar) are still in use in Balkh and Mazar-e Sharif and the southern gate of the ruins of the old city of Balkh is still know as the Naubahar gate. Around 1600 CE, when the old city of Balkh was still in use, it had six gates one of which was named Naubahar. This gate was also known as the Sultan Ahmad or the Babaqo gate. This issue has been explained by Mohammad Saleh Warsaji in a pamphlet on mausoleums of Balkh (p 55).






[1]Vendidad, section 2, part 2, passage 21 to 43.

[2]Avesta, p. 21, from Darmesterter’s annotations.

[3]Hindi Dictionary, p. 761.

[4]Indian and Arab Annotations, p. 112.

[5]Belazari’s Futuh-al-Baladan, p. 437.

[6]See Brown’s History of Iranian Literature, Vol. 2, p.  259, and Introduction of Ketab al-Hind, p. 31.

[7]Islamic Encyclopedia, vol. 1,  p. 664.

[8]Chachnama, translated by Eliot, Vol. 1, p. 150.

[9]Murawaj-al-Dahab, Vol. 4, p. 48.

[10]Ketab-al-Baladan, p. 323.

[11]Ma’jam-al-Baladan,   Vol. 8, p. 321.

[12]Qazweini’s Aasar-al-Belad, p. 221.