How Bangalore was built

Print edition : September 16, 2016

A view of Chickpet main road. Photo: K. Bhagya Prakash

Tipu Sultan's Palace in Chamarajpet in Bengaluru. Photo: K. Bhagya Prakash

BENGALURU (formerly Bangalore) has grown explosively over the past few decades transitioning from a cosy town into an unwieldy leviathan. In emphasising its strong (and mostly misplaced) identity as a modern Indian city, people forget that Bengaluru has a recorded history of more than a millennium. Grand historical monuments that the average Indian tourist encounter in many Indian cities are glaringly absent here adding to the feeling that its origins are recent. Even residents of the city are unaware of the early architecture of this metropolis. Yashaswini Sharma’s Bangalore: The Early City, AD 1537-1799 seeks to provide its average resident knowledge about its historic legacy.

Historians have established that parts of Bengaluru were inhabited since the times of the Western Ganga dynasty (A.D. 350 to 550). The city also played a role in the fortunes of the Chola, Hoysala and Vijayanagar empires as the modern region of Bengaluru was situated strategically in the middle of peninsular India.

In spite of this hoary history, the founding date of the city is usually given as A.D. 1537 when Kempegowda I, a feudatory of the Vijayanagar kingdom, established a market town by inviting traders to settle down here. He also extended the boundaries of the pete, as the area came to be known, by building a mud fort in its southern part. This was fortified by Hyder Ali in the 18th century. The market town and the fort became the nucleus of what is now commonly known as the pete area. This was the extent of Bengaluru until the end of the 18th century, and the area continues to remain a thriving commercial hub and a nodal point in contemporary Bengaluru.

Following the death of Tipu Sultan in the Fourth Anglo Mysore War (1798-99) in Srirangapatnam, the British army garrisoned itself in the vicinity of the pete area, laying the foundation of the Bangalore Civil and Military Station (or the Cantonment) in the early 19th century. The book discusses the history and architecture of the city between the establishment of the pete in 1537 and the death of Tipu Sultan in 1799. The endpoint of the book works well as Bengaluru underwent a major change in the way in which it was conceptualised in the 19th century.

Yashaswini Sharma is a practising architect in Bengaluru, and the book is the result of her MPhil dissertation. She writes that the aim of her study “…is to acquire an understanding of the nature of Bangalore city and its development, through a study of the architecture and settlement pattern of its earliest urban area, that of the Pete and the oval Fort as well as a background study of its history…. The purpose of this work is an observational and interpretative historical study of the city of Bangalore with the intention of identifying the nature of the culture that seeded the architecture of the city.”

The book is divided into three parts: “History”, “Town Planning and Settlement Patterns” and “Architecture”. For the first two parts of her work, Yashaswini Sharma relies extensively on secondary sources such as B. Lewis Rice’s Mysore Gazetteer (1876), M. Fazlul Hasan’s Bangalore Through the Centuries (1970) and T.V. Annaswamy’s Bengaluru to Bangalore (2003). Political changes led to social and cultural changes, which were reflected in the city’s architecture and town planning. With brief explorations of the history of the city and the layout of the town, she sets the stage for a detailed discussion of its architecture in the third part.An interesting feature of Bengaluru’s layout is that space in the early mercantile town was organised on the basis of traditional caste occupations and the commodities that were traded. For example, akki pete was an area where rice ( akki) was traded; kumbar pete was the area of potters; and horticulturalists resided at thigalara pete. The author identifies 20 such distinct zones and many of them exist now. A temple, the social node in the zone, would also mark the area as one that belonged to a particular caste or community.

The petes were built around the two main arterial roads of the town running in the north-south and east-west directions. The two roads and their respective extensions remain as thoroughfares even today. The author also explains how the sacred and the civic meet at the “karaga”, a festival of the Thigala community, with close links with the early history of the city.

In the third part of the book, Yashaswini discusses some early monuments of the city. Her training as an architect is evident as she provides detailed architectural drawings while discussing the prominent temples that were built in that period. The influence of the Vijayanagara style becomes obvious in the architecture of prominent places of worship such as the Venkataramana Swamy, the Halasuru Someshwara, the Dharma-Raya and the Ranganatha Swamy temples. Considering that Kempegowda I was a feudatory of the Vijayanagar kings, it is not surprising that minor rulers of the time sought to emulate the architecture of Hampi.

She also discusses in detail the architecture of the Sangeen Jamia Masjid, a vestige of the brief Mughal presence in Bengaluru, and the Tawakkal Mastan dargah. The layout and architecture of the oval fort to the south of the pete, which played an important role during this period, is also discussed. Her reconstruction of the fort’s architecture is useful as only a small portion of the fort is still extant. She concludes this section with a description of Tipu Sultan’s Palace and the Lal Bagh, the garden that was originally laid out by his father, Hyder Ali.

Writings on the history and architecture of Bengaluru are fewer compared with books on other metropolitan cities of India. One still has to rely on Fazul Hasan’s book for a comprehensive narrative history of the city.

Bangalore: The Early City is intellectually enriching for two reasons: one, it is an addition to the limited literature on the history of the city and two, the author’s interpretation of Bengaluru’s past through her reading of individual monuments is pioneering. A discussion of Bengaluru’s early history helps one engage with the idea of how to conceptualise the city in the present times. While the original architectural drawings, maps and photographs have enriched the text with their visual dimensions, the book could have done better with some rigorous editing and a more elaborate discussion on the many themes the author brings up.

One gets the feeling that the book is incomplete in some aspects and only seeks to provide a strong framework for a larger discussion on the early architecture of Bengaluru and the modern metropolis that was to follow.

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