Book celebrates city's peepul tree shrines

Book celebrates city's peepul tree shrines

Ashwath kattes hark back to Bengaluru's folk culture, and keep alive the community spirit

A team has documented Bengaluru’s many ashwath kattes (peepul tree shrines), and found much to commend them.

Ashwath kattes are rarely mentioned when experts talk of the city’s architecture. However, some of them have been around for centuries, and serve both as a social space and a religious space.

Metrolife caught up with Kiran Keswani, co-founder of Everyday City Lab, who spearheaded a project that culminated in the book ‘The Sacred and the Public’.

Her interest in ashwath kattes was triggered four years ago with Neralu, Bengaluru’s tree festival.

“I realised that ashwath kattes are quite common. I have seen tree shrines elsewhere. In Bengaluru, they seemed a little more than a roadside shrine. In North India, you see the people and the platform around the banyan. Here, the platforms are bigger. And they are often expanded to become community spaces,” she says.

Hoping to develop a research paper on the subject, Kiran applied to Azim Premji University about two years ago. The project looked at not just how the kattes work as religious spaces but also as social spaces.

“We did a study of 20 ashwath kattes in Bangalore. That was a slightly detailed study. We did about 20 interviews at each katte, and we were looking at how social capital works,” Kiran says.

The questions her team had for interviewees were based largely on conversations that take place at the katte. The received overwhelmingly positive responses. One post that the team put up on Facebook had asked for volunteers.

Many responded saying they couldn’t be full-time volunteers because they had day jobs, but would be happy to be part of the project on weekends.

“While we knew that we were doing a detailed study at 20 kattes, we thought, since we have volunteers writing from different organisations, they could do a simple documentation of a katte in their neighbourhood. We didn’t meet all the volunteers, some people just wrote in,” Kiran says.

In spite of real estate pressures, Metro construction and lack of public spaces, ashwath kattes have survived.

“There is a social fabric which exists. For urban planners and administrators, it would be nice to keep in mind the fact that it’s not just the physical fabric that we need to plan, but also the social fabric,” she says. As Bengaluru grows, it is taking several villages into its fold, but the culture of kattes had never quite gone away.

“So, the social and cultural life of these villages continues to exist in spite of the physical fabric taking on a completely different shape. We need to look at what has existed, and we don’t really have to go to historic towns. Bangalore is a growing metropolis and these everyday practices have not really gone away. The first thing to do is to become aware of these spaces ourselves,” Kiran says.