It seems that the number of words which got transmitted to English, or any other foreign language, from my mother tongue, Telugu, are quite limited. And mostly restricted to the animal world. Here’s the second example I am writing about – ‘bandicoot’. As is the case with ‘pitta’, it is a word rarely used by Indians while communicating in English. However, it has become immensely popular in Australia. In fact, so widely used is the word for a certain category of Australian fauna that few associate it with the Indian species it was first used for.
Definition of bandicoot (in Cambridge Dictionary)
1 a type of marsupial (= an animal that lives in a bag on its mother’s body after birth) that lives in Australia
Definition of bandicoot (in Oxford)
1 A mainly insectivorous marsupial native to Australia and New Guinea.
2 (Indian) A bandicoot rat.
Definition of bandicoot (in Collins English Dictionary)
1 any agile terrestrial marsupial of the family Peramelidae of Australia and New Guinea. They have a long pointed muzzle and a long tail and feed mainly on small invertebrates
2 bandicoot rat
Definition of bandicoot (in Merriam-Webster)
1 any of several very large rats (genera Bandicota and Nesokia) of southern Asia destructive to crops
2 any of various small chiefly insectivorous and herbivorous marsupial mammals (family Peramelidae or family Peroryctidae) of Australia, Tasmania, and New Guinea
As one can see, only Merriam-Webster refers to the Indian bandicoot in the first place. All others link the term with Australian species. Cambridge omits the reference altogether (in the online search). Oxford qualifies its inclusion of the Indian counterpart by appending the word ‘rat’. What every source agrees upon is the etymology. This is how the Online Etymology Dictionary sums it up:
bandicoot (n.): 1789, a corruption of Telugu pandi-kokku, literally “pig-rat.” Properly the Anglo-Indian name of a large and destructive type of Indian rat; applied from 1827 to a type of insectivorous Australian marsupial somewhat resembling it.
There might be some similarity between these two categories of animals but it happens to be of a superficial nature. I for one, having seen the Indian bandicoot in flesh and blood, find the case for physical resemblance to be greatly overstated. Let’s have a look at both.
These are marsupials of the family Peramelidae (although members of the closely related families Thylacomyidae, and the recently extinct Chaeropodidae also go by the same name), living in New Guinea, Australia and Tasmania. Found across a wide variety of habitats, they are omnivores feeding on insects, seeds and fruits. Capable of digging pits, they are considered pests by Australian farmers. The features that distinguish them from their South Asian counterparts are a sleeker build, comparatively longer legs and pointed snouts. A unique aspect of the family Peramelidae is the presence of a rudimentary placenta, something very unusual for any marsupial. They are also highly prolific for a marsupial group, producing more than one litter in a breeding season. As many as 20 species survive (distributed across six genera – Isoodon, Perameles, Peroryctes, Echymipera, Microperoryctes and Rhynchomeles), though many show a declining trend in terms of numbers and range.
Unlike the pouch-bearing Peramelidae, the Asian species are rodents of the family Muridae. There are five species in all – two from the genus Nesokia (Nesokia bunnii and Nesokia indica), and three from Bandicota (Bandicota bengalensis, Bandicota indica, and Bandicota savilei). It is members of the latter that are known as pandi-kokkus or pig-rats in Telugu country. They are exceedingly ugly-looking creatures, enormous in size for murids, with shaggy coats, thick, naked tails and rounded snouts. Preferring farmland (especially that devoted to cultivating rice), they are notorious pests, gobbling up enormous quantities of grain, vegetables and fruit. Bandicoots can inflict considerable damage on man-made structures with their ability to burrow through earth, brick, and even concrete. Like their marsupial counterparts, they multiply rapidly. Unlike them, they seem to be flourishing, expanding their range with the spread of farming. Nesokia are found in North Africa, and West, Central and South Asia while Bandicota inhabit South, Southeast and East Asia.
The bandicoots I have seen are of the species Bandicota indica, the Greater Bandicoot Rat, a true monster of the rat world. Weighing up to a kilogram, with a head-and-body length of around 33 cm (to which can be added a tail of equal length), it can put the fear of God among unsuspecting humans (who normally encounter rats and mice of much smaller dimensions). The dark, shaggy fur and large, splayed feet only add to the terror. I saw them for the first time in Nellore (a small city in the South Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, from where my family hails, and which I would visit during the summer holidays), scurrying around in the dark, between enormous bolt holes and stinking garbage heaps. Even more common were squashed-up specimens, road-kill left behind by vehicles too swift for the ungainly critter. It goes without saying that they were secretive and silent. But books speak of Greater and Lesser Bandicoot Rats making pig-like, squealing sounds when fighting (from which stems their name); hardly the kind of impression one has in mind while remembering those cute Australian marsupials.
Image Attribution: The image above is sourced from Wikimedia Commons and shows a portrait of the Lesser Bandicoot Rat (Bandicota bengalensis). Taken from Illustrations of Indian Zoology 2, it was part of the great collection of paintings compiled by Major General Thomas Hardwicke, a soldier in the British East India Company. Hardwicke was stationed in India from 1777 to 1823, a long interval of time during which he not only saw action in multiple wars but also indulged in his passion for natural history, collecting numerous specimens, having them painted by Indian artists and finally turned into a publication, the Illustrations of Indian Zoology (brought out between 1830-1835, in collaboration with the British zoologist, John Edward Grey). His was one of the largest collections of Indian natural history to be ever assembled (around 4500 illustrations). Hardwicke also had the honour of several species being named after him (more about that, as well as his soldiering career later).