The Republic of the Congo is a country located in Central Africa. Bantu-speaking peoples who founded tribes during the Bantu expansions largely displaced and absorbed the earliest inhabitants of the region, the Pygmy, about 1500 BC. The earliest inhabitants of the region comprising present-day Congo were the Bambuti people. The Bambuti were a dwarfish people linked to the Pygmy tribes and were known to have equivalents in parts of India. In Green Mythology the word pygmy describes a tribe of dwarfs, first described by Homer, the ancient Greek poet, and reputed to live in India, and south of modern-day Ethiopia. Bambuti may hence be be just a morphed form of the word ‘Vamana’ (वामन), the name of a ‘dwarf tribe’ of India. The name is traced to that of Vamana, one of the ten incarnations of Sri Vishnu, where he appears as a dwarf.

The name Congo is derived from the name of the river Congo. In turn the river gets its name from Kongo- a Bantu kingdom which occupied the mouth of this river around the time of its discovery by the Portuguese in 1483. The Bantu kingdom of ‘Kongo’ derived its name from its people, the Bakongo. Bakongo is an endonym said to mean ‘hunters’. South of the Kongo kingdom lay the similarly named Kakongo kingdom. Abraham Ortelius in his world map of 1564 labels yet another kingdom as Manicongo – the city at the mouth of the river.

We see then that the suffix ‘kongo’ appears in many tribal names and possibly derives from the equivalent of a word for ‘public gathering’ or ‘tribal assembly’ as stated by many scholars. Samuel Henry Nelson (1880-1940) states in his book ‘Colonialism in the Congo Basin’, published by Ohio University Press, “…..It is probable that the word ‘Kongo’ itself implies a public gathering and that it is based on the root konga, ‘to gather’.”

If ‘kongo’ means ‘gathering’ then it is no different from the Indo-European ‘congre’ or ‘congregation’. That itself is a variation of the Sanskrit ‘sangha’ (संघ) which again has the same meaning – congregation.

In the context of the etymology of the name Congo, the Sanskrit ‘sangha’ is significant. For one, a tributary of the River Congo is called the Sangha. In fact the river Congo, itself is a congregation, with many tributaries merging in, flowing along, sometimes parting ways and then flowing back into the Congo river. It is a congregation and assimilation of many large streams and tributaries. Hence it is very likely that Congo itself was the Sangha, its name having survived to the present day in the name of one of its tributaries.

The Congo and the Sangha Rivers

According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, “When the river Congo first became known to Europeans at the end of the 15th century, they called it the Zaire, a corruption of a word that is variously given as nzari, nzali, njali, nzaddi, and niadi and that simply means ‘river’ in local African languages.” However, all these words are just a corruption of the Sanskrit ‘nadi’ (नदी) which also means ‘river’.

On the Congo river lies one of the largest towns of the country. Its present name is Kisangini, it was known as Stanleyville for a while, but prior to that it was known as Singitini or Singatini which are Sanskritic by sound. If at all these names have a Sanskrit origin, then the people who named them so must have been a very refined people. The words Singitini and Singatini have a beautiful feminine nuance to them – and the idea of ‘Singitini on the Sangha river’ indicates a civilization where the language is poetic. Singitani has the meaning of ‘companion’, Sangha, as mentioned above implies ‘gathering’. Kisangani is strategically placed at the junction of the Congo, Tshopo, and Lindi rivers – a ‘Sangham’ (सङ्घं) of sorts. Not surprisingly, there are a few other points of river confluences named ‘Sangama’ in the African continent. For more on this click here.

Kisangani was earlier known as Singitini.
It is indeed a Sangham spot as two rivers
merge into the river Congo here.

The sources of the river Congo are in the highlands and mountains of the East African Rift, as well as Lake Tanganyika and Lake Mweru. Though Mweru is said to mean ‘lake’ in Bantu languages, the lake is also spelled as ‘Moeru’, as mentioned in the ‘Geographical Dictionary of the World’, edited by Angelo Heilprin and Louis Heilprin, first published in 1906. Moeru is phonetically close to the name ‘Meru’ – the sacred mountain of the Hindu texts.

The name Tanganyika is equally interesting.Lake Tanganyika is the world’s longest freshwater lake. So what about the name. In Sanskrit ‘Tunda’ (तुण्ड) means ‘a long snout’, that describes the shape of the lake. Yet, this may sound unconvincing unless supported by other facts. But there is more.

In his Journals about his travels in the Congo, Reverend David Livingstone (1813-1873), a medical missionary, ironically gives details of many sites in Congo, that are interesting in the Hindu and Sanskrit context. His writings were later also recorded in the book, ‘Garenganze or Seven Years Pioneer Mission Work in Central Africa’ written by another Scottish Missionary Frederick Stanley Arnot (1858-1914) who too established Christian missions in Congo.

Arnot shares the details of the lakes of Tanganyika, Mweru and Bangweulu and the adjacent mountain range of Kalasa and the caves of Sombwe that he visited in the Katanga region. He states, “… Going north-west, nearly to the Kalasa, I had a good view of the famous cavern mountain…The great cave has two entrances, a distance of five miles or more apart, and within is a running stream. There are also many smaller caves and dens in the mountainous country…”. This is at once a reminder both of the caves of Mt. Kailasha and the name Shambhu. Sombwe is now known is also known as Kambove. Kalasa is a common name for males in the Congo. The ancient name of Katanga was Shaba. All these names are related to Lord Shiva. For example Kalasa or Kailasha is the abode of Shiva. Shaba is a cognate of Shiva, and. Kambove or Sombwe are variations of Shambhu, another name of Shiva.

Reverend Dr. Livingstone had earlier described the Kalasa mountains in his journal without writing the details of the name which had inspired Arnot to explore these caves further. Arnot states, “…(Livingstone) turned southward from Tanganyika, his purpose being to go round the east and south of Bangweolo (in 1868 Livingstone had only seen its northwest shore and visited some of the islands) then onto the sources of the Lufira, and up through Katanga to the caves west of Moero, of which the natives give marvellous reports.” These were the Sombwe caves later visited by Arnot.

Dolomite from the Caves of Katanga
in Congo.

Malachite Specimen from the caves of Katanga
also called Shaba. 

There is another thread though – one that connects the Bantus with not only the village- families of India but also of some of the native American tribes of the Hudson river of the United States. Among the early Bantu tribes, each village unit had a ritual and political head who was known as the *mu-kumu. In the United States, the nearly 40 Indian tribes that had settled on the rivers Hudson, Delaware, Potomac and Susquehanna by the 1650s called their leading tribe, the Lenape, by the title ‘Mochomes’. Both mu-kumu and muchome are strangely close to the Sanskrit ‘mukhya’ (मुख्य) meaning ‘chief’ which is the title of the village head in India.

There are some similarities with Sanskrit and perhaps Tamil in the mountain names of Congo too. For example, Nyamuragira is the name of a volcano in Congo. The suffix ‘giri’ (गिरि) in Sanskrit derived languages means mountain, and appears in the names of many mountains in India, especially in the South, such as Vellangiri and Sathuragiri. Perhaps there is a Tamil explanation to the prefix ‘Nyamura’ in the name ‘Nyamuragira’.

Another mountain is named Mangengenge which it is said derives from the Lingala word ‘kongenge’, which means ‘shining’. This name uncannily rings of the name Kanchenjunga which is a distortion of Sanskrit ‘Kanchentunga’. Kanchan (काञ्चन) means ‘golden’, tunga (तुङ्ग) means ‘high’, ‘tall’, ‘mighty’ and ‘mountain’. ‘Mangen’, due its similarity of meaning, may be a variation of Sanskrit ‘tunga’. This seems to be true of another mountain name, which is Mt. Nyiragongo. The suffix ‘gongo’ here again is a cognate of ‘tunga’ and may simply mean ‘mountain’ as mentioned above.

Ancient names of mountains, rivers and lakes tend to survive the longest, as compared to names of cities and towns because these are changed by the rulers or chiefs or anyone with political or religious power. It is in the most ancient versions of the names of mountains and rivers of Africa that one sees traces of a more ancient society, perhaps with a deeper link to the Indic civilization.

Suggested Readings:
The Civilization of Africa: A history to 1800 by Christopher Ehret

2. Historical Dictionary of the Republic of Cameroon by Mark Dike de Lancy, Rebecca Mbuh, Mark W De Lancy

3. Geographical Dictionary of the World by George Thomas Landmann

4. Garenganze or Seven Years Pioneer Mission Work in Central Africa by F. S. Arnot

5. Pan-African Chronology: A Comprehensive Reference to the Black Quest for Freedom in Africa by Everett Jenkins


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