In Gambia life centres around the river Gambia after which the country is named. Many theories have been postulated regarding the origin and the meaning of the name Gambia but none are satisfactory.

One theory says Gambia is a Portuguese corruption of the local word Ba-Dimma, meaning river. Some other sources say that the river´s name comes from the Portuguese word cambio, meaning exchange, or trade. However, there is one name,  Gambara that predates the arrival of the Portuguese, and even before the start of any known significant trade between the two countries. 

As recorded in their book, “An Universal History: From the Earliest Accounts to the Present Times …’, Part 2, Volume 14 compiled by George Sale, George Psalmanazar, Archibald Bower, George Shelvocke, John Campbell, John Swinton in 1781, from information collated from local sources, it is stated thus about the name of the river, ” .. it is commonly known as Gambia to the Englishman, which in fact is a corruption of Gambra, this we shall retain….”. Gambra has no meaning in the local languages.

However far-fetched it might appear, the fact remains that no other language decodes the place names in Gambia including the name Gambara better than Sanskrit. ‘Gamb’ (गम्ब्) is ‘go or move’, ‘Gambara’ means that which is ‘going, moving or flowing’.

Many other place names in Gambia that seem to have Sanskritic origins, a very common suffix for place names is ‘kunda’. In India ‘kunda’ is a common suffix for places. In South India places located on a hill have the suffix ‘kunda’ (कुन्डा) which is Sanskrit for ‘hill’. And  (कुन्ड्) means ‘pool’.  Places close to a pool or a lake often have the suffix ‘kunda’. Kunda’ may even be a distortion of sanskrit ‘khanda’ (खंड), meaning a ‘region’. In the local Mandinka language ‘kunda’ is said to mean ‘place’, but this may well be a variation of  the Sanskrit ‘khanda’. 

The largest city in Gambia is SerrekundaThe prefix Serre in Serrekunda  maybe derived from ‘shir’ (शिर) meaning ‘head’ or ‘top most’ or it may be derived from ‘sara’ (सर)  which is ‘pool’ or ‘lake’. 

Two places around the Gambia river are named Tambakunda and Dembakunda. 

In Gambia both ‘kunda’ and ‘kund’ are appropriate as suffix of place names. It is a country of flat-topped hills that alternate with valleys or depressions where little towns appear, and the Sanskrit meaning ‘kunda’ (hill) appears more apt. In other places close to the river, which is in reality the entire country, ‘kund’, ‘water pool’ or ‘lake’ is meaningful. The suffix ‘kunda’ appears in many place names in the continent of Africa and has no common meaning in languages spoken in these regions.

Here we may look at some of the pre-fixes attached to the word ‘kunda’ in Gambian place names. One of them is ‘manas’ – as in  Mansa-kunda located in the region of Kumb.  This names appear in the well known map by Captain John Leach dated to 1732. Though ‘manas’ is explained locally as having been derived from the name of King Manasa Musa (born 1280s) of the Keita dynasty and is said to mean ‘king of kings’, the word predates the birth of Manasa Musa. We see this Mandinka word  in the name of the Mansa Loma peak in the Guinea Highlands Range. 

Once again it is the Sanskrit  ‘manasa’ (मानस) which means both ‘with your heart’ or ‘willingly’ or ‘dwelling on a lake’ that explains the prefix in the name Manasakunda. Kumb is the name of the region where Manasakunda is located and ‘kumbh’ (कुम्भ) means ‘water carrier’ in Sanskrit. Kumbh is also the name of the biggest congregation in the world, the yearly holy dip festival on the banks of the River Ganges in India.

A Map of the River Gambara by Captain John Leach, dated 1732

It may seem implausible that Gambia, which is so far away from India should have so many place names which have a link to Sanskrit. But many scholars have made this observation and found it to be true in their research. In his book, “Oriental Fragments” which was published in the 1850’s, author and researcher Edward Moor wrote, “It may be doubted if all of France, Germany, Russia, England, Italy, could furnish so many places with Indian names ……. as may be gathered from Africa”.

He states, “Jonaka-kunda, Tendi-Kunda, Koota-kunda, Tatti-konda, Barra-konda, Seesekund, Maria-counda, Tandacunda, Fatte-kunda, Mauraconda. On these class of names what I have said before touching kunda, a hill, and kund, a pool or lake applies here and may suffice. Such terminations are common in India, and are almost always I believe, found attached to hills or pools, or to their immediate vicinity. Some instance I will note: Golconda; or as I conjecture Kalkunda, Gurumkonda, Ganeshkunda, Kailkunda, Inaconda… Penekunda, Curacunda. Many others might be added….. I am deposed to refer them all to the Sanskrit Kund or Kunda…”. Click here for more about his views on ‘kund’ and ‘kunda’.

There are other examples of Indic names in Gambia which includes Janjunbureh. In the old maps of Gambia the name was written as Jajenbureh – a close cognate of the Sanskrit ‘Jayan-Puri’. ‘Jayan’ is ‘victory’ (जयन), ‘puri (पुरी) is a very common Sanskrit word, the equivalent of ‘place, town, city’. Another cognate is jhanjhanpura, ‘jhanjhan’ (    ) or ‘gleaming’ fits the desciption of Janjunbureh. It is an island town located  on the Gambara. 

The antique maps of Gambia list some other very interesting names which have now vanished from the geography of Gambia. One example a river by the name Kabata – probably a distortion of Sanskrit ‘kavan’ (कवन) meaning ‘water’.

A section of Captain John Leach’s map of the Gambara River dated 1732. 

The River Gambara flows through the region of Kumb close to Manaskunda in Gambia.  Gambara, Kumb and Manaskunda are all Sanskrit words.

Another section of Captain John Leach’s map of the Gambara River dated 1732. Here the River Gambara flows through the region of Yami.  The Tributaries that flow here are called the Sanjalli and Indea . Sanjalli is a Sanskrit word which means ‘a hands hollowed and joined together’ like when holding water.

Suggested Readings:

1. Oriental Fragments – by Edward Moor
2. Mandinka.pdf
3. An Universal History: From the Ancient to the Present


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