Glimpses of past glory

Print edition : April 24, 2020

A view of Hulsuru Lake and the Kempegowda tower in the background. Photo: V. Sreenivasa Murthy

A comprehensive book with a set of guided walks, vintage photographs, old maps and generous trivia on Bengaluru’s heritage.

There is a strong perception, even among long-time residents of the city, that Bengaluru is a modern city without a significant past. This feeling gains credence because there are no majestic monuments in the city to evoke grand histories. A resident of the city is often hard-pressed to come up with relevant suggestions for a tourist interested in exploring the urban history of Bengaluru. While the post-liberalisation years since the 1990s brought about gradual but vast changes in the urban landscape of metropolitan India, Bengaluru changed radically, from a genteel and salubrious town into a fast-paced city, and becoming famous as the “Silicon Valley” of India. The establishment of information technology companies and the opening of pubs to cater to the upwardly mobile young professionals reinforced its status as a young city harking to the future while much of its history lay ignored.

Outrage over this ahistorical perception of the city led the Bengaluru chapter of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH), the national non-governmental organisation whose mission is to create awareness of and conserve built heritage, to start a series of Parichay walks in 2008. INTACH conducted guided heritage walks through different parts of the city. This is the genesis of the book authored by Meera Iyer, convener of INTACH’s Bengaluru chapter.

Discovering Bengaluru has two purposes: first, to narrate the long and ancient history of the city. The second, a more pragmatic purpose, is to serve as a guide for those undertaking heritage walks and to inform the reader about the architectural remains so that the appreciation for Bengaluru deepens.

There is rich bibliography on the history of Bengaluru. M. Fazlul Hasan’s Bangalore Through the Centuries (1970), while dated, remains the most valuable narrative history. Over the past two decades, other books were published on the history of the city. These include T.V. Annaswamy’s Bengaluru to Bangalore (2003), and Maya Jayapal’s Bangalore: Roots and Beyond (2014). Bengaluru Darshana, a massive three-volume set, which discusses the past and contemporary history of the city thematically, was brought out by the Udayabhanu Kalasangha in Kannada (2005). Other popular books that focus on the different facets of Karnataka’s capital include Janaki Nair’s The Promise of the Metropolis: Bangalore’s Twentieth Century (2005), Anuradha Mathur and Dilip da Cunha’s Deccan Traverses: The Making of Bangalore’s Terrain (2006), Yashaswini Sharma’s Bangalore: The Early City (2016), and Harini Nagendra’s Nature in the City: Bengaluru in the Past, Present and Future (2016).

Edited volumes on the history of the city include Narendar Pani’s Bengaluru, Bangalore, Bengaluru: Imaginations and Their Times (2010) and Aditi De’s Multiple City: Writings on Bangalore (2008).

Life in the Cantonment of Bangalore has been vividly narrated in the works of Peter Colaco’s Bangalore: A Century of Tales from City & Cantonment (2003) and Stanley Carvalho’s Past & Curious: Forty Tales of Good Old Bangalore (2016). More recently, two rich studies, S.K. Aruni’s Bengaluru Parampare (2019), in Kannada, and Aliyeh Rizvi’s Another World: Bangalore Club (2018) have added to the extensive body of work.

Meera Iyer has chosen a different format to tell the history of the city by narrating the histories of various neighbourhoods, or pete. Thus, the story of the city becomes a palimpsest with each locality’s origins and subsequent growth and expansion adding a layer of understanding to the history of the city. Considering how the city has become a sprawling conurbation, this examination can hardly be exhaustive. So Meera Iyer focusses on the early neighbourhoods.

The pete was the earliest locus of the city and continues to be the fervid soul of Bengaluru. A myriad wholesale and retail traders thrive in the densely populated arterial lanes off Avenue Road. Essentially, this is the area around which Kempegowda (1510-1569), a vassal of the Vijayanagara kingdom, built the earliest city in the 16th century, laying it out in a grid pattern, and housed the various guilds. The names of the original guilds exist to this day in the form of names of the various areas in this locality. There are scant remains of the mud fort built by Kempegowda and strengthened later by Tipu Sultan, the 18th century ruler of Mysore. Lord Charles Cornwallis captured the fort, during the Third Anglo-Mysore war in 1791.

After Tipu’s defeat in 1799 in the Fourth Anglo-Mysore war, the British planned to build a cantonment in Bengaluru. The choice of Bengaluru over Kolar and Chitradurga was decided by the city’s pleasant climate. The Cantonment area of Bengaluru, with its heavy influence of British administrative and military life, has been spatially and socially seen as the “other” of the native pete. Thus, from the 19th century onwards, Bengaluru has been a twin city, with the cantonment and city having separate administrations. Histories of these two early clusters, which together formed Bengaluru, are the themes of the first two chapters.

A chapter has been devoted to Halasuru, or Ulsoor, with its ancient Someshwara temple and traditional houses with courtyards. Since Ulsoor was located near the cantonment, its growth was different. Its residents were mainly in the service sector that catered to the cantonment. One of the towers built by Kempegowda to mark the furthest extent of Bengaluru, is located on the banks of the Ulsoor lake, one of the last large lakes of Bengaluru.

Faced with the virulent bubonic plague in 1898, Bengaluru was expanded through the creation of extensions such as Basavangudi and Malleswaram in the pete area, and peripheral towns such as Fraser Town, Richards Town and Cooke Town in the cantonment area. Meera Iyer and her team at INTACH have ferreted out plans of these early extensions, which, interestingly, show how the sites in Basavangudi and Malleswaram were divided on the basis of religious communities and castes. These plans indicate which communities were dominant in Bengaluru at the time. The formation of Basavangudi and Malleswaram are discussed in one chapter.

Fraser Town, Richards Town and Cooke Town have been considered the most cosmopolitan areas of the city. Discussing their early histories, Meera Iyer says these towns city displayed “a confluence of communities”. She writes: “This pluralism meant a bonanza of foods and festivities for children (and adults). For Christmas, all children, including Hindus and Muslims, went carol singing, and everyone got rose cookies, kulkuls, cake and other goodies from their Christian friends and neighbours. At Ramzan, you would get biryani and sheer kurma from your friends. Ugadi meant holige from the aunty next door. And for Deepavali, everyone would turn out to burst crackers and, of course, to eat!”

One chapter has been devoted to Whitefield, the far-flung suburb that was outside the corporation limits of Bengaluru for a long time. It is written by Krupa Rajangam. The histories of two interesting spaces, one a reclaimed lake called Sampangi Kere (written by Hita Unnikrishnan, B. Manjunatha and Harini Nagendra), and the other, the wondrous public garden of Lalbagh, are told well.

Each chapter is accompanied by suggestions for heritage walks that one can undertake. One walk that this reviewer undertook on a sunny February morning in Fraser Town was delightfully educational. The walk, consisting of eight stops, stretched along the length of Promenade Road, a 19th century development on the periphery of the British Cantonment, which is bookended by two old schools and runs past several prominent churches. The photographs and nuggets of information provided for the walk will be helpful in developing an appreciation for the city’s historical neighbourhoods.

While there already exists considerable literature on Bengaluru’s history, there was a need for an easily accessible primer to the city. Discovering Bengaluru, clearly a tedious labour of love filled with titbits of information and stories relating to the many contributors to the history of the city, fulfils this need.

The comprehensive book with its smart set of guided walks, vintage photographs, old maps and generous trivia, could easily become the go-to guide for the city’s history. This is the greatest achievement of this book. It will be useful for urban historians, sociologists and discerning tourists.

Bengaluru residents can discover the vestiges of architectural gems that lie in their midst by reading the rich stories presented in the book.

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