The search for mundane history

forfeit:The remains of the citadel (on the left) near the place where the fort was breached by the British. photos by author

History to most of us is all about palaces, monuments, museums, architecture and artefacts, woven with tales of great kings and queens, leaving us with images of an imagined past. Some years ago, I began a project, with Lingaraj G Jayaprakash and Venkatesh Parthasarathy, retracing the journey of Francis Buchanan which opened up a different way of exploring the history that delves into the mundane and in places that would disconcert the history-tourist.

Soon after the end of Tipu Sultan’s reign, Buchanan was appointed by the British East India Company to conduct a comprehensive survey across parts of southern India, including erstwhile Mysore. During the years 1800-01, he collated and recorded in great depth and meticulous detail, various aspects of common people’s lives and livelihoods, inconspicuous places of worship, structures of public utility and landscapes that we wouldn’t otherwise have even cared to gaze at.

His work was published in 1807 entitled, A Journey from Madras through the countries of Mysore, Canara and Malabar and has proven to be an endless source of information and inspiration. Although we have been retracing Buchanan’s journey for over a decade now, recent episodes of our travels along the beaten Bengaluru-Srirangapatna track capture the essence of our explorations.

Now and then

“In this hilly tract, there is a race of men called by the other natives Cad’ Eriligaru; but who call themselves Cat’ Chensu,” states a sentence in Buchanan’s book.

After locating River Arkavathy at Ramanagara (Rama-giri in Buchanan’s book), now clogged with weeds and sewage, we drove to Ramadevara Betta. As we approached the hill, we noticed a small ‘colony’ for the resettlement of Iruligar tribes outside the forest area; the name Chensu seems to be no longer in usage. We spoke to an older person of the tribe; they are actually happier outside the forest today earning some Rs 600 per day as opposed to collecting honey in the forest and selling it for a pittance.

The hill is now a sanctuary for vultures, a critically endangered species. We were lucky to spot a few as we began our ascent up some 400 steps recalling Buchanan’s comment that the fort was “capable of a very tedious defence…” Apart from temples, we saw the large donay with little steps carved into the rock and recalled Buchanan’s succinct description of the view from the top.

From Ramanagara we made a detour to Gattipura (Ghettipura) where Buchanan vividly describes the production of iron and steel. As we approached Gattipura (translated as hard town) we noticed a stony hill, its blackish surface suggested a link to iron ore. We began our enquiries with local people about smelting but the very mention of iron made them nervous and unfriendly. Coincidentally, it was at Gattipura that Buchanan mentions something which exactly matched our own experience.

“I am at loss to account for this desire of concealment relative to minerals, which also extends to every kind of quarry throughout the country… Men, who have given me apparently correct information relative to their farms, have eagerly denied knowledge of the fossile kingdom, which they no doubt possessed, and for which denial I can assign no plausible motives.”

With the help of a couple of local officials, a village elder ultimately relented and told us that there were smelting furnaces still standing on a piece of village land. Unfortunately, when we reached the location, the furnaces were not to be seen; they were possibly buried beneath the boundary of the field under heaps of earth and thorny bushes. Meanwhile, the field adjoining the supposed furnaces was strewn with pieces of slag and smelted iron. This, we were convinced, was indeed the site where Buchanan had seen several furnaces operating with iron sand collected from the adjoining hill.

Back on the Mysore highway, we went in search of the red stone mentioned by Buchanan at the “small” temple of Hanumanta, en route to Channapatna (Chinapatnam). It is now the prominent Kengal Anjaneya Swamy Temple a few kilometres from Ramanagara. As we entered the compound, straight ahead of us was a small hillock strewn with red rocks and cut slabs of red granite.

We drove into Maddur through a small lane that opened up into a large space occupied by the Ugra Narasimha Swamy Temple. The priests of the temple showed us the inscriptions of King Vishnuvardhana and the typical Hoysala pillars in the temple’s interiors. When we enquired about the fort which Buchanan reported, they recalled accounts of a fort surrounded by a moat but asserted that there were no remnants of it now. Meanwhile, they offered to show us the Varadaraja Swamy Temple situated on the citadel without a gopura. As they led us up the stairs, we noticed the exterior wall was unusually wide and bulky and looking down we could clearly see that it was flanked on the outside by a sunken area of some 100 feet in width and thickly vegetated. Could this have been the “burthensome” fort wall described by Buchanan and the moat on the exterior that the priests mentioned? As we discussed this possibility, the priests opened the doors to a spectacular idol of Lord Vishnu that left us absolutely awestruck.

The Maddur Reservoir (kere) is a few kilometres away from the town. Driving along lush green paddy fields in the hot summer sun, we came to a large embankment with a short flight of steps. Climbing up, it wasn’t just some reservoir that greeted us; it was literally an ocean with its waters extending all the way into the horizon. We spent a few quiet moments watching the kingfishers dive into the waters and the beautiful green irrigated fields below while giving a thought to the effort and skill that would have gone into building this reservoir some thousand years ago.

Capturing the cycle of time

As we drove towards Srirangapatna, a stone structure that we have often ignored drew our attention this time. It was a mantapa, and although dilapidated, its interiors were rather cool even in the midday summer heat; something that would make any weary traveller grateful.

Srirangapatna [Seringapatnam] is a tourist hotspot; we decided to check just a couple of things that Buchanan mentions but not where you find people thronging. We strolled through the narrow lanes of Shahar Ganjam; with many of the old buildings in a state of utter disrepair and new concrete houses springing up, Buchanan’s description seemed to once again capture the cycle of time.

Finally, we visited the place where the British breached the fort in the siege of Srirangapatna in 1799, close to where the obelisk was erected in 1907. As we tried figuring out the moves of the British across the river and the outer walls of the fort from Buchanan’s account, what caught our attention was a large mound of earth that had bricks embedded at its base. Unable to deduce its purpose, we checked an old map where a ‘citadel’ has been shown at the very same place. Unfortunately, we were not able to find any other record of this citadel located on the eastern side of the fort.

From landscapes to a thousand-year-old lake, from dilapidated structures to a medieval industry, Buchanan’s journey had opened our eyes to prosaic remnants of the past. And there is still so much to discover, even on this rather unadventurous route; farming implements and practices, cattle breeds and plant species, the making of steel wire, limestone, toddy, glass, jaggery and palm sugar, the customs of different communities… we are sure to return soon in search of more mundane
history.

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