Monday, 6 August 2012


In Gambia life centres around the river Gambia after which the country is named. Many theories have been postulated regarding the origin and the meaning of the name Gambia but none are satisfactory.

One theory says Gambia is a Portuguese corruption of the local word Ba-Dimma, meaning river. 
Some other sources say that the river´s name comes from the Portuguese word cambio, meaning exchange, or trade, but the name Gambara predates the arrival of the Portuguese or any known significant trade between the two countries. However, the ancient name of the river is not Ba - Dimma. 

As recorded in their book, "An Universal History: From the Earliest Accounts to the Present Times ...', Part 2, Volume 14 compiled by George Sale, George Psalmanazar, Archibald Bower, George Shelvocke, John Campbell, John Swinton in 1781 from local sources, it is stated about the name of river Gambia, " .. it is commonly known as Gambia to the Englishman, which in fact is a corruption of Gambra, this we shall retain....". Gambra has no meaning in the local languages.

However far-fetched it might appear, the fact remains that no other language decodes the meaning of the name Gambara better than Sanskrit. 'Gamb' (गम्ब्) is 'go or move', 'Gambara' means that which is 'going, moving or flowing'.

Gambara is not the only Sanskritic name in Gambia. There are many other place names in Gambia that seem to have Sanskritic origins, a very common suffix for place names is 'kunda'. The largest city in Gambia is Sere Kunda. Two places around the Gambia river are named Tambakunda and Dembakunda (also spelled as 'Counda'). 
In the local Mandinka language 'kunda' is said to mean 'place', but this may be the watered down meaning of the original word which probably had links to Sanskrit. 

In India 'kunda' is a common suffix for places - especially ones that are located on a hill or close to water-bodies, 'kunda' (कुन्डा) is Sanskrit for 'hill' and 'kund' (कुन्ड्) means 'pool'.  Gambia is a country of flat-topped hills that alternate with valleys or depressions, and the Sanskrit meaning of 'kund' and 'kunda' appears more apt. Besides the suffix 'kunda' appears in many place names in Africa and has no common meaning in languages spoken in these regions.

Here we may look at some of the pre-fixes attached to the word 'kunda' in Gambian place names. The prefixes too should have a meaning. One of them is 'manas' - as in  Mansa-kunda located in the region of Kumb close to Gambara river. This names appear in the well known map by Captain John Leach dated to 1732. Commonly, 'Manasa' (मानस) means 'with your heart or willingly' in Sanskrit, but the same word also means 'dwelling on a lake'. For example there is the Manasbal lake in Kashmir. 'Kumbh' (कुम्भ) means 'water carrier'. 'Manas' and 'Kumb' have no meaning in the local languages of Gambia and other languages spoken in the region. The prefix Sere in Sere Kunda  maybe derived from 'shir'(शिर) meaning 'head' or 'top most'. 'Kunda' may be a distortion of sanskrit 'khanda' (खंड), Sanskrit for 'piece'. 

A Map of the River Gambara by Captain John Leach dated 1732

It may seem implausible that Gambia, which is so far away from India should have so many place names which have a link to Sanskrit. But many scholars have made this observation and found it to be true in their research. In his book, "Oriental Fragments" which was published in the 1850's, author and researcher Edward Moor wrote, "It may be doubted if all of France, Germany, Russia, England, Italy, could furnish so many places with Indian names ....... as may be gathered from Africa".

He states, "Jonaka-kunda, Tendi-Kunda, Koota-kunda, Tatti-konda, Barra-konda,Seesekund, Maria-counda, Tandacunda, Fatte-kunda, Mauraconda. On these class of names what I have said before touching kunda, a hill, and kund, a pool or lake applies here and may suffice. Such terminations are common in India, and are almost always I believe, found attached to hills or pools, or to their immediate vicinity. Some instance I will note: Golconda; or as I conjecture Kalkunda, Gurumkonda, Ganeshkunda, Kailkunda, Inaconda... Penekunda, Curacunda. Many others might be added..... I am deposed to refer them all to the Sanskrit Kund or Kunda...". Click here for more about his views on 'kund' and 'kunda'.

There are other examples of Indic names in Gambia which includes Janjunbureh. In the old maps of Gambia the name was written as Jajenbureh - a close cognate of the Sanskrit 'Jayan-Puri'. 'Jayan' is 'victory' (जयन), 'puri (पुरी) is a very common Sanskrit word, the equivalent of 'place, town, city'.

The antique maps of Gambia list some other very interesting names which have now vanished from the geography of Gambia. One example a river by the name Kabata - probably a distortion of Sanskrit 'kavan' (कवन) meaning 'water'.

A section of Captain John Leach's map of the Gambara River dated 1732. 
The River Gambara flows through the region of Kumb close to Manaskunda in Gambia.  Gambara, Kumb and Manaskunda are all Sanskrit words.

Another section of Captain John Leach's map of the Gambara River dated 1732. 
Here the River Gambara flows through the region of Yami.  The Tributaries that flow here are called the Sanjalli and Indea . Sanjalli is a Sanskrit word.

Click on the map below to get a clearer view:

Suggested Readings:

1. Oriental Fragments - by Edward Moor
2. Mandinka.pdf
3. An Universal History: From the Ancient to the Present
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