Known for its architectural wonders, including UNESCO World Heritage sites, North Karnataka’s living cultural heritage is equally rich, but receives less attention.

An aerial view of Belgavi with an Indian flag flyingPTI
Features Culture Wednesday, March 17, 2021 - 12:51

The Kannada dialects of North Karnataka are instantly recognisable to most Kannada speakers for their distinctive features. Unfortunately, these dialects are largely accorded low linguistic prestige by Kannada speakers from other parts of the state.

North Karnataka is also marked by the presence of large linguistic minorities, especially along the borders of the state. These minority communities have their own linguistic and literary traditions, part of the region’s long and storied cultural history.

Recognised for its architectural wonders, including the UNESCO World Heritage sites of Hampi and Pattadakal, North Karnataka’s living cultural heritage is equally rich and vibrant, but receives considerably less attention.

Kannada dialects

North Karnataka has a special place in the history of Kannada. Some of the earliest extant Kannada inscriptions are from this region, issued by the Chalukyas of Badami, who ruled from their capital in modern Bagalkot district. 

The Chalukyas of Kalyana, based in modern Bidar district, were especially prolific in this regard, with hundreds of inscriptions in Kannada forming an important part of their cultural legacy.

North Karnataka was also the cradle of the medieval Virashaiva movement, which — among other contributions — produced an outpouring of devotional verse in Kannada, establishing an entirely novel literary form in the language.

During the growth of nationalism in India, Dharwad, then a city part of Bombay Presidency, emerged as the birthplace of Kannada linguistic nationalism.

Rather than one dialect, North Karnataka has a number of subregional dialects, broadly corresponding to the coast, the northwest region, and the northeast region. While these dialects have their own features, there are some that are common to North Karnataka as a whole.

Some of the more prominent linguistic features of North Karnataka Kannada include deleting the final a sound at the end of words, and the shift of the final e sound to i, as in mani (“house”, pronounced mane in other regions). The long e vowel has also shifted to y followed by ae (pronounced like the a in English cat), giving byaeḍa instead of beḍa (“don’t want”).

Many words used in North Karnataka Kannada dialects are not current elsewhere, and verbs conjugate slightly differently as well.

In addition, an important linguistic feature of these Kannada dialects is the influence of other languages on them.

Marathi

Another conspicuous linguistic feature of North Karnataka Kannada is the frequent usage of Marathi loanwords for a range of concepts, places, relationships, and objects, including khōli (room), kākā (paternal uncle), khānāvaḷi (a mess serving meals), and more.

Rural Kannada speakers in districts along the border with Maharashtra often use Marathi numbers while counting in Kannada, especially larger numbers like 50 and 100 (pannās and shambhar, instead of aivattu and nooru).

Naming conventions influenced by those in Marathi, including the usage of Marathi surnames like Patil and Deshpande, are also common across North Karnataka.

These linguistic influences are largely a legacy of centuries of Maratha and Deccan Sultanate rule over the region, when Marathi was used as an administrative and cultural language. Later, what is now northwest Karnataka was part of British-era Bombay Presidency, and Marathi continued to play a role in the region’s cultural life.

In fact, the early stirrings of Kannada nationalism in Dharwad were heavily influenced by ideas being articulated and published in Marathi, further north in British Bombay and Pune. 

Bal Gangadhar Tilak’s Marathi newspaper, Kesari, was widely read by local intellectuals. Local Kannada writers, including Girish Karnad (who studied in Dharwad), were also influenced by Marathi literature.

Besides this, large Marathi speaking minorities are found in the districts of Bijapur, Gulbarga, Bidar, and of course, Belagavi. These communities form especially large minorities in parts of the latter two districts, and even form the majority in certain towns and villages. Depending on how the city is delineated, Belagavi city has either a plurality or a majority of Marathi speakers.

The Marathi speaking population of Belagavi district’s border taluks and the city of Belagavi itself have organised around unification with Maharashtra, giving rise to political tensions in the city and the district.

Telugu at Vijayanagara

Districts along North Karnataka’s border with Andhra Pradesh and Telangana also have significant Telugu speaking minorities in certain taluks and towns, especially in Raichur and Bidar.

Vijayanagara, the capital city of the Vijayanagara Empire (now the ruins of Hampi in Ballari district) was a major center for Telugu literature in its time. The reign of Krishnadevaraya (1509-29) in particular is often considered a golden age for Telugu writing —  not only did the Emperor patronise iconic works of Telugu literature such as Allasani Peddanna’s Manu Charitramu, but he also composed one, Āmuktamālyada, himself.

During the growth of linguistic nationalism, Ballari was contested by both the Telugu and Kannada camps. In the 1956 reorganisation of states, the town —  and most of the district —  was eventually awarded to what was then Mysore state.

Uttara Kannada's languages

Much like the rest of Karnataka’s coast, the northern coastal district of Uttara Kannada is home to numerous linguistic minorities. Local Kannada dialects in the district show features of both North Karnataka Kannada but also Coastal Karnataka Kannada, overlapping and marking their geographical origin.

At the southernmost tip of the district is the town of Bhatkal, largely populated by speakers of Nawayati, a language similar to Konkani, written in the Arabic script. Further north, the port towns of Karwar and Honnavar are recorded as majority Konkani speaking in the Census, while other towns like Sirsi have large Konkani minorities. 

Konkani has been an important element in Karwar’s modern history. The town was the site of early Konkani activism, even hosting the first ever Konkani Parishad in 1939.

The Siddis of Uttara Kannada, a community descended from escaped Portuguese-era African slaves and concentrated in the forested taluks of the district, largely speak Konkani as well. Uttara Kannada also hosts a large Tibetan refugee community, centered around the Mundgod Tibetan Colony.

Persian inscriptions

Over three centuries of rule by the Deccan Sultanates left its unmistakable mark on the region as well. Gulbarga, Bijapur, and Bidar, all in North Karnataka, served as the capitals of these Sultanates, giving the region a high concentration of Persian inscriptions from this period. Many of these commemorate and record major events in Deccan history, including the establishment of the Bahmani Sultanate in Gulbarga.

Of course, Persian was never widely spoken anywhere in south India, but these historical records are integral to understanding North Karnataka’s history, or indeed the history of the Deccan itself. So much so that the stalwart epigraphist and historian MM Kalburgi, himself a North Karnataka native, commissioned and oversaw translations of these records into Kannada and English.

Dakhni Urdu

Muslim minorities across most of Karnataka —  except for in Tulu Nadu —  primarily speak Dakhni Urdu as their mother tongue. Although the language is viewed as a mere dialect of North Indian based Standard Urdu, Dakhni actually has a rich history independent of North Indian Urdu.

In fact, from the late 1500s to the late 1600s, Bijapur emerged as a major center for Classical Dakhni literature. Many of these works, including the eclectic Kitāb-e-Nauras, extolled both the city and the entire Deccan.

Large Dakhni speaking minorities are found across the state, forming a significant presence in many urban areas, including the former Deccan Sultanate centers of Gulbarga, Bijapur, and Bidar, as well as towns like Savanur, Hubli, and Basavakalyana.

Since Dakhni is an unwritten language today, its speakers use formal Urdu for written purposes, often used publicly as well —  signage is often in Urdu in towns with large Dakhni speaking minorities.

In regions with both larger Dakhni speaking minorities and longer histories of Sultanate rule, Dakhni has had more influence, and has even influenced local dialects of Kannada. This is especially noticeable in Hyderabad Karnataka, particularly in Bidar, where words like bhi find their way into local Kannada. 

The exclusion of Lambadi

Lambadi (also known by other names including Banjara, Lambani and Lamani), a Rajasthani language, is spoken across large swathes of North Karnataka, especially the districts of Gulbarga, Ballari, Yadgir, Raichur, and Bijapur. Its nomadic speaker community is classified by Karnataka as a Scheduled Caste. 

Unfortunately, Lambadi is often overlooked and excluded from conversations on Karnataka’s diversity for more reasons than one.

Lambadi is classified under Hindi in the Census of India, leading many districts in Karnataka to show large numbers of “Hindi” speakers and effectively obscuring the presence and vitality of the Lambadi language in the state. 

To make things worse, these inflated numbers for Hindi are accepted uncritically, shifting the focus from Lambadi and its speakers to preconceived notions of migration from North India.

The linguistic exclusion of Lambadi and its misclassification in the Census both pose challenges to preserving the language and its heritage. The social and economic marginalisation of Lambadi speakers themselves only adds to this.

North Karnataka's diversity

North Karnataka’s architectural history is widely acknowledged and admired, but its linguistic diversity does not receive the same level of respect and attention from heritage enthusiasts, institutions, and civil society. 

With the broader patterns of neglect that the region as a whole experiences, this is unsurprising. At the same time, properly documenting and preserving this heritage would require institutional support, with the participation of these communities themselves. This is similar to the situation in the Tulu speaking parts of Karnataka, for example.

Hopefully, as more tourists visit North Karnataka and its stunning cultural heritage, its linguistic heritage will also find its place in the spotlight.

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.

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