At Begur, where old meets new

STATE OF FLUX

broken idols Sculptures such as these lie in various stages of ruin in Begur. Photo Lakshmi SharathIt was that house in Begur that first caught my attention. There was an open space with dry grass and a narrow path that led to a small village street. A huge compound met my gaze, with a small door that was left ajar to reveal a courtyard and a house with pink walls. The rangoli in front of the door looked fresh, but I couldn’t see a soul. A small stone bench was placed near the entrance.

But what really caught my attention was not the house itself. It was a small sculpture placed at the very end of the compound. It seemed to sit there placidly, without anyone really disturbing it. I bent down to take a closer look, all the time wondering if I should ask someone for permission to take a photograph. But there was no one around. It was a Jaina sculpture and I stumbled on it when I was looking for the remains of an old Jaina basti in Begur.

Begur is a small village, located in the outskirts of Bangalore. While most villages outside the City have lost their identities, merging somewhere with the IT corridor, Begur struggles to retain its old-world charm, even as real estate and rampant construction projects knock at its very door. The banks of the lake have been taken over by multicoloured apartment complexes, while the roads are dug up all along the village. The crumbled mud fort that speaks of a rich past shares its compound with chaotic modern-day constructions. There are buildings and cranes touching the sky, and the old temples inside the fort are dwarfed somewhere in between.

My quest, however, was to understand the heritage of the town and its connect with Bangalore. The settlement itself dates back to the sixth century and its story can be pieced together through the old temples, the crumbling mud fort, the remains of a Jain basti, lost inscriptions, broken veeragallus (hero stones) and scattered sculptures in front of houses.

Stories people tell...

But the best story-tellers are people who have lived in the village and have passed on their tales to generations. The stories may lack the clinical precision of history books, but they are laced with a passion and zest that come from a sense of belonging. As Girish, the head priest of the 1000-year-old Panchalinga temple said,

“For us, Begur is mula (origin), only after that comes Bangalore.” The locals were indeed my guides in the village and I saw the village through their eyes. One of the first locals I met was young Vidya and her 98-year-old grandfather Subbarama Sastry.

I was standing in front of their house wondering whether to take a photograph of the Jaina sculpture when Vidya asked me if I was a researcher, in her crisp English. She had just finished her studies in Bangalore and was spending her holidays with her grandfather. She invited me inside to meet him.  

It was an old house, simple and comfortable, and we listened to Vidya and her grandfather talk in a mix of Kannada and Telugu. Vidya’s great grandfather Rama Sastry whose photographs dot the walls of their house, had moved in here from Andhra Pradesh more than 100 years ago and their family had been the officiating priests for more than 30 villages including Begur. “We conducted so many weddings and ceremonies too, apart from being temple priests,” they told us. The Begur of their days was a quiet village, filled with local festivities. They told me about the ancient Gopalaswamy temple in the fort compound, a temple that seemed even smaller than some of the roadside temples in Bangalore, but I learnt that the original idol of Venugopala is today placed in a museum in Bangalore. The grandfather’s memory was hazy, but when we spoke about the Jaina sculpture, he squinted hard at me and called it the “Buddha” which had been around for more than 100 years.

They directed us to the fort.  

A stone entrance with a few pillars and inscriptions was the adda (haunt) where men gathered to gossip, while the children played cricket in front of the temples inside the ground. As we roamed around aimlessly, a young man wearing a white T - shirt and shorts walked curiously towards us and proceeded to show us an old well. He then took us to a clearing near the temples and said that in his childhood, there was a tunnel in there, which had now been buried under the sand.  

Ramachandra was a local auto driver who was brought up in the very village, playing cricket like the children today. It was Sunday and his day off as he catered largely to the IT crowd in the vicinity. He was happy that the IT boom had given him some work, but unhappy that land here was being sold at crazy prices. We chatted a bit about the fort as we walked towards the pillars at the entrance. He mentioned that some historians had copied the inscriptions here, using a piece of paper by rubbing ink on to it. I later learnt that it was a technique called enstampage and the inscription related to the death of a chieftain Nagattara’s daughter who fasted to death through a Jain ritual called sallekhana.

In search of the teerthankara

Ramachandra looked at the photograph of the headless teerthankara that I had taken along with me (which had already appeared in these pages before) and suggested that we go back to Girish, the head priest at the Panchalinga temple for details. Girish’s family had been officiating in this 1,000-year-old temple for generations.

There were five shrines that dated back to the Ganga and Chola period, the oldest of them being the Nageswara temple and the remaining four, Nagareshvara, Karneshvara, Choleshvara and Kalikamateshvara were added later.  
The connection with Bangalore, however, was inscribed in a stone that basked in the sun along with broken hero stones. It spoke of a Battle of Bengaluru fought around 900 AD which resulted in the deaths of chieftain Nagattara’s son Buttana-setti. It was apparently the very first time that the City was mentioned in recorded history. Girish added that one of the hero stones which documented chieftain Nagattara’s death were now in a museum in Bangalore.

I showed him the photograph of the teerthankara and he gave us directions mentioning that the sculptures were out in the open, seated amidst thorny bushes. After losing our way, we finally reached a small patch of land where a residential colony had sprouted out of nowhere. There was the headless teerthankara along with another idol of Parshwanatha lying in the undergrowth.

Nobody could tell us if it had been a basti, but the sculptures had been there long enough to watch the land around them shrink, as houses and colonies were built here, shoving them into a corner plot of land.  

Watching them languishing in the wilderness, I realised that Begur itself is getting lost, hemmed in by these construction projects. The town may house the identity of Bangalore, but the very identity of Begur lies in that and is being threatened today.

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