After darshan at Someshwar Mahadev Temple, all of us now move out of the temple to explore its neighborhood. This area still carries elements of its past glory and its historical heritage. The architecture of any era is always a reflection of personal taste, but it also carries with it its own peculiarities, the prevalent rituals, the prevailing fashions, social systems and how social interactions used to happen in those times. This walk is to make sense of this historical space in modern context.
Some of the houses in Ulsoor area are around one-hundred and fifty years old, though much has been lost in the modern transformation. Prof Varanshi, our walk guide, informs about it and shares old maps and a few old pictures of the area. While we are looking at them, Mr Aravind hands us crisp Puranpolis (Marathi name) or Obattus (Kannada name). These are thin and delicious.
Mr Varanshi briefs us about the area, “When English defeated Tipu-Sultan, Lord Cornwallis, the first Governor-General of India appointed by the British Government, initially continued with Tipu’s Srirangapatna as his military base. However, many of the English soldiers suffered from Malaria and after analyzing several options British felt that the Ulsoor area in Bangalore, with a favorable weather, suits them the most. The first military station was setup in Halasuru in 1807. All the areas in British military setup were usually divided in two – the black area and the white area, named so depending on whether it was inhabited by the natives or the British. This area was the black part of the establishment”.
The army settlements are usually well-planned. This settlement in Ulsoor had its main streets running in accordance with the cardinal directions and the natural gradient of the area, to ensure that the streets do not get flooded during rains, and water flows unobstructed towards the Ulsoor Tank.
The water from Ulsoor tank was supplied to the cantonment area and even at that time issues related to sanitation were raised as it was realized that the sewage was also getting emptied into it.
This area soon gained the reputation of having famous markets and bazaars. The names of the roads in the area still carry the remnants of old splendor – Bazaar Road, Car Road, Temple Road to name a few. The bazaar road was so famous that people at that time used to visit it for recreation as the current generation do so by visiting malls. The name car road puzzles me for sometime, it is only after sometime I realize that this road was the carriage road, probably among the widest road of the time with horse carriages running over it in both the directions.
Mr Varanshi tells, “This area had a lot of encroachment. It was during the rule of Mr Yeddurappa, the BJP chief minister, when a great collaboration between the temple authorities and the political establishment helped in cleaning up the mess.
There was a set of dedicated and motivated group of volunteers working for restoring the past glory of the temple. Either impressed by their genuinity or to make political gains, the chief minister provided them huge funding for the purpose.”
With a sigh he then adds, “I have learnt that if you want to kill or destroy a genuine organization, working for a purpose, with a set of motivated people, then give them money”. I smile what an irony, nevertheless, a profound statement.
Mr Varanshi points towards the chariot of the temple, which is there in front of the temple and says, “This new chariot was built-in 1992 when some miscreants burnt down the old, thirty feet high chariot in 1982. The chariot is used during Kamakshamma Pallaki Utsav to carry the idol of Goddess Kamakshamma around the temple”.
We start the tour of the area around the temple with a look at a typical vernacular structure with exposed brick structure. It has a bracket in front having Ram-Lakshman-Sita etched over it. Ulsoor area had a unique mix of communities settled here, however, the main settlers here were Tamils. Most of this area had buildings belonging to famous Tamil Businessman Arcot Narrainswamy Mudaliar and his relatives. The Mudaliars migrated from Tamilnadu following a misfortune and build their business empire in Bangalore.
The area around had predominately Tamil settlement and some surviving old houses carry the vernacular Tamil architecture. The exterior facade features a thalvaram or the street veranda with a lean-to-roof over wooden posts) – a social extension of the house and a thinnai with masonry benches. Together Thinnai and thalvaram provided sit-out area for the senior members of the house during the day, the other family members joined them in the evenings after finishing the household chores. It was the common area for all to unwind, to chat among themselves and with the neighbours and passersby. At that time of the day these streets got transformed into “talking streets”. The masonry benches were also used to welcome the guests and also provided rest to the tired pilgrims. In front of one of the house we see that it still survives, however, the modern needs have forced him to modify the sitting area into a slope, so that idle folks and strangers don’t kill their time sitting in front of the house.
Thinnai marks the transition space after which a house is entered through a carved wooden door. We can also see little niches for oil lamps next to each door. Once inside, the central courtyard (mutram) becomes the happening place where daily chores of the family took place. Some of the houses have several such courtyards.
While walking along Prof Varanshi tells us, “On some houses you can still notice the monkey top gable.” There are puzzle look on some faces including me. What is a monkey top gable?
Prof Varanshi explains, “The monkey top gable is a shaped pointed crest carrying a canopy of clay tiles over a window or the terrace. The front of the crest consists of closely spaced narrow vertical wooden pieces joined together forming a screen. These wooden pieces have embellished, intricate details. The bottom of the screen is shaped in a curve marked by a row of small knobs. Most of the well-kept monkey tops are painted bottle green and they contrast with the white, creamish walls of the building. The knobs were usually painted in white”.
He adds, “The monkey top was quite fashionable at that time. It was ideal for the climate of Bangalore as it helped keep away the sun in summer and in rainy-winter prevented rainwater from entering the house.”
Someone in the group adds, “It also helped in keeping away the monkey menace. The slope did not allow the monkey’s to get a comfortable platform to sit and even the tops were spiked, making it extremely difficult for them to occupy that place too”.
We are now in front of a forty square meter kalyani, filled till brim with clean water. Kalyani is the temple-pond to cleanse oneself before entering the temple. This twelve hundred old Kalyani has been dug again and restored only a few years back. It is a simple stepped tank with simple construction style with a network of aqueducts feeding into it. There was a dairy farm on this very spot before it was dug again and the kalyani was discovered and restored. This Kalyani was in the map of the area till 1884, after which it suddenly vanished from the maps and then from the public memory. It is difficult to say for surety, what happened?
Mr Varanshi tells, “The common belief is that it might have been land-filled after the plague epidemic that spread in B’lore in 1896. The British Government feared that most of the water bodies were polluted and were helping in spreading the disease, this belief led them to land-fill many of them. At the time of excavation of this Kalyani, broken cups and crockery manufactured in Belgium and Germany, were found in the land-fill.
It reminds me of the TV Series “Pawn Star” shown on History TV, where a family in USA used to rent and do excavation on a piece of land; and any hundred year old artifact found by the family were sold at high prices. I wonder, in India, a treasure trove lies in the womb of our motherland.
Once the devotees might have flocked the Kalyani before and after the temple visit, cleaning themselves, floating diyas in the water on festive occasions. Today it lies fenced and desolate as the area is under dispute; unease can also be seen in the people living in the neighborhood when a large group like ours come and visit the Kalyani, the fear is that some of even these houses might be build on the encroached land and might be claimed back. It reminds me, there is a strong belief that during farming, farmers in Haryana sometimes come across Harappan artifacts, which are left unreported as they fear that if reported their farms may be took over by ASI to do excavation. The fear sounds realistic to me. And I do not see any way out of this tension and fear.
Finally, we reach an alley where lies an old oil-mill of the area. Mr Varanshi, keeps on praying, “I hope it would be open and the owner would be willing to allow us in. Last time he was really helpful”. He sees one person closing the door of a building and he rushes forward to talk to him. The person behaves strangely, he is seemingly not interested in conversation. He simply points that the oil mill is in the adjacent building and quickly closes the door. His haste and behavior is surprising. Though what he told is right, the mill is only two buildings away from there.
The owner of the mill does not mind us visiting the facility. In-fact he not only allows us in, but he also lit the area so that we can have a close look. It is an old-time cold crush mill, which is still in use to generate groundnut oil, coconut oil. I am enjoying the smell of fresh coconut oil. The owner explains, “We are able to run the mill till now, but it is getting more and more difficult to get the raw materials. Earlier people used to come to the mill with the raw material and use to get the oil in front of them (just like the flour mills), but such people are reducing in number.”
Someone in the group tells all that this is not the only old mill in work, there are several such mills in Bangalore. My personal opinion, “Development and modernization is inevitable. I feel unsure that we would be seeing these mills for long.
My father is all praise for the oil from cold crush as according to him the refined oil is devoid of the beneficiary properties of the oil. According to him, the chemical process involved in the refining kills the HDL ingredients.
I buy one litre of oil from here, in the process, I also realize the reason for the diminishing interest in the same. In my opinion, it has to do with the fear of adulteration. The black sheep among these set has generated a fear because of which an ordinary citizen feels safe with the reputed brands. For surviving the current scenario these mills need to maintain and raise the faith of their customers.
After the mill, Prof Varanshi asks, “We can end our tour here”. And then reading our faces he concludes, “Let us walk back through another street viewing and enjoying the old houses there”. In one of the streets he points, “This street was a kachha road with all its own charm, it has been concretized only a few years back”. In one of the houses we see a palanquins parked there. It is rented out during religious ceremonies.
In the end we reach a place where there was a clock-tower, today it has been replaced by ugly mesh of electric poles. A pity! Maybe we deserve such eye-sores. A gift for our negligence and for not realizing the value of our rich heritage.