Mostly known for its exquisite seafood and pristine beaches, coastal Karnataka also boasts of some of the richest linguistic diversity in the entire state, something that is immediately apparent to anyone who travels along the coast.
No other city exemplifies this - and by extension, Karnataka’s own diversity as a state - better than Mangaluru, the largest city in all of coastal Karnataka, and the fifth largest city in Karnataka as a whole.
Mangaluru is the largest city in Karnataka where the primary spoken language is not Kannada, the official language of the state.
Mangaluru and Tulu
According to the 2011 Census, the most spoken language in Mangaluru at 39.2%, is Tulu, a South Dravidian language, directly related to Kannada, but also Malayalam, Tamil, Kodava, and the languages of the Nilgiris.
Tulu, a non-literary language that has been influenced by Kannada for centuries, is spoken by around 1.85 million people along a stretch of coast between the Chandragiri and Suvarna rivers, and west of the ghats. This cultural region, commonly called Tulu Nadu, roughly corresponds to Dakshina Kannada district and most of Udupi district in Karnataka, and the Kasaragod and Manjeshwar taluks of Kasaragod district in Kerala.
Mangaluru, its largest city, is the political capital of Dakshina Kannada district, and also the unofficial but de facto cultural and economic capital of Tulu Nadu, from Udupi to Kasaragod. Under the British, Mangaluru was the capital of undivided South Canara district, from Kundapura to Hosdurg (now in Kerala); local economies in the region were oriented towards the bustling port city of Mangaluru, and people would travel from all over for its public institutions and markets.
Although Tulu is not a standardised language, the northern dialect of the language, local to Mangaluru, has emerged as the ‘prestige’ variety of Tulu, thanks to the city’s importance and stature.
However, as much as Mangaluru is identified with Tulu, it would be incomplete to leave it at that. Looking at language data from the 2011 Census paints a fascinating picture. In addition to Tulu, Mangaluru’s linguistic makeup includes Konkani (16.41%), Kannada (15.11%), Malayalam (6.4%), and “others” (13.12%). The “others” category most likely refers to Byari, a language closely related to Malayalam, spoken by most local Muslims.
Mangaluru’s many languages form an essential part of its identity; this is reflected in the fact that the city is known by a different name in each of its languages. Kuḍla, the Tulu name for Mangaluru, is used by most of its population, as well as across the whole of Tulu Nadu itself. In addition to Kuḍla, Mangaluru is called Koḍiyāl in Konkani, Maikāla in Byari, Mangaḷūru in Kannada, Mangalāpuram in Malayalam, and Mangalore in English (although the Kannada name was made official in English too, in 2014). Each name reflects its own history of the city, and the ways different communities have inhabited it.
For example, Mangaḷūru and Mangalāpuram refer to the city’s medieval era Mangala Devi temple. Both names, along with Mangalāpura in Sanskrit, were used to refer to the city in Vijayanagara inscriptions across Tulu Nadu, and would have been the names known to foreign travelers and merchants as well. The famous Moroccan traveler Ibn Battuta visited Mangaluru in 1342, and referred to the city as Manjarūr, its name in Arabic records (Arabic lacks the g sound).
According to the Tulu Lexicon, Kuḍla means “a confluence of two rivers”, referring to the meeting of the Gurupura and Nētravati rivers near the Mangala Devi temple. Byari Maikāla is likely a reference to the city’s early Buddhist history.
As you walk through Mangaluru, from neighborhood to neighborhood, the languages you hear around you change, flowing effortlessly from one into another, often mixing and finding themselves sharing common spaces. People switch from language to language based on who they’re talking to, where they are, what they need, and even just to mutter to themselves.
As the primary written language across Tulu Nadu, Kannada serves an important role in the city’s linguistic transactions. When Konkani or Tulu speakers read literature or even write community records, they use Standard Kannada without any inherent sense of contradiction. Different communities - and by extension different languages - occupy different spaces in the city, playing different roles.
Mangaluru and modern Kannada print literature
As a part of Karnataka, Mangaluru’s primary official language is Kannada, the written language used across Tulu Nadu. Kannada is learned by most locals as an additional language. Kannada print culture was born in Mangaluru, under the aegis of the Basel mission and its missionaries. The most notable of these, Ferninand Kittel, compiled the first Kannada-English dictionary in 1894. The first Kannada newspaper, Mangalura Samachara, was published from Mangaluru in 1843.
As the region’s written language, Kannada was the language local intellectuals turned to, to express their dreams for a modern, independent India; a Karnataka that could hold its own in a rapidly changing world. They experimented with new forms and styles in the language, contributing greatly to a rapidly growing corpus of modern Kannada literature, often firmly rooted in Tulu Nadu’s coastal surroundings and its cultural milieu.
The first rashtrakavi (national poet) of Kannada, Manjeshwara Govind Pai, grew up in Mangaluru and spent almost all his life in Tulu Nadu.
Unfortunately, despite how vital Mangaluru’s linguistic diversity is to its identity and culture, it does not enjoy the level of support it should. Government services are only available in Kannada and English; Tulu, the language of the masses, is conspicuously absent in this sphere. Although it is true that locals speak Kannada anyway, this is hardly reason enough to exclude Tulu.
State support for Mangaluru’slanguages is limited to the funding of various Sahitya Akademis, including one each for Tulu, Byari, and Konkani. These Sahitya Akademis publish various books on these languages, in Kannada, English, as well as the source language itself. They also organise literary events and conduct some limited level of outreach to speakers. While encouraging, these institutions only scratch the surface; Mangaluru’s languages deserve a lot more active funding and attention, given how important they are. Mangaluru has contributed eagerly to Kannada and Karnataka, and it deserves the support of the state and local intellectuals in developing its own unique literary and cultural heritage.
Mangaluru and multilingualism
Mangaluru and its languages offer us an alternative way of looking at diversity in India, showing us how multilingualism can function healthily, without threatening the integrity of a political entity. People can - and do - use multiple languages for different purposes, and institutions should acknowledge, and actively support this. Although most people do not speak the state language as their mother tongue, they choose Kannada as their written language and balance multiple languages in their daily lives.
Here, more than arguably anywhere else in south India, multilingualism is a very real aspect of daily life, one that is navigated and negotiated effortlessly. Mangaluru’s many languages deserve official recognition, active state support, and a framework to sustain and expand their linguistic and literary development. Resources and archives can be digitised, and citizens made more aware of their rich linguistic heritage.
Likely in an effort to recognise this, the Karnataka government has pushed for Tulu to be made an official Scheduled language. It remains to be seen how this move will fare, however. Mangaluru’s own society can serve as a shining example of how multilingualism, when tended to and cultivated, can expand the boundaries of our cosmopolitanism.
Karthik Malli is a Bengaluru-based communications professional with a keen interest in language, history, and travel. He tweets at @SandalBurn, and posts on Indian languages at @TianChengWen.