One city, many towns

One city, many towns

One city, many towns

Cities are like people. Just as a person's character is not fixed but is determined by context, so it is with cities. Like people, they are not homogeneous. This is certainly true of Bengaluru. With multiple centres, multiple histories and multiple trajectories, Bengaluru is really several different, coexisting cities. You could wake up in one Bengaluru, have lunch in another and your evening tea in a third.  How things have changed in 500 years. Or have they?  

Back in 1537, when Kempegowda established the city of Bengaluru, it is said that he invited traders and people in various professions to his new capital. Like other medieval Indian cities, Bengaluru too was organised according to occupation, with each locality devoted to one trade or profession.  

One of the earliest descriptions of Bengaluru comes to us from the Marathi poet Paramanand who, in the late 1600s, described the city in his poem. He talks of whitewashed mansions and great markets, of watchtowers and turrets, of deep lakes and fountains in every square in the old city.  

Multiple hues

The fountains and turrets are long gone. Yet, the footprint of Kempegowda's fort still lives on, so does its character. Avenue Road is and was the main thoroughfare through the old pete area. Veer off into one of the small lanes to the left or right and it is almost like walking back 500 years. Narrow old lanes still zigzag through this part of the city. The jewellers' and cloth merchants' shops are still clustered where they were. There are still streets where all the shops sell dry fruits or spices.  

Two-wheelers loaded with merchandise teeter past. Men carrying heavy loads call out, "Side, side." The old city is an engine of commerce, both wholesale and retail. The very air thrums with trade, as it has for 500 years. The nature of some trades has of course changed. Where once shops sold leaf plates, they now sell thermocol and disposable plates. Plastic baubles, polyester saris and plastic trinkets now fill the shelves in many other shops.  

The dwellings themselves are now modern but the old temples built by the various communities of the area - the oil-pressers, gold merchants, weavers - still stand. Another striking constant are the kattes: open spaces that reveal themselves suddenly as you walk through the labyrinthine lanes. Usually these kattes have a peepal tree. Often there is a temple or a dargah next to it. In the times when Kempegowda rode through these areas on horseback, were there more such open areas, I wonder. Did some have the fountains that Paramanand speaks of?  


Just about 3 kilometres away, a new extension of Bengaluru came about 120 years ago, in response to a devastating epidemic of plague. Here too is a market, of a very different character. Basavanagudi's Gandhi Bazaar is a visual and olfactory feast. Lined with flower stalls on one footpath, and vegetable sellers on the other, the vendors all vie for your eye with their creatively displayed colourful merchandise. There are showrooms and shops selling the usual clothes, shoes, bags and books. There are also grandige angadis, shops that stock items used in worship and rituals, items required in traditional 
Hindu marriages, uncommon spices used in traditional kitchens, and herbs for home-made medicinal concoctions.


The pace of life seems to slow as you step off the frenetic market street into the quiet side streets. Women with flowers in their hair return from the market, laden baskets in hand. Several mathas dot Basavanagudi's streets where dhoti-clad men chug past on scooters. The planning that went into the neighbourhood is still evident in the wide roads lined with gigantic trees, and the area's large parks. The occasional 100-year-old bungalows set in large gardens add to the genteel atmosphere.  

Culture fills the air in Basavanagudi. There are shops selling Indian musical instruments, discreet signs advertise classes in music, bharatanatyam or vedic chanting. Cultural institutions like the Basavanagudi Union, once colloquially referred to as Masti Club because the great litterateur frequented the place, and even the road names hark back to when the area was home to some of Kannada's greatest writers including D V Gundappa and A N Krishna Rao.


The plague that led to the formation of Basavanagudi and Malleshwaram also led to the establishment of Fraser Town, just north of the existing Cleveland Town in what was then the Civil and Military Station of Bengaluru. Like Basavanagudi, Fraser Town, too, was planned to keep the plague away. This meant plots were to have bungalows only, roads were wide and with adequate drainage, and were usually laid out in chessboard 


Cosmopolitan culture

Among the first few people to move to the new extension were those who had moved out of Shivajinagar. These included Muslims, Hindus and Christians. Soon, people from different communities began to call these areas home ­- Anglo-Indians, Mangalore Christians, Tamil-speaking communities and so on.  

Growing up in Fraser Town meant your neighbour on one side would be a Christian, on the other a Hindu, and one house away, a Muslim. As Peter Colaco, who grew up in this neighbourhood, says in his book on Bengaluru, "We took for granted the existence of different people around us, their different beliefs, their different languages."

This cosmopolitanism meant a bonanza of foods and festivities for children (and adults)! For Christmas, all children, including Hindus and Muslims, went carol singing and everyone got kulkuls, rose cookies, cake and other goodies from their Christian friends and neighbours. For Ramzan, you would get biryani and sheerkurma from your friends. Yugadi meant holige from the aunty next door. And for Deepavali, everyone would turn out to burst crackers and of course, to eat! This pluralism continues to a large extent to this day.  

There are also a few physical remnants of the past here. Exuberant, parapeted, multi-roofed and monkey-topped bungalows still stand on some streets, quite in contrast with the more classical-looking Basavanagudi bungalows.  

The settlement of Halasuru predates the British by several centuries and yet is unmistakably shaped by them, or rather by their establishment of the cantonment. What probably began as a settlement clustered around the millennium-old Someshwara Temple later formed part of Kempegowda's territories, being granted to him by Achyutaraya, the then ruler of the Vijayanagar empire. The Halasuru Lake is said to have been added to the landscape during Kempegowda's times.  


In 1809, the new cantonment of Bangalore was established close by. This formed a new nucleus of growth for the city, attracting many 
migrants including Tamil, Marathi and Telugu speaking people. Halasuru's distinctive character today is partly due to the synthesis of the various cultures of people who made it their home many generations ago.   


Halasuru is dominated by people in service occupations, many of whose ancestors worked in the army or in the cantonment. And while the bazaar in the pete has both wholesalers and retailers, like Gandhi Bazaar, Halasuru's markets cater mainly to local residents.  

Unlike Basavanagudi and Fraser Town, Halasuru did not have bungalows in gardens. Instead, in the fashion of most Indian towns, its houses opened out onto the street. You can still see some of these old houses here, with other typical Indian features like jagalis, niches for lamps and courtyards.

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