Wednesday 4 November 2020

Bengaluru's linguistic diversity: What historical inscriptions tell us

Bengaluru’s diversity and cosmopolitanism has always been a part of the city’s character, something that goes back centuries.

Modern Bengaluru is easily among south India’s most cosmopolitan metropolitan cities, home to a diverse mix of ethnicities, each with their own customs, traditions, and languages. Of course, Bengaluru’s diversity notwithstanding, the city’s primary spoken language, lingua franca, and chief administrative language is Kannada, the state language of Karnataka, listed in the 2011 Census as the mother tongue of 44.62% of the city’s population.


This is the second lowest percentage of residents speaking the state language among all of south India’s capital cities after Telugu and Urdu speaking Hyderabad at 43.4%. 92% of Thiruvananthapuram speaks Malayalam and 78% of Chennai speaks Tamil Tamil is the second most spoken language in Bengaluru at 15.2%, followed by Telugu at 14% and Urdu (mostly in the form of Dakhni) at 12.11%.

Tamil and Urdu are concentrated in the Cantonment area, administered directly by the British Army before Independence. In public imagination, this is largely ascribed to the large influx of white collar migrants for IT work, with many Kannada nationalists blaming this low percentage of Kannada mother tongue speakers on recent migration - something that is ridiculously inaccurate, as older Census data shows.

If anything, Kannada speakers have increased their share in the city in the decades following independence, with migration from within what is now Karnataka - after the state of Karnataka was formed in 1956, Kannada speakers from all over the newly formed state, including North Karnataka, migrated to Bengaluru for public sector work and business.

Indeed, Bengaluru’s diversity and cosmopolitanism has always been a part of the city’s character, something that goes back centuries, as evidenced by the inscriptions found in the city.

Multilingual public spaces

Well up until the mid-1900s, public spaces in India were openly multilingual. After all, there was never an imaginary line that demarcated where one language would begin and the others, end. The choice of public language came as a response to the needs of local communities, and state officials usually recognised this.

Someshwara temple in Madiwala. Image credit: Udayakumar PL, The Inscription Stones of Bangalore

Bengaluru, as a multilingual urban settlement, was no different. Just as its population spoke various languages, its public spaces reflected this, communicating directly to local communities using languages that were part of their daily life, and not necessarily their mother tongue.

Bengaluru Cantonment in particular was quite distinct in its demographics. A primarily Tamil and Urdu speaking town, Kannada had a relatively weak presence there.

Of course, in 1956, with the emergence of linguistic states, all this changed.

A monolingual linguistic state was an entirely modern concept, novel to India, taken from developments in European nationalism. Kannada speaking areas across various political divisions were added to the core of Mysore State to form a Kannada linguistic state, renamed Karnataka in 1973.

Ranganathaswamy temple. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons/ Gopala Krishna A

Bengaluru’s public languages

In pre modern times, inscriptions formed the the most prominent manifestation of public language presence, albeit accessible only to a small literate minority. Kings, chieftains, and even local notables issued these inscriptions, broadcasting their message to the public at large.

In fact, according to Udayakumar PL of the citizen-led initiative Incredible Inscription Stones of Bengaluru, the city is home to at least 68 Kannada inscriptions, 58 Tamil inscriptions, and 7 Telugu inscriptions. In addition, over 8 Persian inscriptions have been found in the city, according to former Archeological Survey of India epigraphist, M Yaseen Quddusi. British-era inscriptions, especially in the Cantonment area mark the rise of another language in the city, one associated with progress and upward social mobility - English.

Naturally, political developments in the larger region - Bengaluru Urban and Rural districts, as well as Kolar and Krishnagiri districts - influenced language choice too.

Kadu Malleshwara temple. Image credit: Perumal Venkatesan, Sahapedia

Bengaluru’s inscriptions

Rather than an exhaustive list of the city’s inscriptions, it makes sense to highlight specimens in different languages, each corresponding to a development in the city’s history.

Bengaluru’s earliest inscription, the 890 CE Old Kannada inscription at Begur - near Electronic City - was issued under a feudatory of the Ganga kings, who ruled from Kolar. Incidentally, this inscription is also the oldest recorded mention of Bengaluru.

The Ganga kings issued Kannada inscriptions across much of South Karnataka, including at the Jain site of Shravanabelagola. These inscriptions form the oldest strata of Kannada inscriptions across the region.

In the following centuries, this region was frequently contested between the Ganga and Chola kings. The Tamil speaking Chola kings finally managed to rule over it, establishing their control over the region. During this time, Tamil became an important epigraphical language across the region, including in Bengaluru.

Beoparian mosque. Image credit: Karthik Malli

The early 13th century Chola era Someshwara temple in Madiwala, near Silk Board, dates back to this phase of Bengaluru’s history. The outer walls of the temple are covered in Old Tamil inscriptions, the earliest from 1247 CE. Interestingly, the inscriptions refer to Bengaluru as Vengalur, and the nearby neighborhood of Tavarekere as Tamiraikkirai.

The temple also features inscriptions issued under Hoysala rule, showing that Tamil continued to be used for inscriptions even under kings from the Kannada region. 


“Modern” Bengaluru

Following Kempe Gowda’s founding of the core of modern Bengaluru in 1537, Telugu became an important epigraphical language in the region, as one of the literary languages of his overlords - the Vijayanagara kings.

Indeed, an inscription from Chickpet’s 17th century Ranganathaswamy temple reflects this - issued by Kempe Gowda II, the son of Bengaluru’s founder, its text is in Telugu.

War memorial on Brigade Road. Image credit: Karthik Malli

Local languages continued to be respected, even following invasions by other Deccan states. After Bengaluru’s conquest by the Bijapur Sultanate, the city was granted to the Maratha chieftain Shahaji Bhonsle, father of Shivaji Bhonsle, as a jagir. 

Marathi began to be used locally for documents, as was custom across Bijapur, but local languages continued to be used as well.

A 1669 CE inscription from the Kadu Malleshwara temple in Malleswaram attests to this. Written in Kannada, the inscription was issued by Ekoji Bhonsle, son of Shahaji and half brother of Shivaji.

Inscriptions under colonialism

Inscriptions continued to be issued in Bengaluru, even after its conquest by the British. This was especially visible in Bengaluru Cantonment, a Tamil and Urdu speaking area ruled directly by the British Army.

Beoparian mosque, or Traders’ mosque, lies at the beginning of Shivajinagar’s bustling Commercial Street. At the entrance to the mosque’s prayer hall is a large stone slab, featuring a Persian inscription that records the construction of the mosque in 1829 CE, a mere 22 years after Bengaluru Cantonment was set up by the British.

As Muslim merchants began settling in the area to do business with British soldiers and officers, they erected houses of worship for the community. In the early 1800s, Persian was still an important community language for Muslims across the Deccan.

Mosques and other establishments carried Persian writing, as did official documents of the Mysore kings. Elsewhere in Bengaluru Cantonment, at the end of Brigade Road, stands a war memorial dedicated to British Army soldiers slain in World War I.

The text engraved on the cenotaph is in English and Tamil, the chief languages used among local soldiers. Signage As Indian society underwent overarching social change in the modern era, spread largely through the written word, the most public form of writing became signage, a medium accessible to a much wider audience, including the humble shopkeeper.

Just like medieval inscriptions before it, signage was made available in a wide variety of languages, generally following the same needs and motivations as these older epigraphical records. Bengaluru Cantonment widely used English, Tamil, and Urdu signage throughout most of the 20th century, even after independence, while in many of its British dominated areas English was the sole public written language to be found. With the establishment of linguistic states, Bengaluru became the capital of Kannada speaking Karnataka; its official language policy explicitly promoted Kannada, making it more visible in public spaces.

In fact, Bengaluru’s central MG Road only saw its first Kannada signage in the 1970s, something historian Janaki Nair recounts in her book on Bengaluru’s history, The Promise of the Metropolis. However, with Independence also came the Central government’s promotion of Hindi, which in many instances served as a form of homogenising cultural imposition, by privileging extensive public visibility for a language not widely used in local contexts in the south Indian states.

Naturally, such efforts have met with resistance as well. In 2017, following protests and a sustained campaign by local activists, the BMRCL removed Hindi signage from all Namma Metro stations in Bengaluru.

Inscriptions show the way

Just as we oppose state sponsored language imposition, we should be asking ourselves how to better acknowledge and identify local traditions and histories of multilingualism, the first step in representing this multilingualism better in our public spaces.

Bengaluru’s many languages are a key feature of its long history of cultural diversity, a tradition that has survived well into the 21st century and even taken new forms. As it turns out, in this particular regard, we can learn a lot from our past.

Luckily for us in Bengaluru, our history of linguistic cosmopolitanism is literally all around us, speaking to us through these centuries-old echoes of the past.

(Source: TNM)

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