Sanskritic words are found in the names of forgotten places, their history lost completely. For example not much is known about Egypt’s Jebel Gattar. The following description has been taken from the Red Sea Mountain Trail website which describes its beauty. It states, “A gigantic labyrinth of granite peaks and winding ravines, there is no place like it in Egypt, perhaps even the world. Jebel Gattar does not refer to a single summit, but to a bigger massif with different districts. Gigantic horns, pinnacles, teeth and fangs tower high in some areas – giving Jebel Gattar an aggressive, foreboding feel – whilst in others, whaleback summits and high, rounded domes give it a more gentle character… Its wadis, gorges and ravines are just as magical too. Deep, green pools of water gather here and for months after rain, creeks trickle between them through dense thickets of greenery. Jebel Gattar is home to mountain springs that never run dry. For millennia, its water has sustained people and animals of this harsh desert.”

Jebel Gattar perhaps gets its name from the Sanskrit ‘ghata’.

Jebel Gattar is home to the Nagaata springs.

Naga is Sanskrit for ‘spring’.

Where might Jebel Gattar gets its name and where do the names of its many springs, especially the perennial Nagaata which provides water to this entire region through the year, emerge from. In Arabic or old Egyptian there is no meaning to the word Gattar. Hence we look at the closest Sanskrit cognate ‘ghaata’ (घाट) where ‘ghaata’ means a  mountainous range dividing countries.  Ghata also has the meaning of a pass or difficult passage over a hill. Additionally it also means a quay, wharf, stairs, landing-place (on banks of rivers or tanks) which best describe the topography of this land. Just like the Western Ghats in India that traverse along the Indian Peninsula and run parallel to the coast of the Arabian Sea, the Red Sea Mountain range, of which  Jebbel Gattar in the most spectacular part, runs along the coast southwards to Ethiopia. Perhaps the name ‘Ghat’ travelled to Egypt from India and appeared in the name of Jebbel Gattar.  However, by itself one name does not establish the Sanskritic roots to this name.

It is the name Nagaata springs of the Gattar range which supports that the name Gattar may also have Sanskritic links. The word Naga appears in the names of waterbodies around the world. There is the Alur Naga Waterfalls on Mount Jerai in Malaysia, the Naga Falls of Lachung in Sikkim, Naga city on the serpentine river Naga in Phillipines which has many hot springs and geysers, Nagato in Japan which is home to five hot springs. Then there is the Niigata city in Japan, the etymology of who’s name is unknown and the meaning of the word Niigata is lost but has varied from lagoon, to bay, to island etc. Nagasaki, that translates as long cape from Japanese lies on the head of a long bay. In other parts of the world there is the Nagralla reservoir in Sudan, the Naagramtayan and Nagrantayan creeks in Phillipines, Nagssuit Bay in Greenland, the Nagtoralik ancient site in Greenland, the Naguak Lake in Canada, the Nagualapa river in Nicaragua, the Nagubi stream in Georgia, the Nagugan Lake in the Kanektok Watershed in Alaska and Nagawicka Lake in Waukesha County in Wisconsin – both in the United States, the Naguler stream in Uganda, the Nagum stream in Kenya, etc.

Naguak Lake, Nunavat, Canada
Naguat Lake, Nunavat, Canada

In his paper ‘The Aboriginal Names of Rivers’ written in 1886, Rev. Peter MacPherson states, “Looking to other languages of the world, we have the nasal in the Shemitic ngahyin, a fountain. This is the word which shortened into ain and en, so often indicates the locality of wells in books of Eastern travel. Ayun Moosa are the wells of Moses. There is Sungei, a river, in Javanese; arung, to wade through water, in Malay, also ongagu, a river, and ngusor. In Maori, there are, ngaehi, tide; ngaeki, swamp, and ngongi, water.” From the Australian Gazetteer MacPherson quotes two names, the Nagha Lake and the Nagung that he says is water in George’s River area, perhaps the river’s ancient name.

American Linguist William Bright, who was also an Indologist and was a linguistic scholar at the Deccan College in Poona, now Pune, India, and had studied the native cultures in Mexico and India, listed some names with Naga as the prefix in his work ‘Native American Placenames of the United States’, including the Nagawicka Lake in Wisconsin, Nageethluk River at Alaska, Nagishlamina Lake in Alaska, Nagooltee Peak, Nagugun Creek, Alaska and Nagyagat Mountain at Goodnews Bay in Alaska. Amongst these only two names, Nagooltee which translates as ‘rain’ from the Western Apache Athabaskan language, and Nagugun as ‘river the others meet’ from the Yupik Eskimo language; seem to have something to do with water in the local language.

However, in his paper, Similarities between the Asiatic and American Indian Languages, published in October 1960 in the International Journal of American Linguistics author Tadeusz Milewski pointed out similarities between the cultures of the American peoples before the coming of the whites and that of Asia and Oceania. He states, “It results from either mutual contacts or independent but parallel evolution….Moreover it may be interesting to note the same coincidences are found in the sphere of linguistic facts. Striking structural similarities whose origin may be conceived in different ways occur between some Asiatic and American Indian Languages.”

He further states, “According to generally accepted hypothesis ancestors of the American Indians was Asia and they reached America by crossing the narrow and often frozen Bering Straits. As the sheet retreated different nomadic hunting tribes moved from Central Asia to the north, came to Bering Straights and having crossed over the ice and reached the coast of Alaska…. These facts prove that the primitive peoples of America brought with them the languages they had spoken earlier in Asia. .”. The author adds, “The similarities between the languages are too complex and too numerous to be the result of parallel and independent development.”

The fact is that Naga (नाग) a Sanskrit word, has two meanings, the one more common is ‘snake’ and appears in the names of ancient temples like the Nageshwara Temple of Karnataka;  the other is ‘water spring’ which appears in the names of waterbodies around the world. The word occurs in India in the names of springs such as ‘Anatanag’ meaning ‘never ending springs’, and, ‘Verinag’ which is the source of the river ‘Vitasta’, the Puranic name of the river Jhelum. 

Pandit Anand Koul states in his ‘Archaeological Remains in Kashmir’ (1930) on page 98 as quoted in Wikipedia, “According to a legend, goddess Vitasta wanted to take rise from this spring, but it happened that when she came, Shiva was staying here, whereupon she had to go back and then she took her rise from Vithavatur (Vitastatra), a spring about a mile to the north-west of this place. Virah in Sanskrit means to ‘go back’ and ‘nag’ means a water spring and, as Vitasta had to go back from this place, it came to be called Virahnag or ‘Vernag’. This spring is also considered to be the residing place of Nilanaga, who is placed by ancient tradition, at the head of all Nagas or spring-deities of Kashmir.”

Naga also occurs in the name of Sheshanaga lake of Kashmir and carries both the meanings – serpent and water spring. And much like the nagas around the world, Nagaata in Egypt too, it is quite evident, gets its name from the Sanskrit ‘naga’ meaning ‘waterspring’.


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