Sunday, 10 July 2016


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. Others believe 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'. The 'gal' is close to the Sanskrit 'jala' meaning '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.
A strong challenge to the above theory is that 'Senegal' derives from 'Singhanah', a city described by the Arab historian al-Bakri in 1068. In his map the town of Singhanah is shown to be located by the mouth of the Senegal River, the city straddling both banks of the river Senegal. (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 al-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 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'. Sanghanah (सङ्घना) means 'condensation of water'. 

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, Gaya in Nigeria, another Gaya - in Niger, a Trikala in Greece, a Sangam in Sierra Leone; the towns of Kanika- Yamina- Gangu- Calimana on the river Niger and so on.... 

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'; another town on the river is named Ghanah (घन), Sanskrit for 'thick' or 'cloud', alternatively 'ghaNa' (गण) or 'tribe' etc.

The argument is not that the names have a meaning in Sanskrit. The question is why do these names not have a meaning in the local languages.

The Senegal was also known as the 'Sanaga'. There is  another river in Africa (in Cameroon) known as the 'Sanaga'. 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. 

There are other bits and pieces of interesting derivations from the Sanskrit point of view. However,  there is no 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' 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' is the Sanskrit word for 'lake' or 'spring'.
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