Names, in addition to how inherently handy they are, offer a window into the collective consciousness of a people. Sure, names are essentially just proper nouns used as labels, but they can also reflect the imagination of a language’s speaker community, a part of the shared cultural capital formed by a common literary culture.
The fabled South American city of El Dorado is probably one of the better-known examples of this phenomenon. Early Spanish explorers to the Americas were driven by a unquenchable thirst for riches and bounty, and the legends of a fabled town where the streets were paved with gold. The town of course, was never found, but the term entered English as a metaphorical description for a wealthy place.
A lot of these stories are fairly easy to trace, mainly because they and their original referents are still fresh in people’s minds. But as anyone who has delved into the maddeningly giddy world of language is aware, it’s usually the stories whose threads are harder to unravel that teach us the most, in this case about our past.
Some of these stories, based on name-image associations, offer links that snake backwards through the mists of time, through the collective memories of entire regions, through the trials and tribulations of multiple eras. They offer rusty chain links that anchor us to the past, in their own desperate yet incomplete way. Like Ozymandias’s shattered visage and legs keeping a silent vigil over the endless desert, they offer us hints of tales of glory and majesty from earlier times.
One of these stories takes us from the busy, chaotic studios of Marathi media houses in the modern metropolis of Mumbai, to a now-sleepy village from another era, frozen in time, nestled in the rocky depths of northern Karnataka.
The now-ruined Vijayanagara-era settlement of Ānegondi, (lit. elephant gorge in Kannada, named for where the imperial army kept their elephants) is situated in Karnataka’s Baḷḷāri district, once a suburb of the former capital of Vijayanagara itself (the site of whose ruins is now called Hampe in Kannada, and Hampi in the local Kannada dialect).
In the centuries following the sack of Vijayanagara in 1565 (and the subsequent flight of the Empire’s rulers further south to their new capital, Penukoṇḍa in Anantapur district, Andhra Pradesh), the town came to be the seat of a decadent Rājā who claimed descent from Vijayanagara’s Aravidu dynasty, the final dynasty to rule the Empire.
Among the various pretensions of the Rājā (or to use the term preferred by Vijayanagara’s rulers, rāya, a Prakrit form of the Sanskrit rājā) of Ānegondi, was his claim to the lordship of the entire world, a conceit declared by one of his royal titles, sārvabhauma (Sanskrit for universal sovereign). It’s possible the reveries of his (purported) lineage’s distant, yet glorious past were to blame.
This was around the same time the fledgling Maratha Confederacy, a northern Deccan-based polity, was making inroads into the south Deccan (the Kr̥ṣṇā river marks the boundary between the two). They encountered the rāya of Ānegondi, and were clearly unimpressed with him.
According to historian Sumit Guha,
“The Marathas were well acquainted with the over-generous roi fainéant: in the peninsula, this was the Raja of Ānegondi, the descendant of the once-mighty Vijayanagara kings, whose domains had long slipped into the hands of insubordinate nāyakas and invading sultans, not to speak of the Marathas from Shahaji Bhosle onwards. In Maratha legend, the once-paramount lord of the South is a comical figure who calls himself sarvabhaum, lord of the whole earth. He enters the revenue of the world on the credit side of his ledger and then expends it on the debit side. He is a fraudulent bookkeeper, not surrogate divinity.”
Clearly, while the Marathas saw him as the legitimate heir to Vijayanagara, they also saw his pretensions to wealth and supreme power as farcical.
Eventually, the name of the rājā’s capital, by virtue of association with his royal person and the tensions between his realm and that of the Marathas, found its way into the lexicon of Marathi speakers, and by extension, popular consciousness.
In the early 19th century, a British interpreter named James Thomas Molesworth was stationed in Solapur as part of his service with the East India Company. In 1818, Molesworth, along with a colleague named Thomas Candy, began the singularly daunting and labour-intensive task of creating a glossary of the local language, which would then go on to become Molesworth’s monumental 1857 Marathi-English dictionary.
Molesworth and his team gathered words by employing Brahmins to gather words and phrases used ‘in several quarters of the Maratha territory’.
And lo and behold. One of these words, with several collocation forms, was Anāgondī.
From Molesworth’s Marathi dictionary :
अनागोंदी (Anāgondī), From the name of a town of which, as the legend runs, the king or Raja used to call himself सार्वभौम (sārvabhaum), sovereign paramount, and divert himself with entering the revenues of the whole earth on the credit side of his leger, expending them off again on the debit side.
Memory can be a curious, magical thing, collective memory doubly so.
Ānegondi had become a byword for extravagant, chaotic, foolish spending and behaviour in Marathi. Anāgondī came to be used in such compounds as anāgondī kārbhār, or disorderly proceedings, chaos, anarchy, a phrase that’s still used in written Marathi to this very day (nowadays mostly in journalism).
There are various other Marathi phrases using the town’s name, none of which are flattering (or current, I hear). Anāgondī-cā rājā, anāgondī-ce rājya, anāgondī bolṇe (wild, extravagant speech), anāgondī kharc (vast and foolish expenditure) among them.
Of course, as is the norm in India, stories get taller and taller with every telling. The actual rājā of Ānegondi might not have been quite the frivolous despot the Marathas made him out to be, but that’s all part of the appeal of this story, or ajji kathe (lit. grandmother’s tale) as they’d call it in Kannada.
Regardless of the story’s exact degree of veracity, it came to be accepted by the Marathi speaker community, entering popular consciousness. The city’s name with all its associations and (negative) connotations went on to be passed down through the generations, keeping echoes of the story alive, well into the 21st century.
The actual town of Ānegondi though, lies in ruins, its Rājā and wealth (real and imagined) long since vanished, but not without having left their mark on the collective memory of millions of the Deccan’s inhabitants.
Meanwhile, tickets to Hampi are around Rs 500 from Bangalore, a sum that, fittingly enough, doesn’t count as anāgondī kharc itself.
Karthik Malli is a Bangalore-based communications professional with a keen interest in linguistics, history and travel. He tweets on Indian languages @TianChengWen.