THE SANSKRIT CONNECTION TO THE ETYMOLOGY OF NIGER AND NIGERIA

Scholars say that no convincing explanation to the etymological origin of the name ‘Nigeria’, or the name of its neighboring country ‘Niger’, has been found among the 30 native languages spoken in Nigeria or Niger. But what they agree on is that both countries are named after the River Niger.

The origin of the name Niger is obvious but remains undeciphered partly due to the reluctance to use a powerful tool available to us in the form of the Sanskrit language or the ancient Sanskritic literature that contains details of the mapping of the world during ancient times. 

A second problem rises because in the attempt to trace the etymology of names, each name is analyzed more or less in isolation, with not a lot of attention given to other similar place names in the vicinity. Perhaps an analysis of these names if done collectively on a larger scale encompassing a large geographical area could unveil a lot more hidden information.

The reluctance to look at Sanskrit or Sanskritic literature pertaining to world geography or descriptions of ancient places or the names by which these places were known in the ancient world necessitates that we first turn westward and analyze information recorded by western scholars. 

However, sometimes one finds that the pattern that emerges from the explanations offered by western scholars without taking into account the traditional and ancient literature still hovers close to inferences drawn from information contained in these ancient texts. This is certainly  true of the explanation for the etymological origins of the word Niger. The meaning of the name Niger presented by various western researchers can easily be corroborated with the aid of Sanskrit.

In his writings Ptolemy (100-170AD) identified two rivers in the desert of Niger, one by the name ‘Gir’ and the second located further south, the ‘Ni-Gir’. H. Murray, in his Account of the Discoveries and Travels in Africa by the Late John Ledon states, “Westwards from the Nile, he (Ptolemy) describes the vast range of Libya Interior watered by the great rivers Gir and Niger…”. Libya was the Latin name for the continent of Africa.

In his Journal of African History published in 1960, C.K. Meek states, “Ptolemy’s use of the words Geir and Nigier suggests that they are not native titles for particular rivers but generic words for river…..Duveyrier, the French traveller …declared some years later that the Gir, Ger, Niger and Nigis of the ancient geographers were all identical words representing the Berber or Libyan ger, guir and djir = running stream.”

Other popular explanations include views such as that the name Niger is a distortion of the local Tuareg phrase ‘gher n gheren’ which means ‘river of rivers’, and the belief is that ‘gher n gheren’ has been shortened to ‘ngher’.

In his book ‘Timbuktu and the Songhay Empire’ author John Hunwick states, “Leo Africanus is the first writer, to my knowledge to use the name Niger….It is not clear from what source Leo picked up the name, though its origin may lie in the Berber phrase ger-n-ger – ‘river of rivers’, i.e. great river”. Leo Africanus born 1494, was a Berber Andalusi diplomat and author known for his book Description of Africa centered on the geography of the Maghreb and Nile Valley. 

Much before him Roman historian Suetonius (69-122 AD) wrote that the name ‘gher’ originates from the Berber language, spoken in Morocco and Algeria and means ‘watercourse’ as quoted by author Oliver Thomson in ‘History of Ancient Geography’ (1948).

Thomson also states that Pliny had earlier connected these two rivers as one long watercourse which flowed via lakes and underground sections into the Nile, a notion which persisted in the Arab and European worlds – and further added the Senegal River as the ‘Ger’ as it was known until the 19th century.

It therefore becomes imperative that the etymology of the word ‘ger’ be traced further back in history, though it is also obvious that their research inevitably brought European scholars to the meaning of the word ‘ger’ as either water or river. For example, in his paper ‘The Niger and the Classics: History of a name’, published in 1960, British Anthropologist who had studied the North Nigerian tribes, Dr. C.K Meek (1885-1965) stated that in the name Niger, both Ni and ger meant water, though he derived the two parts of the name from two different languages, nu is water in Jukun, a Nigerian traders language, ger is water in Berber spoken in North Africa.  This however renders the meaning of the word Nigeria as water-water which is not acceptable to scholars such as  J.W. Jefferys.

1. For Indic scholars it is obvious that the word ‘gir’ is a distortion of the same Sanskrit word jhara that appears in the names of many rivers and water bodies around the world such as the ‘Jari’ which is the northern tributary of the River Amazon, River Jara in Melbourne, the Jara River (a tributary of the Susita River) in Romania, or Lake Jara in New Mexico, River Jordon in the Middle East, or the Kagera in Tanzania, or the lake Sagara also in Tanzania- not to mention many more in India and Nepal. In fact the jaro in the name Kiliminjaro may also be a distortion of jara that is explained the many rivers that flow from Mt. Kiliminjaro. In Sanskrit the word ‘jhara’ (झर) means a waterfall or a water body, and ‘jhari’ (झरी) means a river. [However, it is also possible that Kilimanjaro is a combination of Kilima (‘mountain’ in Swahili) and Mandara, the mountain named in the Varaha Purana. The Varaha Purana states that Mount Mandara lies close to Mt. Meru – which in fact is true of Mt. Meru and Mt. Kilimanjaro of Tanzania. Check more details about this here. ]  


2. The analysis gets a little more interesting if one were to decode the Berber ‘ger’ and Tureg ‘gheren’ and ‘gheren’, or their cognates, with the help of  Sanskrit.

First, ‘gheren’ may be a distortion of Sanskrit ‘gehevra’ (गह्वर) or ‘gehena’ (गहन), both meaning ‘deep’. The Hindi ‘ghehra’ (गहरा), also derived from Sanskrit ‘gehevra’ (गह्वर) deep,  phonetically comes closest to the Tuareg word ‘gheren’.  

Second, if we were to take a look at the different names of the river Niger and their etymologies we find that these also explain the etymologies of place names through which the Niger passes and also the names of towns and settlements on its banks.

The Niger is known by many names in the different languages of the region. In Manding the Niger is known as the Jeliba or Joliba or ‘great river’. This may be easily explained by the Sanskrit Jala (    ) water, and ‘ga’ moving. The suffix ga appears in many great rivers of the world including the Ganga, and the Volga who’s ancient name was Jilaga.


In Hausa it is known as the ‘Kwara’ which can be explained by the Sanskrit ‘Khawari’ meaning ‘rainwater’ or ‘dew’ or ‘vapour’. The more common ‘vari’ in its different variations means  river, or stream or pitcher.

Another form of Kwara is Quorra whaich may be corrupted form of ‘jhara’ (    ) or ‘gara’ (    ) as explained above. 
 

However more important than the Sanskritic names of the river, the many place names on the banks of the river Niger reveal a decidedly Indic source to the names.  For example there is a town by the name of Ganga on the Niger. Then there is Yamina which is certainly a corruption of Yamuna. There are two towns by the name Gaya in Nigeria. There is Sangama town on the Niger Delta.

The Great Crescent of the River Niger. The River Niger has 
towns by the names of Ganga, Kamala, Yamina and Gaya on its banks.
Close to the bend lies an island with a large stone called 
Mt. Kesa which is revered by the local population.
Kesa is another name of Lord Vishnu and Krishna both.

Lord Shiva is known as Vyoma-Kesa

1.Other place names on River Niger include:

Kalindi Algiana Gongou. Kalindi is another name of river Yamuna in India, Gangou is certainly a distortion of Ganga. 

2. Place names that include some form of the name Ganga include amongst many others:  

a. Goungou Beri (Ganga-Vari), 

b. Namarde-Goungou (Narmada-Ganga) and c. Gangu Sarkin (Ganga-Sarika). 

3. Then there are names which include the Sanskrit ‘ambh’ or fluid – 

a. Doumbaria (perhaps Ambara), 

b. Chembe, perhaps Sanskrit Chamba, from Sanskrit Chamb (चम्ब्) meaning to ‘go’,

4. Gombeti Koura, maybe Gomati , from ‘gamb'(गम्ब् ) to go or move, 

5. Then there are names with the root word ‘gar’, meaning ‘water pitcher’, the same ‘gara’ that we see in Sagara.

a. Koigara

b. Garbara

c. Korgoura

d. Kerey Gorou

6. Then there are names with root word ‘sara’ or ‘lake’

a. Alkamsara Lake

b. Boudissara Lake

c. Mansare

d. Sarikawa

7. Other Sanskritic-Indic place names on the Niger include Kala,  Karma, Komba (Kumbha), Gaya, and Sangwa.


With all the above evidence, we may conclude that with time and change in pronunciation, and the impact of rising and falling civilizations, we today are left with the slightly distorted ‘Nigeria’ and ‘Niger’ from their original form in Sanskrit, but the essence of their meanings is still there!

For more information check out the following links:
1. Nigeria & Niger
2. Earth Mysteries Awaiting Discoveries
3. Eden in Sumer: On the River Niger
4.Roman expeditions to Lake Chad and western Africa – Simple English Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
5. Niger River – GhanaNation 
6. Niger: Origins of the Word by J.W. Jeffreys

7. The Niger in the Classics by Dr.C.K.Meek

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