Karnataka: a 50-year-old name, centuries of legacy

Today marks the golden jubilee of renaming the state Karnataka from erstwhile Mysore

Propelled by the Karnataka Ekikarana movement and decades of protests, all Kannada-speaking regions outside the Mysore Princely State were unified into one State on November 1, 1956. However, the newly-banded State was named Mysore, and not Karnataka, the journey to which would take almost another decade-and-a-half. 

“Even after the Karnataka Ekikarana movement, it continued to be called Mysore. Those of us in the Opposition, including leaders like A.J. Doddameti, K.H. Patil, Gopal Gowda, and myself, put up a vociferous fight for renaming the State,” says former MLA and Kannada activist Vatal Nagaraj, reminiscing about the day when a unanimous resolution was passed in the Legislative Assembly of Mysore on 27 July, 1972. 

“Before D. Devaraj Urs became the Chief Minister, he was strongly opposed to the renaming and resisted any such proposal. But when he came to power, we tried to persuade him. We told him that he was no longer a mere politician, but the Chief Minister of a State, the elected representative of a people, who want the Mysore State to be renamed Karnataka, and he agreed,” Mr. Nagaraj recalled. 

During the Legislative Assembly debate between July 25 and 27, 1972, Mr. Urs put forth the proposal in the Legislature.

The resolution was enacted by Parliament a year later on 21 August, 1973, through the Mysore State (Alteration of Name) Act, 1973. 

Thus it was that 17 years after the unification, the Mysore State became Karnataka on November 1, 1973. Today marks 50 years since that historic decision.

Etymological origins  

Even before the Karnataka Ekikarana movement gained steam towards the end of the 19th century, the words ‘Karṇaata’, ‘Karnataka’ and ‘Kannada’ had been used on several occasions by poets, writers, and historians to address this region.  

Most definitively, the word ‘Karnataka’ finds a place in the second line of Kuvempu’s Jai Bharata Jananiya Tanujaate, written in 1924 and adopted as the State anthem in 2004. 

The oldest known mention, however, is found in the Sanskrit Mahabharata, dating back to approximately the 6th century BC, says Purushottam Bilimale, pofessor of language and culture studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University.

“The word Karṇaataah is used to refer to the place from where a battalion of soldiers had come to fight the Kurukshetra war,” he explains.  

There are also geographical bases to the etymology. “In Tamil, ‘karu’ means mountain and ‘naatu’ means a village or town. The Deccan plateau is at an elevation compared to Tamil Nadu. Thus, the word ‘Karnaata’ could have meant an ‘elevated land or higher ground’,” he adds. 

Furthermore, in the 1930s, scholar Sham. Ba. Joshi traced Karnataka to Kannaru, a community of pastoralists that existed in this region.

S.K. Aruni, Regional Director at ICHR, also mentions Kalabara or Kalavara, the earliest pastoral people from the Bengaluru-Mysore region.  

“The pastoral community was very rich and owned an abundance of cattle. Therefore, it can be argued that they also owned large tracts of land, and thus were very influential,” Dr. Aruni says.

Another popular theory, espoused by German linguist Hermann Gundert, says the name comes from ‘Kari (or Karu) Naadu’, an allusion to the black soil found in the State, crucial for cotton cultivation.

Interestingly, Kari also means elephant and could point to the fact that the region was once home to many elephants, says Dr. Aruni.

In the 15th century, poet Kumara Vyasa wrote  Karṇaata Bharata Kathamanjari, the first Kannada rendering of the Mahabharata. “Till colonial powers took over, the land was mostly known as Karṇaata. Post the 19th century, it became Karnataka and one is not sure why,” says Prof. Bilimale.

However, historians argue that the Vijayanagara Empire, founded in 1336, has been called as ‘Karnataka Desha’ in some inscriptions. 

Though the etymology of ‘Karnataka’ can be traced to multiple origins, researchers agree that each encompasses the history, the culture, the language, the people, the geography, and the way of life.

Sources: https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/bangalore/karnataka-a-50-year-old-name-centuries-of-legacy/article66077277.ece

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