INTACH, an NGO that is involved in the conservation of our heritage in all forms, has been conducting several heritage walks, named Parichay (Introduction), around several areas of Bangalore. On 30th November, they conducted a walk in the Russell Market area.
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The Russell Market area is a bustling hub of commercial activity today, and was no less so on Sunday morning. The beginning of the walk was at Adams Square, for which Mohammed Sheriff, a tomato merchant, had a comment. "It’s actually Richards Square," he said, pointing to a plaque behind him. "It’s called Adams Square because of the famous Adams emporium, which is a very old-established shop on this square." The tomato wholesale business and the vegetable vending were proceeding at a brisk pace with black kites sailing above the adjacent beef market, and sparrows hopping about cheerfully amongst the discarded fruits, vegetables and leaves.
Soon, a group of interested people gathered to find out more about the area, some with cameras, some without, some with umbrellas, some without (it did drizzle in the early part of the afternoon, but thankfully, the rain stayed off, and the walk was satisfactorily conducted!), IT engineers, architects, housewives, HR Professionals…the group was a varied one!
H R Prathibha, the convener of INTACH, Bangalore, welcomed all of us and spoke a little about how Shivajinagar has developed, and a little about the activities of INTACH, especially their Parichay walks, of which this was the fifth. The others were to Begur Temple, Bangalore Fort and its vicinity, the Ulsoor Someshwara Temple and its vicinity, Sultanpet and Nandi village (at the bottom of Nandi Hills).
Pratibha, Pankaj Modi, Kripa Rajangam and Meera Iyer, all volunteers at INTACH, then showed everyone several traditional games that they have been developing and hoping to popularise amongst children, keeping them affordable. Games that one can find etched in the granite floors, such as Aadu huli aata, navakankari, and chenna mane. These were made with the help of Chennapatna artisans, on brightly coloured boards. One of the visitors showed his skill at spinning a top and picking it up in his hand as it spun!
Pankaj and Kripa then talked about how, originally, Shivajinagar (a name which was conferred upon the area after Independence) was probably a water body, which became an agricultural settlement in the 15th or 16th century, and later, when the British moved to the Cantonment area, it became a service settlement. It is, even today, a mixture of Hindu, Christian, and Muslim communities, and one of the unofficial sayings about the area is, "If you cannot get something in Shivajinagar, you cannot get it anywhere in the world!"
As the British presence in the Cantonment area grew, the Shivajinagar area became a kind of buffer zone between the ‘white’ areas and the ‘native’ ones, where the British could come and make their purchases. The area was initially known as Belikkahalli, probably derived from Bili Akki or ‘white rice’, which was traded here. This name got anglicized to ‘Blackpally’, with the British probably denoting it as a settlement of ‘black’ people! Even today, there is a plaque on a school in the area which gives the name as ‘Blackpally’.
The most impressive landmark of the area, St Mary’s Basilica, has existed in different forms from 1685, when a small chapel was built. It is the oldest Catholic church in Bangalore. The Pope, in 1974, elevated the church to the status of a basilica, one of the only six such holy places in India. It has the layout of a Latin cross with basilica type design, and is built in Gothic Style. The church had some glass paintings from France adorning its windows. These had been removed during World War II due to fear of their being damaged by air attacks. The feast of the church takes place in September, when people of all communities assemble in large numbers. It being a Sunday, the church was very crowded indeed, and the group started walking down the narrow little lanes of Shivajinagar behind Russell Market. Cane, wrought iron, and readymade garment shops abound, and additionally, goods of every description are on sale.
While walking, Kripa and Pankaj mentioned how Alam Ara, the very first Indian movie, was shown at Elgin Theatre first, which no longer exists. We then walked past the Meenakshi Amman Temple, said to be more than 200 years old, and went to the Mohammed Ali Hall, a beautifully decorated "mews", which used to house the horses and carriages of the affluent. Just a couple of these mews remain. The central cobbled courtyard, the stables and the rooms above bear witness to an era before the advent of cars. The plaque at the entrance doorway dates this building to 1824.
Next on the itinerary, was the Bhoopalam Subba Chetty Choultry, which has been in the same Telugu family, that of Bhoopalam Chetty, for more than a hundred years. It has a central courtyard surrounded by rooms. The choultry would be occupied by travellers, or the building hired out for weddings. In the outside yard of the choultry, is a tower built on the lines of the Kempe Gowda towers, that used to demarcate the boundaries of old Bangalore.
The walkers then stopped at one of the numerous little shops that dot the area, and had piping-hot chai and samosas. It was a welcome break! Meera had even identified a public convenience that the walkers could use. It was quite clean, and had plenty of water, too! There are quite a few old residences here, cheek by jowl with the featureless modern architecture, little gems that shine out of the mediocrity of present-day architecture.
We then visited an example of what the British called the ‘mews’ – a kind of cobbled courtyard around which was built a set of stables and places for horses and carriages, with accommodation, above, for the grooms and stable lads. The sole publicly-accessible building of this type is, today, the Mohammed Ali Hall. Built in 1824, it still remains close to its original, except for addition of some temporary structures. However, the ground floor has been converted into a cane furniture workshop, and the stables are now rented out. The upper floor continues to remain as residences. The traditional Bangalore architectural features such as the monkey-tops, trellis works, cast-iron pillars and brackets are all visible here.
The last area to be explored was the Russell Market building itself. The walk confined itself to the vegetable, fruit and flower section and did not go into the meat or fish areas. Nagendra, a vegetable vendor, spoke to the walkers in detail, recounting how vendors were only lessors, and not owners, but that his family had had this stall for over a hundred years now. "Would you like your children to follow you into this profession?", asked one walker. "No," replied Nagendra; "I am educating them so that they can do better." Then, as an afterthought, he smilingly added, "Well, that’s what my father said, too, and here I am…."
At about noon, the walk ended. Everyone thanked Kri
pa and Pankaj for a very illuminating and enjoyable time, and reflected upon the way this city of ours has moved from agriculture to the services sector! INTACH Bangalore’s Parichay walks, carefully planned by Meera Iyer and the other volunteers, are definitely something to look out for and attend.
For more info about INTACH, Bangalore, check out their site here
Unfortunately, there seems to be no details about the Parichay walks, but one can contact them and get the details of other walks as they are planned.⊕