Kannada in Alexandria

Kannada in Alexandria

The documents with the words — Uroll and Isila — were submitted to the Central government which played a vital role in getting Kannada the classical status

Is there a link between Kannada and the ancient library of Alexandria?

Doddarangegowda, the noted Kannada writer and lyricist, seems to think so and says the antiquity of Kannada strongly indicates a definite relationship between the two.

A 28-page article written by the first poet laureate of Karnataka, M Govinda Pai in 1960 about the antiquity of the Kannada language aroused Doddarangegowda’s interest for further research.

“Pai, who was well-versed in Greek, traced six Kannada words in the ancient Greek plays. It was my dream to visit Egypt and Greece ever since I read his article as a first year PU student,” he says.

In 2007, Doddarangegowda and his wife K Rajeshwari Gowda visited Egypt.

Alexandria connection

In 48 BC, the library of Alexandria was said to have caught fire during Julius Caesar’s siege of the city, reducing some 36,000 palm-leaf manuscripts from across the world to ashes.

On being informed of this, Caesar rushed to the spot and managed to salvage some manuscripts from the blaze and directed his army chief to construct a memorial on the spot and engrave all letters visible on the manuscripts.

“The letters from the manuscripts have been engraved on a wall. While closely observing the letters, I couldn’t believe my eyes after seeing the Kannada word Uroll. The wall also has Sanskrit, Hebrew and Latin letters,” says Doddarangegowda. 

Urol means ‘in the town’ in Kannada. This indicates that at least one Kannada book in the form of a palm-leaf manuscript was there in Alexandria and was subsequently lost in the fire. It also establishes that the Kannada language and literature flourished much before the library was established,” he adds. 

“So far, seven Kannada words have been traced, six in the ancient Greek plays and one in the library in Egypt,” says Doddarangegowda.

Considering possible trade relations in those days, Prof B A Viveka Rai, former vice-chancellor of Hampi Kannada University, endorses Doddarangegowda’s research of the term Uroll.

“A manuscript of an ancient Greek play discovered during the excavation at Oxyrhynchus, a city in middle Egypt, had some non-Greek words. Govinda Pai, Dr B A Saletore, Dr S D Barnet, and Dr R Shamasastry conducted research on these words. Pai argued that these words belonged to Kannada. In his research, lexicographer D L Narasimhachar also argued that the term Isila in the rock edicts of Emperor Ashoka was a Kannada word,” says Prof Rai.

Rai has also traced a Tulu and a Kannada word in the correspondence carried out by Abraham Ben Yiju, a Jewish trader, who stayed at Mangaluru for 17 years during the 12th century.

“A researcher from England, while studying a book called India Traders of the Middle Ages: Documents from the Cairo Geniza by S D Goitein and Mordechai A Friedman, contacted me, trying to understand some Indian words. This led to the discovery of the Tulu and the Kannada word,” Prof Rai adds.

The documents with the words — Uroll and Isila were submitted to the Central government which played a vital role in getting Kannada the classical status.