The etymology of the name Kiliminjaro is a subject of much debate though its Sanskritic meaning is pretty straightforward, apt and appropriate with some collateral support from the Puranas, more specifically the Vishnu and Varaha Puranas.

1. Mainstream Meaning of KilimanjaroFirst a quick note on the mainstream debate on the etymology of the name Kiliminjaro. Wikipedia collates the details of this debate and presents a longish explanation. It lists a number of theories and states among others the view of a few European explorers, some of whom had reported that Kilimanjaro was the mountain’s Swahili name. The 1907 edition of The Nuttall Encyclopedia, a 19th century Encyclopedia edited by Rev. James Wood, records the name of the mountain as Kilima-Njaro.

Johann Ludwig Krapf, a German missionary in East Africa, wrote in 1860 that Swahili tribesmen along the coast of the Indian Ocean called the mountain Kilimanjaro, and it meant either ‘mountain of greatness’ or ‘mountain of caravans’. Under the latter meaning, kilima meant mountain and jaro meant caravans.

But Krapf also stated another view that he had come across. He wrote a chief of the Wakamba people whom he had visited in that 1849, had seen what he called “the Kima jajeu, mountain of whiteness, the name given by the Wakamba to Kilimanjaro”.

Jim Thompson claimed in 1885, that the term Kilima-Njaro has generally been understood to mean the mountain (kilima) of greatness (njaro). However he thought that since Njaro was an ancient Swahili word for shining, Kiliminjaro perhaps meant white mountain.

Others have assumed that kilima is Swahili for mountain. The problem with this assumption is that kilima actually means hill and is, therefore, the diminuitive of mlima, the proper Swahili word for mountain.

A different approach is to assume that the kileman part of Kilimanjaro comes from the Kichagga (a Bantu language dialect) word kileme, which means ‘that which defeats‘, or kilelema, which means ‘that which has become difficult or impossible‘. The jaro part would “then be derived from njaare, a bird; or, according to other informants, a leopard; or, possibly from jyaro, a caravan”. Considering that the name Kilimanjaro has never been current among the Wachagga people it is possible that the name was derived from Wachagga saying that the mountain was unclimbable, kilemanjaare or kilemajyaro, and porters misinterpreting this as being the name of the mountain.

2. Sanskritic Meaning of Kiliminjaro

But now a look at the name Kiliminjaro through the Sanskrit lens where only two meanings of the word come up. Either, the first part of the word Kili is a distortion of the Sanskrit Giri (गिरि) which means mountain and appears in a few different forms in the names of many mountains and place names, such as Kinyagiri, Kitangiri and Tarangire in Tanzania; or the other explanation can be that the first part of the name is not Kili, but Kiliman (किलिमन्), Sanskrit for ‘blackness‘, a reference to the dark colour of the three peaks of Kilimanjaro owing to the very high basalt component of the minerals in these mountains. Basalt is dark charcoal grey or black in colour. 

The second part of the name ‘jaro’ is definitly  a distortion of jhara (झर), Sanskrit for spring or water, and appears as ‘njore’ in the Masai language (a language spoken by some elders in Tanzania and Kenya), with the same meaning, that is water or spring. This is appropriate since Kiliminjaro is the source of many rivers in this region. Hence, Kiliminjaro translates as ‘Dark Mountain of Rivers’. But it is the presence of the root word ‘jhara’ here that is significant as we shall see later. 

What is important here is that the word jhara appears in the names of some other rivers of Africa in different forms, such as in the name of river Niger, where -ger, refers to water, its source in the Tureg language. One may also site another name, that of River Kagera, that emanates from Lake Rweru in Rwanda. ‘Gera’ here is a variation of Tureg -ger which is the same as sanskrit  ‘jhara’. Then there is the town of Niangara on River Uele. 

The word jhara is universal, and it appears in various forms in world river names such as in the name of river Jordan, which derives its name from the Semitic ‘Yarad’ meaning ‘flow down’ or ‘descent’. ‘J’ and ‘Y’ are interchangeable so that ‘Yarad’ is the same as ‘Jarad’. The word Niagara too comes from the Huron Oniahgahrah, meaning ‘thunderer of waters’ and the ‘gahrah’ here too means water, actually, cascade. which is the same as Sanskrit ‘jhara’.

3. The Puranic Records:

Sanskritic etymological information apart, it is the Puranic texts of India that not only reveal the name by which Kiliminjaro was once known but also describe the legends attached to its name. Its oldest name still survives in Africa as we shall see later.

What might have been the saga of Kiliminjaro is unraveled by the story of another Puranic mountain, called Meru. In Chapter 77 Verse 9 of the Varaha Purana, it is stated that to the east of Mt. Meru lies Mt. Mandara. Vishnu Purana adds, “In the middle of Illavrata (Africa) stands the mountain Meru which is composed of gold, and precious stones, the abode of gods. Expounders of the Puranas have further described this Meru to be the pericarp of the earth lotus, whence Brahma had his birth. The four mountains Mandara, Sungandha, Vipula, and the Suparava serve as buttresses to support this Meru.” On the present map of Tanzania, in the vicinity of Kiliminjaro, about 150 km by road, lies Mt. Meru at coordinates 3.241066 S, 36.750008 E.

But where is Mandara that serves as one of the buttresses that supports Mt. Meru! Could it be Kilimanjaro itself? There are two main reasons in favour of this argument.

1. In the Puranic lore, Mount Mandara was used as the cosmic pivot on which was twisted Vasuki, the king of serpents, who resides around Shiva’s neck, and which became the churning rope during Samudra Manthan or ‘Churning of the Ocean’. By tugging on the two ends of the coil, the devas and asuras together extracted amrita, or the Nectar of Immortality from the ocean. The cosmic pivot or Mount Mandara is believed to be the centre of the cosmic world and the tip of this cosmic world arrangement, on which the entire universe spins, is known as Mt. Meru.

Because the story of Mt. Mandara and Mt. Meru is tied together, and since both are mentioned in the Puranas to be located in Kushadwipa or Illavrata (both are Puranic names for Africa), it follows that the ancients must have named the two tallest mountains close to the equator by these two names, Mt. Meru and Mt. Mandara. The name Mandara has since distorted to Manjaro.

Kilima is ‘hill’ in Swahili, derived probably from ‘Giri’. Mandara has distorted to Manjaro over time especially because Mandara and Manjaro have the same meaning in Sanskrit. The Vishnu Purana states thus about the meaning of Mandara in Chapter 122, “The root ‘manda’ means water and since it (the mountain) scatters water, it is called Mandara’.” Scattering water is a reference to the many rivers that emanate from Kilimanjaro including the Masanga, Mrusanga, Karanga, Nanga, Mongoro, Engere Den, Ngomberi, Tarakia, Garagua and Sere.  Kiliminjaro has the same meaning as Mandara in Sanskrit.  ‘Kili’, mount in Swahili is a distortion of Sanskrit ‘giri’ or ‘mountain’. Jaro is a distortion of Sanskrit ‘jhara’ meaning water- hence Kilimanjaro is the water eminating mountain, same as Mandara.

But the biggest clue comes from a German Map of Zanzibar and German East Africa with Kiliminjaro dated to circa 1890. On the top left, right below Kimawenzi, we see the name Marangu, and to the south of it, appears Mandara! 

The name Mandara appears in the vicinity of Mt Kiliminjaro.
Mt. Kiliminjaro in great antiquity was known by
its Puranic name Mt. Mandara. The Name Mandara has
since distorted to Manjaro. The prefix Kili is a distortion of ‘giri’,
Sanskrit for  Mountain.

The name Mandara appears in the vicinity of
Mt. Kilimanjaro of a 19th century German map.

Other current maps too portray the name Manadara near Kiliminjaro.

The name Mandara appaears in the vicinity of Mt. Kiliminjaro, sometimes itselfspelled as Kilimandjaro as it does on  this map.

Both the names Mandara and Mandaka appear on this map.

The name Mandara is not unknown in the rest of the African continent. The Mandara Mountains are a volcanic range extending about 190 km along the northern part of the Cameroon–Nigeria border, from the Benue River in the south to the north-west of Maroua in the north. Maroua itself may be a distortion of the name Meru. The names Mandara and Meru often occur in the vicinity of one another.

On the current map of Tanzania just to the north east of Mt. Meru is situated what is known as Mt. Monduli, and can easily be a distortion of Mandara, a mountain which according to Vedic and Puranic texts is a mountain on which Shiva meditated. The closest cognate of the name Mandara in Tanzania is Mandera, a city in the Korogwe district of Tanzania, 120 km away from Mt. Kilimanjaro. There is also a county by the name Mandera in neighboring Kenya.

There are many mountain names in Tanzania which include the Sanskrit word ‘giri’ (गिरि) or ‘mountain’ in some form or the other, such as:

. Mt. Losiminguri (-4.227086, 34.536748),

2. Mt. Ol Lotigeli (-2.970763, 37.022442),
3. Mt. Kangiri (-4.050119, 34.885925 ),
4. Mt. Mungori (-4.019525, 34.830307 ),
5. Mt. Kisingisi (-4.310168, 34.535145),
6. Mt. Kinangilu (-4.227086, 34.536748 ).

The word Jhara (झर) appears in river names of Tanzania in various forms,  such as ‘goro’ in Mongoro, and  as ‘gere’ in Engere den. In fact the two river names should read as Manjhara and Jharadan, not Mongoro and Engere den.

In the land bound by Mount Meru and the Kiliminjaro on the east, Lake Victoria on the north, and Lake Tana on the West, on the current map,  Sanskritic names abound, and some names are in fact very close to those mentioned in the Varaha and Vishnu Purana. For example:

1. In the vicinity of Mt. Meru in Tanzania one sees to its south, the name Sanawari. To the east of Sanawari lies Kibvesi and to the south of Kibvesi lies Kimandolu. Further south lie Komolo and Makutapora. All these names are so Sanskritic in nuance that they hardly need any explanation, except perhaps Kibvesi. Sanawari is Sonavari or meadow of gold, Kimandolu is Kamandalu the pot that Shiva and other  ascetics carry in their hands, bearing either water or amrita, the elixir of life. Komolo is Kamala, Sanskrit for lotus, and Makutapora is a reference to Shiva’s mukuta (मुकुट) or crown which is really his hair tied in a topknot in which he binds and holds the Ganges.

2. With so many references to Shiva, perhaps the unexplained name Kibvesi too is a distortion of Shiva, as well as similar sounding names such as Kibo, the tallest peak of Kiliminjaro. Kibvesi may be a truncated form of Shiva+vesa, meaning Shiva’s form. This interpretation may appear as forced, yet there are so many references to Shiva in the names of towns and rivers in this area that Shiva seems the only explanation. Not only in Tanzania, Shiva’s lore is entrenched in Nigeria too where the source of the River Nigeria is traced to a mountain called Sankari. Shankara is yet another name of Shiva.

3. Kibvesi lies in the area known as Arusha. Another name of note in Arusha is Ngurdoto. Researcher Mukundchandra Raval states in his book The Mount Meru, “It is interesting to note that the name of the highest peak of Mount Meru is Ngurudoto. Guru Data is one of the three sons of Seer Atri and Ansuya. Guru Datta is always found at the top peak of any mountain wherever he has his abode. His abode is on the highest peak of the Mount Girnar in Gujarat and the Mount Abu in Rajasthan. Likewise his abode is Ngurudoto on the highest peak of Mount Meru.” Raval also adds that Arusha is a distortion of the name Usha. A river Usha still flows near Mt. Meru into the Great Rift Valley though its waters are poisonous due to the high fluoride content it gathers from the slopes of Mt. Meru.

4. In the Indic tradition Usha is the daughter of the demon king Banusura who had once undertaken a severe penance to win the blessings of Lord Shiva and asked that Shiva guard Banusura’s city of Sonapuri as a boon. Sonapuri may explain the name Sanawari mentioned above.

5. Shiva’s name occurs in its other forms too in the surrounding areas of Mt Meru and Kiliminjaro. For example, there is a peak by the name Oldonyo Sambu. This lies just west of Mt. Monduri mentioned above. Monduri, like Manjaro too is surely a distortion of mandara. Sambu or Shambhu is another name of Lord Shiva. The names Shambu and Sombo also appear in other parts of Africa like near the confluence of the River Congo and River Ruki is Sumbala. It appears again in the name of the Sumbu National Park and the county of Sumbawanga. Then there is the Shambe National Park in South Sudan. We also see names such as Nandy (Shiva’s bull) and Lake Manasa (a reminder of Lake Mansarover near Kailasha, Shiva’s abode in the Himalayas) and many others,  in this Arusha region of Tanzania.

6. More examples in Tanzania include a place name, Shiwa Nagandu on the river Mansha. The Nagandu in Shiwa Nagandu is certainly a reference to the Nagas or the serpents that Lord Shiva wears around his neck. Naga is Sanskrit for serpent. The river Manasa flows into lake Ishiba Nagandu, Isha is yet another name of Lord Shiva. Another river that flows into lake Ishiba is the Chimbawi. Chimbawi or Shambavi is the feminine form of Shambhu. Then there is the Luwanya that flows into Ishiba. Lavanya is Sanskrit for ‘beautiful’.

In the local Bemba language Ishiba Nagandu is said to translate as “Lake of the Royal Crocodile’, Ishiba meaning lake and nagandu meaning crocodile. However this is just an approximation of the original meaning of these words. 

7. The name Ganga, the river that Shiva holds in his locks, too appears repeatedly in the vicinity. For example there is the River Iganga near Jinja in Uganda or the Goi-Ganga, a town which lies on the river Luvua, west of lake Tangayika. On the east coast of Lake Victoria lies the town of Gunga.

8. Then there are names related to the lore of Krishna, there is a place called Mbharata, a reminder of the Mahabharata of which Krishna was the protagonist. There is Kasensaro on the shore of Lake Victoria. Kasensaro is easily decoded as Krishna Sara, Sara is lake in Sanskrit. Sara also appears as seli in the name of Lake Amboseli, not far away from Mt. Meru on the Tanzani-Kenya border. Amba is water in Sanskrit. Sara appears as Saru in the name of lake Sarunga in southern Tanzania, unless the original name is Saranga, which is the name of Lord Shiva himself.

Krishna’s name appears in the name Kisangini, another place name which in fact is a combination of both, the name of Krishna, and giri (mountain) distorted to ‘gani’.

The lore of Krishna is tied with that of Shiva in the story of Banasura who’s daughter Usha marries the grandson of Krishna.

9. Sanskritic names appear in the vicinity of Kilimanjaro too. Three volcanic peaks make up Kiliminjaro, the Mewenzi, Kibo and Shira, with Kibo being the tallest and at the centre of the Kiliminjaro. Shira is Sanskrit for peak or head and appears commonly in the many names such as Mrigshira, the name of a lunar mansion, which translates as Deer’s head.

However, a Puranic legend explains the name Shira in the context of the Churning of the Milky Ocean, or the Kshira Sagara. The Kshira Sagara was churned by using Mt. Mandara as the pivot on which a churning rope was pulled in two opposing directions by the devas and asuras to extract Amrita, or the nectar of life from the Kshira Sagara. The name Kshira is tied to Mt. Mandara in the Puranas and perhaps survives in the name Shira peak of Mt. Mandara or Mt. Kilimandjaro.

More about the Sanskritic links to the name Tanzania and Tanganayika, and the role of the Puranic mapping of Africa in the discovery of the source of the Nile as described by explorer Captain John Hanning Speke who discovered (or rediscovered) the source of the Nile in a later post.

10. A map of Kilimanjaro and surrounding areas published by the Meyers Gazetteer in the 1800s. Places identified include Sanskritic names such as Girijama, Sapanga, Khiwa, Siwa and Usagara.

A map of Kilimanjaro and surrounding areas
published by the Meyers Gazetteer in the 1800s.
Places identified include Sanskritic names such as 
 Mandara, Girijama, Sapanga, Khiwa, Siwa and Usagara.

Links for reference:

1. Varaha Purana

2. Kilimanjaro Geology – Climbing Kilimanjaro (

3. The Origin Of The Name Kilimanjaro (

4. Varaha Purana – History of East Africa (

5.  Hindu Russia – Posts | Facebook

6. The Sanskrit Connection to the etymology of the names Niger and Nigeria

7. The Sanskritic Names of the rivers-of Kilimanjaro and Mt. Meru


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