Michael Witzel and the Indian Willow

Michael Witzel’s Concoction of Absence of Willow from India

Premendra Priyadarshi

The way he distorted, misrepresented and concocted history will not be ignored by the posterity. It will be difficult for the people of the future to believe that he did not know the truth, particularly when the fact will be known to them that people like me had pointed out the errors of facts in his works. They will know that he had the option of retracting from or correcting his earlier stands about the Aryan migration after knowing the loopholes in his theories. Many in future will condemn him of telling the untruth, and he will be accused of racial bigotry.

So what are the facts which expose Witzel to the extent of condemnation?

They are many, many! Today we will see the example of Indian ‘willow’ only. Other examples will be presented in future in my blogs.


Witzel claimed that willow is not found in India, and that it was not found in India when the Aryans arrived here, and that they (the Aryans) thrust the name vetasa on to the ‘reeds’, after finding no willow tree in northwest India (Witzel 2005:374; also 2009 Fulltext:5 n32).

[Witzel (2005:373) wrote, “Some of them therefore exhibit a slight change in meaning; a few others possibly are applications of old, temperate zone names to newly encountered plants, such as ‘willow’> ‘reed, cane’. Again, this change in meaning indicates the path of the migration, from the temperate zone into India.”]

He did not check the facts before writing. At least 40 species of willow (Salix) are native to northwest India (Pakistan), Nepal, Kashmir and other high altitude regions of north India, even if we ignore the species present in Afghanistan.





Witzel also did not know the palynological study of archaeological remains that this particular plant willow’s pollens have been found in abundance from Mehrgarh locality from tenth millennium BC up to the fourth millennium BC (Jarrige 2008:151). That means the Rig Vedic plant vetasa was willow, if the Rig Veda had been composed before the fourth millennium BCE, in the Indus-Saraswati Valley around Mehrgarh. The possibility of such an early date of the Rig-Veda is gaining hold as history is unfolding itself through the results of DNA studies, archaeogenetics, archaeology and by revision of the linguistic studies is pushing back the date of composition of the Rig Veda (Kazanas 2009).

Even after that till date, willow is found in many northern parts of India and Nepal. Some of the finest willows of furniture and basket grade are found in India under the species names Salix types deticulata, elegans etc. At least 30 species of Salix are found in Nepal and 28 in Pakistan itself. Hence Witzel’s wild guess that willow might not be found in India proves wrong and collapses his entire credibility as a reliable author.

Philology of ‘willow’ (Latin salix and Sanskrit vetasa)

Moreover, Witzel relied on the biased Eurocentric philology of vetasa given by others, and did not check whether any modern Indo-Aryan language has a cognate word of vetasa meaning ‘willow’. He as well as Monier-Williams gave the meaning ‘reed’ for Sanskrit vetasa, which was wrong because the later Indo-Aryan derivatives of vetasa like bet, bed etc certainly meant ‘willow’ in languages like Prakrit, Nepali, Kashmiri and Dardic etc. He is also silent about the origin or etymology of the unique Latin word salix (willow). Thus we can see:

Salix, sallow

 Lat. salix (willow) is a loanword from Germanic (Valpi:415). The cognates are found only in the Celtic and Germanic branches of IE, and that cannot warrant its inclusion as an Indo-European word. Cognates are: M. Irish sail, sa(i)lech, Welsh helyg-en, O. Brit. name Salico-dūnon, Gaul. name Salicilla; O.H.G. sal(a)ha, M.H.G. salhe, Ger. Salweide; O.E. sealh, O.Ice. selja (willow, from *salhjōn).

However most of the cognates in these two branches usually mean something flexible, ‘rope’, ‘twisted’ etc. However the Saxon root suggested for all these i.e. *sal means ‘black’ (Valpi:415) and the PIE root *sal2 means ‘salt’, ‘grey’, ‘saliva’ etc, having no specific semantic feature which could be associated with the willow tree.

Hence in all probability, the words represent an older linguistic substratum of Europe. The Altaic words like Tungus-Manchu *ǯalikta and Uralic like Finnish salava, jalava and Hungarian szilfa meaning ‘elm’ are enough evidence to suggest this fact (see Starostin’s Database).


The other word is Sanskrit ‘vetasa’. Its cognates mean willow in Indo-Aryan, Iranian, Germanic and Greek branches:

Av. vaēiti (willow, willow-stick); Gk. ἰτέα; O.Ice. vīðir, O.E. wīðig; M.L.G. wīde, O.H.G. wīda all meaning ‘willow’ (Pokorny: 1120-1122).

However Latin vitis does not mean ‘willow’ at all but but vine. Contrasting this, Sanskrit vēta-, vētasá, vētra etc all are cognates to this group of words, and mean ‘willow’ in northern Indo-Aryan languages.

Sanskrit u, vīĮu (strong) seems to be related with Proto-Indo-Aryan vēu (bamboo, willow) and its derivative Kashmiri vīr, vīrü (white willow; CDIAL 12091). Turner gives other cognate words from the Indo-Aryan branch having the meaning ‘willow’ as follows:

Proto-Indo-Aryan vēta (CDIAL 12097), Pashai-Dardic vei, wēu (willow), Dardic bīk (willow), Shina-Dard bĕu, bĕvĕ (willow); Proto-Indo-Aryan veta-daṇḍa (willow-stem, CDIAL 12098); From Sanskrit vetasa (CDIAL 12099), Prakrit vēdasa, vēasa (willow), Ashkun-Kaffiri  wis (willow), Kashmiri bisa (willow), Lahnda bīs, Nepali baĩs (willow), Dameli-Kafiri-Dardic bigyē (willow), Proto-Indo-Aryan *vēu–, vētrá–. *vētuka—(willow).

Other Indo-Aryan cognates meaning ‘willow’ and listed by some other authors are: Assamese bheha (salix), Punjabi bed (willow, Salix types, Singh:110); Nepali beu (Turner Nepali:456), bais, biu (Turner Nepali:458).

Persian cognates meaning willow are: bada, bīd, bed, bīdī, bīde (Steingass:165, 217-8).

The examination of the cognate words meaning ‘willow’ as provided by Turner from the modern and extinct Indo-Aryan languages reveals that the real meaning of the Old Indian or Vedic vetasa must have been ‘willow’ too. Prakrit, Northwest Indo-Aryan (Dardic), Kashmiri, Lahnda, Nepali and Assamese have the cognates meaning ‘willow’. Hence the Eurocentric stand taken by these scholars is not correct.

Jarrige, J-F, 2008, Pragdhara 18:135-154.

Kazanas, N., 2009, Indo-Aryan Origins and Other Vedic Issues, Aditya Prakashan, New Delhi.

Witzel, Michael, 2005, “Indocentrism: autochthonous visions of ancient India”, in Bryant, Edwin and Patton,L.L. (Eds.), The Indo-Aryan Controversy: Evidence and Inference in Indian History, Routledge, pp 341-404.

Witzel, Michael 2009, Fulltext, The linguistic history of some Indian domestic plants, J Biosciences 34(6): 829-833. “Fulltext” of this article is available at


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