Zimbabwe is a landlocked country located in Southern Africa, between the Zambezi and Limpopo Rivers, bordered by South Africa, Botswana, Zambia and Mozambique. The capital and largest city is Harare. The second largest is Bulawayo.

The etymology of the name Zimbabwe:

It is said that the name Zimbabwe  stems from a Shona term for Great Zimbabwe, an ancient city in Zimbabwe whose remains are now a protected site. Two different theories address the origin of the word. Many sources hold that Zimbabwe derives from dzimba-dza-mabwe, translated from the Karanga dialect of Shona as houses of stones. Archaeologist Peter Garlake claims that Zimbabwe represents a contracted form of dzimba-hwe, which means ‘venerated houses’ in the Zezuru dialect of Shona. 

The name Zimbabwe was first recorded in 1531 by Vincente Pegado captain of the Portuguese garrison of Sofala. Pegado noticed, “The natives of the country called the edifices Symbaoe, which according to their language signifies ‘court'”. 

But why would any monument or a sacred place be called ‘court’ or ‘place’.  It just might be that though the place name of these edifices was Symbaoe, its meaning was lost, and the explorers equated the word with the closest cognate in the Shona language, in this case ‘symbaoe’ (now written as ‘nzvimbo’) meaning ‘place’.  

Most likely Symbaoe held an entirely different meaning, a meaning more descriptive, a meaning that would shed light on what the purpose of the edifice was, why the site was held sacred if at all, what gods were worshipped there and what rituals were performed. 

The Sanskrit decode of the name Zimbabwe:

To find an answer to these questions, one may look at the ancient names of the rivers and mountains of Zimbabwe and see if one can find any leads in their meanings.

The Luvale and Lunda people call the river Zambezi as Yambeji which it is said means ‘place of plenty of water’. Both the names, that is Zambezi or Yambeji contain the Sanskrit root word ‘ambu’ (अम्बु) meaning ‘water’, which appears in the names of many other African rivers, such as the Ngomberi and the Umbwe rivers in Tanzania, Lake Amboseli in Kenya, the Anambara in Nigeria, the Gambara in Gambia and so forth. Perhaps there was a Sanskrit, and therefore Indian link.

The river Limpopo, it is said, gets its name from Rivombo , a group of Tsonga settlers led by one Hosi Rivombo who settled in the mountainous vicinity and named the area after their leader. But since Rivombo also contains the root word ‘ambh’ in the form ‘ombo’, it is more likely that the leader got the name from the river rather than the other way around.

Lunde River, now called Runde, is a river in southeastern Zimbabwe rising at Gweru in the Highveld and flowing southeast to Hippo Valley at the confluence with the Shashe River, also called Shashi River. It joins the Sabi River near the Chivirigo (Chivirira) Falls at the Mozambique border.

None of the above names have any meaning in the local Shona language. But since the language displays some similarity to Sanskrit especially in certain categories of words such as those pertaining to nature, or to those of rivers and mountains, of spiritual practices and rituals of worship, it may be worth one’s while to examine some of these names to see if there indeed was a connect with Indic culture and Sanskrit. 

The Sanskrit-Shona affinity:

An examination of Sanskrit words whose close cognates, especially those with the same meaning exist in the Shona language of Zimbabwe, reveals that some of these Shona words do not even need any tweaking, and sound exactly the same as in Sanskrit. Some others are a slight variation of their Sanskrit equivalents. Others have an added syllable, and in yet some others a syllable or more may be dropped to arrive at the same meaning. Examples of some such words are listed below:

    English          Sanskrit                 Shona
1. Worship        namah                    namata

2. Rain               varsha                   mvura
3. Water            var                         mvura


4.  River            vari                        rwizi, rvizi
5. Universe       akasha                   zvakasikwa
6. Sun               suvar                      zuva
7. Conscious     jiva                         kuziva
8. Important    avashayaka            zvakakosha
9. Enlighten     uddyotakara           vehenkera
10.  Illuminating uddyotakara       kuvehenkara
11. Self-

consciousness  ahamkara              kuzviziva
12. age             jira, jara                 zera
13. Lion            simha                     shumba

14. Energy                                       simba

15. passion      kunta                      kuda

16. anger         hanusha                  hasha

17. speak                                         taura

18. confluence  sangama                sangana

19. Ocean          gangadhara           gungwa

20. Colour         ranga, varna          ruvara


21. Crocodile    graha                      garve

22. cow             mahiluka                mhou

23. congrega-   sangha                     ungano 

       tion            sangathan

24. wake up     utha                        uka

25. rise             utha                        simuka

26. high            uccha                      udya

27. song           rava                        rwiyo

28. string         tantu                       tambo

29. snake         naga                        nyoko

30. corner        kona                        kona

31. tortoise      kurma                     kamba

The Sanskrit Source of Zimbabwean River names:

In the light of the above, a Sanskrit decode of  the names of Zimbabwe rivers, such as Lunde, Runde, Sanyati, Shangani, Gavya, Ruvanya, Chiredazi, Odzi and Shashe  is warranted.

1. The names Lunde and Runde are explained by Sanskrit ‘rundhve’ (रुन्ध्वे) ‘move’, or ‘lainati’ (लैणति) ‘go’, or ‘luthath’ (लुठत्) ‘trickling or rolling’.

2. Sanyati, can be explained by ‘sanyati’ (संयति) means ‘wander’, ‘travel’, or ‘go’.

3. Shangani, is explained by ‘sangani, (संगनि) ‘that which flows along’.

4. Gavya, from ‘gavya’  (गव्य) ‘cows milk’.

5. Ruvanya, from ‘ruvanya’ (रुवण्य), ‘loud’, ‘roaring’.

6. Chiredazi, the prefix is Chire, and can be explained by ‘sira’ (सिरा) ‘water’.

7. Odzi, from ‘odan’ (ओदन) ‘cloud.

8. The name of Shashi river can be explained by ‘shashi’ (शशि) or moon, of which Lord Shiva is the lord. The Shashi river flows into the Sabi and hence Sabi maybe a distortion of Shiva.

The lore of Shiva in Zimbabwe:

The lore of Shiva and the worship of lingam was not unknown in Zimbabwe. In the Encyclopedia of Religions, author J. R. Farlong quotes James Theodore Bent, (1852-1897), British explorer and archaeologist who excavated the ruined site called Zimbabwe (dzimbahwe; i.e., stone houses, or chiefs’ graves) in the land of the Shona people in Zimbabwe. 

Description of Zimababwe Ruins by Theodore Bent:

Theodore Bent specifically had examined what is known as the Great Zimbabwe Ruins. His work was first noticed in the Times of August 1891,where it was stated about the Great Zimbabwe Ruins, “The walled enclosure 260 yards round, containing many phallic emblems, is regarded as a temple”.

In his article ‘On the Finds at the Great Zimbabwe Ruins’, J. Theodore Bent describes the temple ruins and states,” In the centre of the temple stood an altar, into the stones of which were inserted, and also scattered around a large number of soapstone objects, representing in different forms and shapes the male organ of generation….One is naturally anxious to reject as suspicious  any reference to phallic worship, unless there is ample  proof to substantiate it; in this case however, the facts are too obvious to admit of denial.”

Layout of Great Zimbabwe Temple
as given by  Theodore Bent

Research by J.G.R. Farlong:

J. G R. Farlong states further adds, “Therefore, at Zimbabwe, as in India are seen phallic pillars surmounted by birds, which denote the divine soul (lingam) or spirit of the Creator…Before such stones the Sivaites worship offering flowers and grains. Mr. Bent says that the lingams, and sacrificial stones, at Zimbabwe, are both hewn and unhewn.”

Quoting E.P Mathers, a London journalist who edited the weekly newspaper “South Africa“ and who had written one of the best accounts of the Matabeland, Mashonaland and the gold fields of British South Africa contained in his book ‘Zambezia, England’s El Dorado in Africa’, J.G.R Farlong further states in his Encyclopedia of Religions, “Mr. Mathers relates that various missionaries had already described the Zimbabwe ruins which lie along the base of a mountain in the valley of the Lunde river 15 miles east of Fort Victoria. The mountain rises in huge cones – natural phalli -and was evidently a sacred site.” 

Explorer Dr. Heinreich Schlichter’s research:

Zimbabwe explorer Dr. Heinreich Schlichter had observed in 1897 that the stones of the Zimbabwe shrines were unhewn, and skillfully laid without mortar. He had come to the conclusion from his observations that nature worship took place in the interior of the Lunde Valley ruins and that it was a holy place.” Dr. Schlichter came to the same conclusion about the ruins of Mombo located a short distance north of Bulawayo.

Sir H.H. Johnston’s Research:

Sir H.H.Johnston states in his ‘Races of the Congo Journal, Anthropological Institute, May 1884, states that, “Phallic worship increasingly prevails. Everywhere in plains and forests I find strange temples with the phallic symbol; but the worship seems to be conducted without any obscene rites. The sexual organs are held in high reverence exactly as in India.”

All the above researchers had come to the conclusion that the Zimbabwe stone structures were perhaps constructed by a people not indigenous to Zimbabwe thought they differed on who those people might have been. They had speculated that perhaps the Arabs or the Phoenicians might have been responsible for the construction of the stone structures of Zimbabwe.

Indic researches have long put forth the view that the Phoenicians were the Pani of the Rig Veda, a community of traders who was driven out of India during the Vedic era itself. They were great sailors too and had established many cities and towns in the middle east and in Africa and as far away as Latin America.

The prevalence of a large number of ancient names of rivers and mountains with Sanskrit and Tamil etymologies lends credence to the theory that Panis (Phoenicians) from India, and traders and sailors from south of India established their homes in many parts of Africa.

The name Shona’ itself has been linked to the Sanskrit/Hindi ‘suvarna’ and ‘sona’ both meaning ‘gold’. The literal transalation of the Sanskrit ‘suvarna’ is ‘good colour’ (su+varna) where ‘varna’ means colour, similar to Shona  ‘ruvara’ meaning ‘colour’.

In his book ‘Indo-Africa: Towards a New Understanding of the History of Sub-Saharan Africa’, author Cyril Andrews Hromnik , states that ‘Shona’ in the name Mashonaland is of Indian origin, where ‘sona’ mean gold. Mashonaland is an area in northern Zimbabwe and was known for its gold mines. It still is rich in gold. Gold prospecting people from India in ancient times are said to have travelled to Zimbabwe and South Africa in their quest for gold.

In India the deity Shiva, also called ‘Shmbhu’, ‘Sambha’ or ‘Shambawe’ is represented by  and worshipped as a phallic symbol and known as the ‘linga’ or ‘lingam’. It may therefore well be that when Vincente Pegado visited the Great Zimbabwe ruins in 1531 and was told by the the natives that the site with the conical towers was known as Symbaoe, the name may have already corrupted to Symbaoe from its earlier name Shambawe, the name of Shiva, represented by the conical towers, or ‘lingas’ at the Symbaoe site.

The Great Zimbabwe Stone site
after which the country is named.
The site was earlier called Symbaoe which
is the same as Shambhu of the Hindus.
The word for worship  too is the same in the Sanskrit and Shona languages which is ‘namah’ or ‘bow’.

Shiva and Shambhu, and variations of these two names appear frequently on the map of Zimbabwe. Place names include Shamva, Shamwari, and Shamba. Then there are Shiva Hills and Shivare Hill. There is the Shimbagwe river. Again, there is the Chivi region in Mashonaland area.

Further Readings:
1. The origins of the word Shona | Celebrating Being 

2. Zimbabwean (thepatriot.co.zw)Comments on Indo – African 

3. Temples | Sabie, Mpumalanga, South Africaecho: Origins of

4. Islam: Godess Allat (fishcalledsanda.blogspot).
Phoenician Gold Mines of Zimbabwe (Rhodesia)


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