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Kannada Rajyotsava 2023 | Fifty years of ‘Karnataka’

Kannada Rajyotsava | Karnataka — A name lost and found over millennia

The etymological and historical roots of the word ‘Karnataka’ have been a matter of debate among scholars

November 01, 2023 07:20 am | Updated November 11, 2023 06:39 pm IST - Bengaluru

Schoolchildren performing at the backdrop of the Indian flag and Karnataka flag, during the 67th Kannada Rajyotsava celebrations, at the Kanteerava Stadium in Bengaluru on November 1, 2022.

Schoolchildren performing at the backdrop of the Indian flag and Karnataka flag, during the 67th Kannada Rajyotsava celebrations, at the Kanteerava Stadium in Bengaluru on November 1, 2022. | Photo Credit: K. Murali Kumar

The State being named Karnataka, signifying the Kannada speaking region, was a dream from the times of the unification struggle that bore fruit only in 1973. Historians and linguistic scholars date the name “Karnataka”, or its earlier forms as referring to this region, to the Before Common Era (BCE). It was used not only as a name for this region, but also to describe the language spoken here. Both Karnataka and Kannada, have common etymology, scholars opine. 

“One of the earlier references is in the Sanskrit Mahabharata (6th century BCE) while listing out various janapadas. It’s referred to as ‘Karnaataaha’ in Sabha Parva and ‘Karnatikaaha’ in Bhishma Parva. References to the word have been noted by scholars in Shudraka’s Mricchakatika (4th century CE), Varahamihira’s Kathasaritsagara (6th Century CE) as well,” said Kannada scholar and linguist Purushothama Bilimale. 

Etymology of the word

Another Kannada scholar Basavaraj Kalgudi said the word was a compound word of ‘Kar’ or ‘Kal’ and ‘Nadu’ or ‘Natu’. “While Nadu or Natu means a region, Kar and Kal mean black and water, respectively. To this the suffix ‘ka’ is added. So the word probably describes the attributes of this region as a land of black soil or a land of abundant water. If we analyse literary sources, including inscriptions, most of them where the word Karnata or Karnataka is used are from Central and North Karnataka of today. This is the region which has black cotton soil and is a fertile land of many rivers. Meanwhile, Mysore region was probably called Mahishanadu or Eramai Nadu, as it is mentioned in medieval Tamil poetry. This region was probably called so because of the prevalence of wild buffaloes in the region,” he said.

Historical use of word

However, historians argue that during several phases in history, land encompassing the present day Karnataka and many regions beyond the modern state’s boundaries were included in empires whose identities were linked to Kannada or Karnataka.

Devara Konda Reddy, president, Karnataka Itihasa Academy, said Kavirajamarga describes the boundaries of ‘Kannada Nadu’ as “kaveriyindamaa godavariyavaramirda naadadaa kannadodal bhaavisida janapadam.” Immadi Pulikeshi had expanded the empire till river Narmada, further up north to Godavari. The Vijayanagara Empire, which was in fact called Karnataka Samrajya, had river Krishna as its northern boundary but went down south further beyond today’s modern State boundaries. 

Karnataka Samrajya

Historian Vasundhara Filliozat has argued that what we now know as the  Vijayanagara Empire was in fact called the ‘Karnataka Samrajya’. Ms. Filliozat said Vijayanagara was the name of the capital, while several contemporary epigraphic and literary sources clearly say the empire was called Karnataka Samrajya.

For instance, an inscription from Srishailam praises King Harihara II of the empire as “Karnāṭarājyalakṣmīkarṇāvataṃsa” (the ornament in the ears of Karnata Rajya Lakshmi). The inscription dates back to CE 1405. Another Jain inscription in Kuppaturu in Soraba taluk, Shivamogga district, from CE 1408 mentions ‘Karnatakadesam’. In another Jain inscription from Bhatkal dating back to CE 1430, the then king Devaraya II is described among other adjectives as “Karṇāṭadesada mahārājadhāni Vijayānagarada puravarādhīsvara”, clearly indicating VIjayanagar was the capital while empire was called “Karnatadesa” or “Karnataka Samrajya.” These, she said, were only a few examples and there were several contemporary sources indicating the same. 

This is significant as the 14th-17th century empire played an emotional role during the State’s unification struggle, as is evident from the writings of noted writer and unification activist Aluru Venkata Rao, who describes the fall of the empire as the fall of the Kannada world, as he says this was the last time that all the Kannada speaking regions were under one rule, pushing for its reunification again as the linguistic state of Karnataka. 

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