The dictionary meaning of the English word “jungle” is “a dense tropical forest”. In the modern context other derived meanings are, “a jumbled assemblage of large objects” and “a place or situation where there is ruthless competition”. This word actually entered the English lexicon from the Hindi language, at a time when India was part of the British Empire.
In modern Hindi the word jangal also translates to “thick forest” but in earlier periods the broader meaning was “a wild desolate landscape”. The latter meaning is a reflection on the ancient roots of this Hindi word, which are to be found in the Sanskrit jangala (all short a’s in pronunciation).
The several millennia of language development from Sanskrit to Hindi (and the other modern Indian languages), which passed through the intermediate Prakrit and Apabhramsa phases, need not be described in detail. But this long period of evolution is important for the word jangala, which in Sanskrit referred not to thick forests but a dry and desolate landscape, on which wild grasses and a deciduous forest may grow.
In the ancient Ayurveda, a text containing the earliest medical practices and lists of medicinal plants, the sages and wise men divided the regions of India into three distinct categories:
o anup (watery landscape)
o jangala (dry land)
o mishran (mixed terrain)
In that ancient period, when agriculture was becoming the mainstay of the economy, the anup and mishran regions were most amenable to human settlement. With the discovery of iron large stretches of forests were cleared, canals were built, and cities were constructed on the banks of rivers. This left the jangala regions with the largest expanse of untouched wild terrain—-while only patches of thick forest were left in the other regions.
The actual Sanskrit words for forest were van, aranyak, kaanan and vipin—-out of these van has been retained in official Hindi to mean thick forests. But in spoken Hindi it is jangal, which is used most commonly to convey that meaning. This is because while official Hindi is directly sought to be linked with ancient Sanskrit, spoken Hindi has evolved from the early medieval Apabhramsa.
In the article linked above, it can be seen that the Apabhramsa form of Sanskrit rose to prominence in the region of Rajasthan during the reign of the Imperial Pratihars. It is the northern portion of Rajasthan, a flat dry wilderness, which is identified with the term jangala. And it is because Apabhramsa became a pan-Indian language that every other contemporary language in North-Central-East India absorbed influences of the former. Among these was the term jangal for the wilderness, which passed on through the ages to modern times.