Of lives lost under the peepal

mini jallianwala bagh  Vidurashwatha is full of peepal trees, and the snake idols installed under them. Right: The memorial installed at the site as a tribute to  those who lost their lives. Photos by the author

If the giant peepal trees here were to tell a story, what would that be? That of the Mahabharata character Vidura coming here to plant a sapling of ashwatha, or the ficus religiosa, in botanical terminology? That of the holy peepal being worshipped by generations here, along with hundreds of idols of the snake god installed by believers? Or would the peepal trees choose to tell another tale? Of nine brave souls who fell victim to an oppressor’s guns, right under the stoic trunks?

The ficus thrives at Vidurashwatha in Karnataka’s Chikballapur district. And so do the monkeys, and the birdlife.

Time stands still here, as if nothing ever happens. Except for a handful of pilgrims from nearby villages walking in and out of the little temple. Or an occasional marriage party.

It happened one day...
But, it feels as though the very trees here are longing to tell a story. Of April 24, 1938. (Some historical documents suggest the day was April 25). When Congress leaders of Kolar district decided to hoist their flag, egged on of course, by satyagrahis’ attempt to hoist the Congress flag at Shivapura in Mandya district, they chose the day of the annual jathre (fair). The fair would ensure that hundreds from the surrounding villages would witness the hoisting.

But, the District Magistrate had issued prohibitory orders, in spite of which hordes of people attended the fair. Indiscriminate firing followed, and according to most versions, at least nine people were killed. Rings a bell? Jallianwala Bagh. And quite fittingly, Vidurashwatha is known as the Jallianwala Bagh of the South.

A memorial
Today, there stands a memorial, amidst a lawn that is being laid out. Reading out the names listed on it gives one goosebumps.
Bhajantri Bheemappa, Naama Ashwathanarayana Sreshti, Narasappa, G T Hanumantappa, Venkatagiriappa, Sulagitti Narasappa, Gacchannagaru Narasappa, Naagam Mallaiah, Gowramma. Who were they? No one seems to know.
At the memorial too, all is quiet. The pilgrims don’t seem to care much for the memorial.
But, a Trust comprising the local MLA, and an advisory committee with academicians from the region, along with the state government, is doing its bit to draw people to the place, and instill among them a love for history, and an awareness of what happened at Vidurashwatha. The Veera Soudha does indeed come as a pleasant surprise. A gallery of paintings, depicting the freedom struggle, apart from a library, are being planned here.

Story of Narasimhaiah
Meanwhile, an enthusiastic youngster, with an obvious passion for the history of the place, and who looks after the under-construction Veera Soudha, tells us of surviving witnesses to the  incident.

Narasimhaiah, now well into his eighties, and his wife Gangamma, (who can’t quite gauge how old she is) recall that day, in bits and snatches.

“There was a lot of firing, and people ran helter-skelter,” Gangamma explains, after much coaxing. But, why that happened, she has no idea. Though of course, she knows, it was all vaguely related to Gandhi. Now, her daughter chips in, “My father still goes to Vidurashwatha twice a year, and they honour him with a shawl, flowers and fruits.”
 Independence Day, Republic Day, we guess. So, has her father being part of the freedom struggle made any difference to their lives? Not really, she says.
For Narasimhaiah, a farmer, life moved on after Vidurashwatha, it seems. They live in an old hut, cut off from the world of political speeches and the analyses that revolve around freedom and polls that seek to know what being an Indian means to you.

How to get there
Vidurashwatha is about eight kilometres from Gauribidanur, and is a two-and-a-half hour’s drive from Bangalore. There are plenty of buses to Vidurashwatha from Bangalore.

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