Why we shouldn't forget Sankey...


We owe so many of our most cherished spaces and buildings to Richard Sankey: Bangalore’s largest park, a museum, a reservoir, a church and a government building. But far from being a celebrated name, this man lies almost unseen beneath the veil of history, writes Meera Iyer

SANKEY’S CONTRIBUTION The Government Museum and (right) the High Court in Bangalore. File Photos Of the many people who have contributed to making Bangalore the city it is today, I have always been in awe of one particular person. Awe because we owe so many of our most cherished spaces and buildings to him: Bangalore’s largest park, a museum, a reservoir, a church and a government building. But far from being a celebrated name, this man lies almost unseen beneath the veil of history, for apart from the reservoir, none bears his name: Richard Hieram Sankey.

An Irishman from far-away Tipperary, Sankey embarked on what was to be a distinguished military career when he was just 16, when he enrolled in the East India Company’s military college. And here is another reason I was always impressed by Sankey: From an early age, it was clear Sankey was no one-dimensional soldier but was prodigiously talented in many other fields. While at college, he already displayed considerable skill in painting and even won prizes for some of his artwork.

In 1848, after three years at the college, he arrived in India and went straight to Madikeri, his first posting as a Second Lieutenant in the Madras Engineers. Two years later, Sankey was posted as Superintending Engineer at Nagpur. In 1851, at the ripe old age of 22, he designed the first of his many buildings, Nagpur’s Anglican Cathedral of All Saints.

It was during his stint at Nagpur that we get a glimpse of Sankey’s other wide-ranging interests. While stationed here, Sankey published a paper on the geology of the Nagpur region, discovered the coalfields of the Kanhan Valley, and also found 250-million-year-old plant fossils. He was also intensely interested in the flora of the places he was posted in: many observations on Indian trees in books written at that time are credited to Sankey.

Perhaps it was this love of all things natural that drew him to Sophia Mary, whom he married in 1859. She was the daughter of the reputed amateur malacologist, William Benson, who studied and described many molluscs in the Indian sub-continent.

In 1857, Sankey was transferred to Calcutta and appointed under-secretary of the Public Works Department (PWD). But within a few weeks, the First War of Independence, also called the Mutiny, broke out. Sankey served in Kanpur, Allahabad and Lucknow during this time. As part of his duties, he reconnoitred several rivers, erected defences and built bridges for the British troops at short notice. Sankey received many commendations for his role during the Mutiny. After the Mutiny, Sankey served in Burma (where he found time to collect shells for his father-in-law, Mr Benson), Calcutta and the Nilgiris.

It was only in 1861 that he came to serve in the erstwhile Mysore State where he served for 13 years, beginning as assistant to the Chief Engineer, then Chief Engineer and finally, as secretary to the Chief Commissioner of Mysore.

Survey of tanks

One of Sankey’s first projects here was to carry out a systematic survey of the old tanks and map the catchment area of each. He then got several of the old channels, bunds and tanks repaired including, for example, the pristine-looking Sulekere tank near Maddur.

The engineer in Sankey recognised and admired the genius of the tank system. In a report written in 1866, he says, “thanks to the patient industry of its inhabitants,” 60 per cent of Mysore State was under tank irrigation. In fact, he adds, “it would now require some ingenuity to discover a site within this great area suitable for a new tank.”

But this is precisely what Sankey did in Bangalore. Then (as now!) a section of Bangaloreans continually bemoaned the state of their water supply. The cantonment depended largely on the Ulsoor tank and wells near it, and people fretted both about the quality and quantity of the water. In the 1860s, Sankey designed a project to collect and store water to supplement the needs of the Bangalore cantonment. The plan was not sanctioned until 1874, and then, partly because of a terrible famine that intervened, was only completed in 1882.

Building and designing

Apart from the tank, Sankey did a frenetic amount of building and designing in the 1860s. In 1864, he converted the fields between the Bangalore pete and the cantonment into the sprawling and charming 120-ha Cubbon Park. Sankey seems to have recreated on the ground the romantic landscapes that he painted on canvas, with winding paths and picturesque waterways. Incidentally, this was not the only park Sankey worked on: later, he beautified the botanical gardens in Madras and helped establish a park in his native Ireland.

In November that same year, Sankey worked on his second church when he helped build the St Andrew’s Kirk in Bangalore. The gothic structure was completed exactly two years later at a cost of Rs 40,000.

It was also in 1864 that Sankey began working on a new office building for the government’s administrators.

The site, chosen by Sir Mark Cubbon, Commissioner of Mysore, faced the parade grounds of the cantonment and its main road, today’s MG Road. Sankey writes that construction was made particularly difficult by the nature of the site, since it was partly dissected by deep water channels and partly filled with boulders. Nonetheless, with the able assistance of the contractors Narayanswamy Mudaliar, Bansilal Abhirchand and Messrs.

Wallace and Co., by 1868, he had designed and built the iconic Attara Kacheri, now called the High Court.

In the 1870s, Sankey designed Bangalore’s Mayo Hall (completed only in 1883) and another imposing structure in Cubbon Park, the Government Museum, which was completed in 1877.

It was around this time that a devastating famine hit Mysore, which proved to be a difficult time for Sankey, too. Sankey and the then Viceroy, Lord Lytton, had sharply differing views on how best to provide relief during the famine. The result was that a displeased Lytton summarily transferred Sankey to Shimla in 1877. For the next two years, Sankey served in Shimla and in the Afghanistan war.

Five years later, he was summoned back to south India when he was made secretary of the PWD in Madras. It was then that Sankey helped lay out Marina beach and beautified the botanical gardens.

Sankey retired and returned to England in 1884. He died in 1908 by which time he had been promoted to the rank of Lieutenant-General and also knighted.

According to an obituary in the Royal Engineers Journal published in 1909, Sankey was a born leader of men who “deserved and obtained the confidence and affection” of the officers and men who worked with him. I could certainly see this reflected in the many reports and papers that quoted Sankey or referred to him in glowing terms.

What is less easy to gauge is his attitude towards the ‘natives’ and theirs to him. While he clearly admired their skills in irrigation management and was keenly interested in their culture and history, he also did say he was ‘confounded’ by them sometimes.

No doubt Sankey was a part of the colonial establishment. But in our postcolonial fervour, perhaps we could refrain from undervaluing the many positive contributions to our country made by Europeans like Sankey. 

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