220-yr-old structure under threat 

A thoughtless BDA plan could result in the razing of a tower built by the British to launch a grand survey of the Indian subcontinent
Last Updated : 17 August 2021, 07:06 IST
Last Updated : 17 August 2021, 07:06 IST
Last Updated : 17 August 2021, 07:06 IST
Last Updated : 17 August 2021, 07:06 IST

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Citizens and conservationists are striving to save a structure in Bengaluru that was part of the Great Trigonometrical Survey (GTS) in the late 19th century.

The Sampigehalli Auxiliary Tower Station, near Jakkur, was the first in a series of towers set up as part of an ambitious project in the 1800s and early 1900s to measure the Indian subcontinent.

Citizens and history buffs fear the tower could soon be demolished or damaged as the Bangalore Development Authority is planning a park there.

A pilot for the GTS was carried out in Bangalore in 1800. Subsequently, the project began in 1802 in Chennai. Surveyors triangulated their way (physically) from Chennai, Bengaluru, and Mangaluru.

Meera Iyer, convenor of Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (Intach) says the survey led to the creation of accurate maps, and the Sampigehalli structure played a significant role in the operations. “The project helped in figuring out the exact curvature of the earth. It eventually led to Mt Everest being measured and being confirmed as the world’s highest mountain,” says Meera.

Baselines and observatories were established in many places across India. A baseline is established to measure the distance between two points and that will be a known distance.

Many used the known distance to continue measuring further on. In Bengaluru, traces exist of a baseline established in 1865. One end was in Kannur near Bagaluru and the other near the Kempegowda tower at Mekhri Circle. Two additional intermediate stations were established around that time. One is lost without a trace, and the other, near Nagawara, is barely visible, she says. The BDA now proposes a road, park and hospital in the vicinity of the Sampigehalli tower.

“This heritage structure could easily be made part of those plans. It can actually be a sunrise and sunset point,” suggests Meera. Intach would be more than willing to step in to restore the structure, she told Metrolife.

Citizens’ plea

Sampigehalli residents have petitioned the BDA Commissioner to earmark the structure as a historical site and a scientific tourist spot.

Jagath Mohan, who lives in Sampigehalli, says the Venkateshpura lake nearby and the tower are under threat from land grabbers.

“A part of the lake has been filled up with an eye on real estate. JCBs have already started clearing the weeds,” he says.

Saifullah Khan, employee of a telecom company, has lived in Sampigehalli since 2014. “There was a time when this place was lush green and the lake used to draw some rare animals, insects and birds. All that has stopped after a part of it was grabbed,” says Saifullah.

Why it is important

Dharmendra Kumar Arenalli, civil engineer and history buff, has made a short video about the tower and its significance.

“It was Lt Col William Lambton who first started the survey in 1800. The survey started from Hennur-Bagalur and stretched towards what is now Ramana Maharshi Park near Mekhri Circle. This tower is of interest to every civil engineer,” he says. In 1986, Mount Everest got its name from the great surveyor George Everest. It was then thought to be the highest peak in the world. Survey towers similar to the one in Sampigehalli exist only at Nagawara and one of the few heritage objects from the GTS project left in the country.

Uday Kumar P L, historian, conservationist and project director (honorary), Mythic Society, works in the area of digital conservation of inscriptions. He says the structure was part of one of the greatest scientific projects of its time. “It was important in determining the shape of the earth. Some said it was oval, others said it was round and a few thought that it was flat at the equator. This survey helped clear such doubts,” he says. The survey lasted 130 years. “The British also used it to differentiate between hillock and land and navigate their way around, “explains Uday. Many surveyors lost their lives during this survey because of the harsh conditions they were exposed to. They would brave death and disease, and enter deep forests. The maps they developed were inch-perfect and extraordinarily accurate,” says Uday.

What can be done

Restore dilapidated tower.

Build a park around it.

Make it a sunset point.

Instal signboards.

Promote science tourism.

What is BDA’s plan?

Commissioner H R Mahadev says he has put a temporary stop to the work. “I recently came to know the worth of this place. If there is historical relevance then we will do everything we can to preserve it,” he says. He plans to visit the place soon.

What is an auxiliary tower station?

Auxiliary tower stations helped verify the accuracy of the baseline used for land survey, according to conservationist Meera Iyer.

“Accuracy was all important. The Sampigehalli Auxiliary Tower Station is a very simple structure - a platform on which a pillar once stood. The pillar is long gone. The platform exists but needs some consolidation,” she says.

The tower stands on a hillock. “In the centre of the platform is a deep, perfectly circular pit where there was once a 12-foot high pillar. That pillar has disappeared. The centre of that pillar would have had a marking that pinpointed the spot from where measurements were taken as part of the Great Trigonometrical Survey,”
she says.

Published 23 February 2021, 19:07 IST

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