An INTACH walk took some of us to Avenue road last Saturday with Lathasshree KS, an archaeologist who unearthed for us the Avenue road of old times. We saw that morning a beautiful past that had been preserved for centuries, low-relief deities in the ground or a nandi that was partly submerged. One step at a time, we moved from the contemporary urban chaos to the ancient serene landscape of shrines, snake stones and peepul trees.
The axial symmetry of Chikpete
If we look at the map of the fort or Pettah area, there are two axes – the N-S axis that links Mysore bank in the north with the K.R.market in the south. There is the E-W axis that connects Cottonpet on the west to the Corporation or the George Oakes building on the east end. The Avenue road forms the N-S axis and the Old Taluk Catchery road or OTC road is the E-W axis of the fort. We had started the walk at Mysore Bank, i.e. at the northern end of Avenue road. The Bangalore map of 1791 shows the Avenue road as well as the OTC road as the prominent axes of the settlement. This map was prepared by Lord Cornwallis during the Third Anglo-Mysore War, with a plan to attack Bangalore.
A neighbourhood of ancient sacred groves
As we walked on Avenue road, we went into small shrines with stone mandapas that had perhaps once upon a time opened onto the streets and open spaces that surrounded them. Today, there are brick walls that enclose the mandapa, but if we were to imagine the inner sanctums and their carved mandapa stone columns dotting the landscape, with sacred groves stretching between the mandapas, we could generate a plan of the settlement in our mind, with its built spaces and un-built spaces weaving beautifully into each other and embedded in a natural landscape of trees and rocky terrain. It was such a beautiful experience as we listened to Lathaa recreating the ancient landscape with her stories of the communities, their beliefs and their gods!
We learnt that in this region, the Anjaneya idols that are carved in the boulder rock are mostly found holding weapons signifying that this was a defensive territory.
Each artisan-trader community with its own shrine
Within the pettah or fort settlement there is chikka-pete (small settlement/market) and dodda-pete (big settlement) which is what Avenue road was called. It is a conglomeration of different artisan-trader communities. There is akkipete (where the rice traders lived), there is balepete (where the bangle-sellers were), kumbarapete (potters) and so on. Each of these communities built their own shrines and worshipped their own deities. This was perhaps the reason why this area has more than two hundred shrines even today.
Lathasshree shared with us that since the Lingayat faith is casteless, anyone could take initiation and become a lingayat. There were a lot of traders who became lingayats. The guru of the lingayats, Basavana is said to be an incarnation of the nandi. The basava itself became the deity. The temples were built using the local material. The key principle was that one must know how to assimilate and acclimatize. The small shrines with their shaded mandapas were also resting places for the travelling traders who came here.
The Ranganathaswamy temple
We visited the Ranganathaswamy temple on RT street, what was once called Muthyalpete (muthu is pearls) because this is where the Jewellers community lived. They continue to live here and if one visits during working hours, one would see small shops with aachaaris making jewelry and tool shops for jewelry-making that sell wires of gold, pliers etc.
The Ranganthaswamy temple was established in 1628. Here, Lathashree read out a sanskrit inscription from a stone tablet on the wall of the temple. It talked of the different places from where the traders had come here including Pekundu, Perugonda, Chikanayakanapalli, Kattapatri, Chandragiri, Kolara, Hosakote, Kaveripatnam, Narsipuram, and Beluru for the offerings, festivals and other ceremonies of the god Ranganatha Muthuyalapete. For more on the Pettah, do check out this interesting fb page: Shades of Pete
The Katte culture
We saw that morning snake stones around peepul trees that continue to be worshipped today as in the past. The Devanga community that weaves silk cloth (Deva–anga) for the Devas adopted the katte opposite the Anjaneya temple and it is now converted into a large shrine. This is a community that has come from Tamil Nadu.
It seems that wherever the snake stones are is probably where there were the sacred groves. The trees were always a part of religious sites. The snake is honoured throughout the world. This is because it can beat its skin out and still be alive. This is associated with rejuvenation.
Why Bangalore is becoming more ritualistic
Tulasi Srinivas in his study on neighbourhood temples in Bangalore points out that it was expected that with increasing modernization, India would become more secular. However, in Bangalore, this has not happened.
He suggests that the anxieties of the growing middle class may have led to rituals being performed with increasing frequency and extravagance. He says “Temples are constantly filled with devotees performing rituals, the priests’ calendars are crammed with requests for Satyanarayana pujas (worship) for prosperity, Ganesha homas (sacred fire worship) for protection, Vandi (vehicle) pujas to guarantee the safety of vehicles and the passengers who ride in them, house warming ceremonies, and other such festivities. Cars are mobile shrines with an idol of one or other god on the dash board.” (Source: Srinivas, Tulasi. “Tradition in transition: globalisation, priests, and ritual innovation in neighbourhood temples in Bangalore.” Journal of Social and Economic Development 6.1 (2004): 57.)
The walk ends…
At the end of the walk we saw a beautiful motif of the sun-moon which Lathasshree explained was a late Vijaynagaram motif and could be the only one in the city of Bangalore. It signifies the ancient epithet yaavad chandra divaakarau which means “as long as the sun and the moon live” and could be read further as …so shall this shrine and so shall this community.
One thing we know for sure, this is a place where we would want to walk again, to see all that we have not seen before! You can find out more about the INTACH walks at: INTACH Parichay. If you would like to be on their mailing list, you can write to: firstname.lastname@example.org
You can reach Lathasshree Kolla at email@example.com and, to know more about the history of Bangalore, do check out the fb page: Tryst with history