In Udyoga Parva of Saaralaa Mahaabhaarata Krishna tells the story of the kingdom of Babarapuri. Your kingdom is like baabarapuri, he told king Duryodhana in his court, when he went there as Yushisthira’s emissary to explore the possibility of avoiding war. He was only pretending to do so, but that’s another story.
Bhishma had not heard of such a place, and in all humility requested him to tell the assembly some details about it. In western Saurashtra (it is futile to try to locate it somewhere today), Krishna said, there was a country called Kurala, and the city of Babarapuri was its capital. The name of its king was Bhandeswara (literally, the lord of the cheats), and his minister’s name was Baibhanda (mad person). The deity worshipped there was naked, with wild, untied hair, and everyone in that city, both men and women, moved almost naked. The only clothes they wore were some headwear. They studied what one might call “anti-shastras”, which dealt with unethical modes of living. They valued lies, rewarded those who told lies, and killed those who spoke the truth. They also rewarded those who spoke uncouth and vulgar language.
The king was simple minded; the subjects had no respect for him and would maintain no distance from him, violating the traditional norms of conduct. The city had no enemies. People were prosperous, but no one paid any taxes to the king. They lived in wanton lavishness, spending whatever they earned. There was no sexual discipline; men and women indulged in sex whenever and wherever they liked. They had no inhibitions; any man could choose to have any woman, without regard for even blood relationships. Once a man used a woman, he left her; there was no enduring relationship between a man and a woman in that city.
Then one day a strange fear enveloped the city: it was the fear of kokuaa. Everyone talked about him, as though they had seen it, but no one really had. But people spread rumours about it; if one said it had several eyes, another said it swallowed whatever it saw. Still another said it was so huge that it covered the entire sky. In no time the talk about kokuaa became the truth about it. People stopped going out. They would stay indoors long before it was dark, and would not venture out for quite some time after the day break. Parents often frightened their children with the mention of kokuaa. There was a vicious atmosphere of tension all around. But there are limits to how much tension a system can absorb. One day fight broke out among the inhabitants of the city, and many died. Then natural calamities visited the city, and they took their toll of life. The city was completely destroyed. There was no attack from any enemy. “Listen, O son of Ganga,” said Krishna, “Duryodhana’s kingdom will be similarly destroyed”.
Trying to make sense of baabarapuri, one might begin asking what kind of place name it is. It is an odd name, an inelegant combination of the “native” sounding name baabara and the tatsama classifier puri. It sounds very uncomplimentary, bringing to mind the tatsama word barbara, meaning uncivilized and uncultured, and expresses a very negative view of the kind of life the inhabitants of the city lived. Naming a place is giving an identity, in linguistic terms, to some space set apart from undifferentiated space. A place is given a name, or a name different from the one it already had, sometimes by insiders, and sometimes by outsiders. Sometimes for a particular place name, it is not easy to figure out who gave it – the insider or the outsider.
Place names are like proverbs. It is futile to try to find the origin of a proverb. It is possible that the ancestral version of a certain proverb was quite different from its present form, and it is quite plausible that it underwent various refinements in course of time. One could vainly search for its author; one would never know for certain whether it had a single author or a group of authors. It is more or less the same with place names.
In all probability, the name was given to the city by the arrogant outsider, who considered degenerate the social, economic, cultural and political life in the city. It is by no means undesirable if the ruler and the ruled did not maintain distance between them. It is no disaster if everyone from the ruler to the ruled earned their own livelihood, and the citizens did not have to pay tax to the king. For whatever reason if the city did not attract aggressors, it does not invite negative evaluation. The city perished, and the way it did was terrible. But it is unreasonable, arrogant and insensitive to suggest so unambiguously that it deserved such an end because they disrespected tradition.
One might argue that the name was given by the inhabitants of the city themselves, who were not unaware of the negative connotations of baabarapuri. They were aware of the contemptuous attitude of the outsiders to their culture, and they had made a statement by giving their own city such a name. It was thus an affront to their detractors.
May be, it was Krishna himself who gave the city its name (wasn’t he an outsider?), but did not own that act. Like so many things he did or caused to happen in Sarala’s narrative, but the world never knew he was the doer or the cause. He used the episode to issue a warning, a threat. Surely some in that august assembly knew it was nothing short of a prediction – they knew it was Krishna’s wish. Krishna had used baabarapuri as an analogy for Duryodhana’s kingdom. It is not clear how it was an appropriate comparison, except on one count – like baabarapuri, it did not face any threat from outside. But let us not forget Sarala’s Krishna went to Duryodhana to make sure war took place. And this was the kind of discourse that was entirely appropriate for the fulfillment of his objective.