Caste and the City

The Living Stream

“Are you a Brahmin?”

“Yes.”

“Have you bathed?”

“Yes.”

“Why haven’t you put vibhuti on your forehead? You will find some in that box over there. Use it.”

Writer DV Gundappa’s essay on the origins of the restaurant business in Bengaluru includes this brief conversation of his with Venkanna, the owner of the second restaurant in the city which was built in the early twentieth century. This restaurant had three small wood-panelled compartments with paper slips pasted on them: “For Brahmins,” “For loukika Brahmins,” and “For Non-Brahmins.”

Gundappa is clearly talking of the city outside the Cantonment which had seen, since the mid-19th century, night clubs, bars, taverns and public houses, with names like Adelphi Shades, Elysium and New Inn, all of which were restricted to the White population. A century later, the restaurant milieu in Bengaluru has loosened up greatly even as the vegetarian/non-vegetarian divide continues to matter heavily and a nervousness around serving beef in restaurants is manifest at times.

A social history of how caste and religion shaped the social world of Bengaluru does not exist.

More than half of all the migrants to Bengaluru come from within Karnataka, a demographic fact mirrored by the proliferation of Lingayat-owned eateries and stores serving North Karnataka cuisine and of small restaurants serving ragi mudde and meat dishes from the plains of Southern Karnataka. While the complaint about vegetarian upper-caste families not renting out houses to meat-eating families continues to be heard, the hostility of old neighbourhoods towards having non-vegetarian restaurants in their midst appears to have waned a bit.

The early 20th century is, of course, a time of shrewd caste mobilization across colonial India. The Lingayats and the Vokkaligas, the two dominant castes of Karnataka, founded the Mysore Lingayat Education Fund and the Vokkaligara Sangha in Bengaluru in 1905 and 1906, respectively, to represent – and indeed, cultivate – the common interests of their castes. The Mysore government granted land for them in the city to build their offices and student hostels. A chief activity of these organizations was to offer scholarships and free hostel accommodation to encourage their students from their communities to complete higher education. Other castes took similar steps in self-organization in subsequent years. The Kurubara Sangha, for instance, was formed in 1926. The caste mobilization seen in this phase had major consequences for recruitments to the bureaucracy, judiciary and the political arena as well as to the emerging urban professions in law, medicine and engineering.

Formed in the late 19th century, neighbourhoods like Basavanagudi, Chamarajpet and Malleswaram continue to show the hold of Brahminical culture. Basic questions, though, still elude answers: where did the original residents of these neighbourhoods come from? How were they able to get concentrated there?

Through the 19th and the early 20th century, several Christian missionary organizations and reform minded upper caste individuals ensured the formal education of hundreds of Dalit children in the city. What did these children do after completing their education?

At present, 387 officially recognized slums exist in Bengaluru. What is the world of caste in these slums? The castes of migrants from outside Karnataka is yet to register in the popular imagination of the city.

Castes, of course, don’t inhabit insular worlds. For instance, Varamahalakshmi, a festival originally of the Shettys, a merchant caste, is now celebrated by several other castes. And, devotees from across castes visit well-known dargahs and churches of Bengaluru.

The names of the various stops on a Namma Metro ride offer reliable clues about the castes with political clout in Bengaluru. They also temper the easy talk about the cosmopolitan nature of the city.

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