SENEGAL – THE ORIGIN OF ITS NAME AND SANSKRIT

A commonly accepted source of the name Senegal is ‘sunu gaal’, meaning ‘our canoe’ in the local Wolof language. It is said that the name resulted from a miscommunication between the 15th-century Portuguese sailors and Wolof fishermen. But Senegal – the name, predates 15th century. 


Another theory suggests that Senegal gets its name from Senegal river. It is is believed that the river’s name is derived from the compound of the Serer term Sene (from Roge Sene, Supreme Deity in the ancient Senegalese religion), and ‘O Gal’, meaning ‘body of water’. ‘Gal’ is close to the Sanskrit ‘jala’ (जल)  meaning ‘water’ and ‘sa’ (स ) means ‘good’, hence sajala means ‘good water’. 

Much like other ancient pagan religions and Hinduism, the Serer religious beliefs encompass ancient chants and poems, veneration of and offerings to deities as well as spirits, astronomy, initiation rites, medicine, and cosmology. There might be an ancient link between the two civilizations, via the Panis, who were traders and remarkable sailors once located in India, but as per the Rig Veda they were driven out of India. They sailed through the Mediterranean establishing cities on its coast,  and further ahead in Africa and came to be known as Phoenicians.

A third theory suggests that ‘Senegal’ derives its name from from ‘Singhanah’, a city described by the Arab historian El-Bakri in his writings in 1068. In his map the town of Singhanah is shown to be located at the mouth of the Senegal River, the city straddling both banks of the river. (The map belongs to a time when it was believed that the river Senegal was connected to Niger). 

Western Nile (Senegal-Niger River) according to El-Bakri (1068). Al-Bakri (c. 1014–1094) was an Andalusian Muslim geographer and historian.

But then what does ‘Singhanah’ mean! Edward Pococke states in his book ‘India in Greece’, ” Let it be granted that the names given to rivers, mountains and towns have a meaning, let it be granted that the language of the name-givers expressed that meaning, let it be granted that the language of the name-giver will explain that meaning…”. So who were the people who named the town on al-Bakri’s map Singhanah, in what language, and what meaning did it have in that language. There are no answers to any of these questions.


Surprisingly, many of the names on al-Bakri’s map are Sanskritic. Ghanah and Singhanah have possibly Sanskrit origins. There are many cognates to these words in Sanskrit. Ghana (घन ) means ‘complete’, ‘profound’, ‘compact’ or ‘fortunate’. It also means ‘deep’ and ‘dense’. Sanghanah (सङ्घना) means ‘condensation of water’ and is an appropriate name for a river. In some native languages of  Africa such as Shona and Hausa ‘sanga’ or ‘sangana’ means ‘confluence’ but even these two words are a cognate of Sanskrit ‘sangama’ with the same meaning. 


Sangha (सङ्घ) means ‘union’ or ‘association’ and is linked to Buddhism – an association of monks is known as ‘sangha’. Edward Pococke was of the view that Buddhist monks and Buddhists who had left India in droves around 2000 years back, carried their culture and language with them, travelled across Western Asia, Europe and Africa, and had a compelling influence on the local inhabitants and tribes. Buddhist settlements had sprung up in many parts of Europe and Africa which explains Indian-Sanskritic-Buddhists names in these parts of the world. Examples – there is the town of Bihar in Hungary, there is Sangama in Nigera as wel as two towns by the name Gaya in Nigeria, another Gaya – in Nigeria. There is also a Sangam in Sierra Leone. There are the towns of Kanika- Yamina- Gangu- Calimana on the river Niger, all Sanskritic names. 

Western Nile (Senegal-Niger River) according to Muhammad al-Idrisi (1154) was a Muslim geographer, cartographer and Egyptologist who lived in Palermo, Sicily at the court of King Roger II. Muhammed al-Idrisi was born in Ceuta, then belonging to the Moroccan Almoravids.


Any of the names in the al-Idrisi’s map above can be exact Sanskrit words with a mild tweaking, but that is not the intent. The question still remains what exactly do the names mean in the local language. The fact remains that these names have no meaning without considerable tweaking in the Wolof and Mande group of languages either. 


But Sanskrit can explain some of these names without any tweaking. Sama-khanda which appears on both the maps above, has the meaning of ‘even land’ or ‘plainland’ and can be equated with todays Tambakund, ; another town on the river is named Ghanah (घन), Sanskrit for ‘thick’ or ‘cloud’, alternatively ‘ghaNa’ (गण) or ‘tribe’ etc.

The Senegal was also known as the ‘Sanaga’. There is  another river today in Africa (in Cameroon) known as the ‘Sanaga’.  If one were to decode the name Sanaga through the  Sanskrit lens we find  ‘ga’ (गा) is Sanskrit for ‘move’ or ‘flow’ – as in the name Ganga, and ‘sana’ (सन) means ‘calm’, or ‘serene’. Two rivers, Djerem River and Lom River unite to make this river.  As stated above ‘Sangha’ is Sanskrit for ‘union’. Djerem, a cognate of ‘jharim’ means ‘river’ in Sanskrit.  Loma is a cognate of Soma (सोम)  and means the ‘moon’. It appears in the name of one of the highest peaks of the Guinea Highlands region- Loma Manasa, perhaps the name should be Soma Manasa, Manasa meaning ‘spiritual’. Both Soma and Manasa are words linked to the lore of Shiva.


There are other bits and pieces of interesting derivations of ancient place names in Senegal that can be decoded with Sanskrit. However,  there is little data or known history to  confirm this in any way.  For example the ancient name of Senegal’s largest lake, Lac de Guiers, was Pania Fuli, Fuli being the name of a Senegalese tribe. The meaning of ‘Pania’ is unknown, however ‘pan’ (पन)  is the Sanskrit word for ‘drink’ which makes the name of the lake mean  ‘Drink of the Fuli people’. On this lake lies the town of Keur Momar Saar. ‘Sara’ (सर) is the Sanskrit word for ‘lake’ or ‘spring’.

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