Monday, December 13, 2010

The granddaddy of inscriptions

Q: What do you call a man who was teacher, Principal, administrator (all before he turned 30), census officer, prolific author, historian, polyglot and archaeologist all rolled into one? A: The granddaddy of inscriptions, aka, Benjamin Lewis Rice.

There isn't a historian in Karnataka (amateur or otherwise) who has not repeatedly reached for books by Benjamin Lewis Rice, his best known being the Gazetteers and the many volumes of Epigraphia carnatica which carry translations of thousands of old inscriptions.

But the history of the man who uncovered so much of our history is also fascinating. School principal at 23, Inspector of Schools (for the whole state, mind you!) at 28, Director of Public Instruction (again, for all of Mysore) at 31.... I could feel feelings of inadequacy creeping up on me, reading about Rice! And what an adventurous life he led, full of the thrill of discovery! The man spent at least half the year on tour ferreting out historical relics and obscure inscriptions from all around Karnataka, braving cobras, disease and goodness knows what else along the way. Remember, this was the pre-automobile era so all touring was done on horseback, or ponyback to be precise, for Rice had a white pony that he took on all his tours.

He knew Kannada, of course, having been born in Bangalore, but he also studied Hindi and Sanskrit, and later picked up Tamil and Grantha when he found he needed these to study inscriptions.

You can hear Lewis Rice's love of all things related to Karnataka's history and heritage in his writings, even in the dry official reports. He writes with indignation about people destroying old sculptures and with irritation about some bumbling restoration efforts.

I visited the house where he lived last week. It's a beautiful bungalow, well-maintained, set in a sprawling garden, with giant, stately trees. But the present owner wants nothing to do with Rice or his memories. "That was all so long ago," she kept saying.

You can read more about Lewis Rice in today's Spectrum supplement in Deccan Herald which carries an article on him that I wrote recently.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

On John Cameron, a Prince and a scandal

Lalbagh has a special place in my heart, just as I suspect it does in the hearts of most Bangaloreans. I'm always amazed at just how many people have shaped this park. Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan, of course, established the formal gardens. But so many people have since done their mite and left their stamp on this verdant space: Black, New, John Cameron, Gustav Krumbiegel, HC Javaraya, MH Marigowda to name to the well-known ones. But even though we know that all these men worked passionately and ceaselessly on our beloved park, we knew precious little about the men themselves, especially the earlier ones.

Take John Cameron, for instance (you can read more about him in my article that was published yesterday). He was one of those men who seems to have been able to squeeze 28 hours of work into 24. There is a popular story told of his efforts to popularise chow chow (aka seeme badanekai, Bangalore kattrikai, chayote, Sechium edule) in and around Bangalore. I could just imagine him riding about the countryside on his horse, urging farmers to try out the new crop. But I wonder what made him come to India... What did he do when he went back to England? Where did he stay when in Bangalore? And what about his family? His children and his wife?

John Cameron is the one who had the idea of a conservatory in Lalbagh. Its foundation stone was laid in 1889 by Prince Albert Victor (yes, that's why we have an Albert Victor Road in Bangalore), a grandson of Queen Vikki, and heir to the Prince of Wales, who himself was heir to the throne. This is why the conservatory was for a while known as the Albert Victor Hall or Albert Victor Conservatory. We, of course, know it as the Glass House.

Incidentally, Prince Albert Victor was embroiled in a a salacious scandal back home just before he came to India. There were rumours (now known to be all false) that he had been involved in 'acts of gross indecency' and 'buggery'. The whole India trip must have been such a welcome breather for the poor chap. He managed to live down the scandal but he never made it to the throne. He died of the flu just three years after his visit to India.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Where the streets have names

iJanaagraha, the recently launched online portal of the NGO Janaagraha, last month asked for a short piece on street names. A bit of a coincidence, because a colleague and I had been wondering about some street names just a few days before that.

The article was quite fun to write, though a wee bit stressful, because of a short deadline (a perennial problem!). I would have liked to research some things a bit more so I'm not overly happy with the end result. But here it is on iJanaagraha.

Some of the street (and locality/park) names that didn't make it to the article: Coles Park and Cubbon Road and Park (after former British Residents, of course); Dobbspet - variously known as Daabspet, Dabbaspet etc. (after Major General RS Dobbs); Sajjan Rao Circle; Campbell Road (after a missionary); Hardinge Road (after a viceroy); and many, many more.

But there are hundreds more stories that I don't yet know, waiting to be found behind hundreds more streets...

Monday, November 1, 2010

Heat, dust and Gulbarga

I'm always amazed at how, no matter in which direction you go, our country has all these little historic gems just waiting to be discovered. Take Gulbarga for instance. The name always brought to mind heat, aridity, dust and little else. Luckily, we live and we learn, for I now know that Gulbarga is actually home to an astonishing number of historic treasures. And the best part is that many of the buildings in the town are truly one of a kind.

Take the Jami Masjid, for instance, a building that historians and architects have waxed eloquent over for decades. It has a unique plan, a kind that you don't see anywhere else in the country. Or the Bala Hissar. Again, the building is the only one of its kind in India.

And yet, when my colleague and I asked our taxi driver to take us to the Gulbarga fort, his response was: "Why do you want to go there? It's a big, dirty, old ruin with nothing in it. Why don't you go see the new Buddha Vihar instead?" Well, we did actually make it to the fort, despite our taxi driver's best efforts. You can read a little more about the fort and a few of the other heritage buildings in Gulbarga in my article in today's Deccan Herald.

I was in Gulbarga for only a short while, certainly not enough to explore all, or even most of it. I hope to go back soon to see and experience more of the town. But I'm glad we did make it to the dargah of the sufi saint Khwaja Bande Nawaz. We went there just before closing time. All the courtyards, the mosque and even the paths between them were all full of people (of all faiths). And yet, the atmosphere was one of sanctity and serenity.

Oh and just for the record, at least when I went, Gulbarga was neither hot nor dusty!

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Megaliths and more...

I was at Hirebenkal in north Karnataka three weeks ago. This is a little village that is a mere 35km from Hospet but miles away in terms of crowds, facilities, and even accessibility. In the middle of the hills near the village is a fascinating cluster of hundreds of megalithic monuments - different types of dolmens, cists (burial chambers) and cairns (stone circles), all set amidst the dramatic boulder-strewn landscape that is so characteristic of northern Karnataka. Earlier this week, I wrote a story for Deccan Herald on this place.

Overall, the site is still relatively undisturbed, perhaps because of a taboo among people in Hirebenkal against going there. But clearly, the taboo is not widespread, for we met people from neighbouring villages who regularly bring their goats and cows here for grazing. It made for an interesting sight, seeing cows grazing amongst 2000-year-old megaliths... Only in India!

Of course, the feeling that the site had been untouched all those years was only an illusion. The picture on the right is of a cist, recently dug up by people who thought they would find treasure buried in it.

Hirebenkal is also chock-full of rock art - paintings done by the ancients on rocks in the area, showing deer, people, geometric designs, etc. More on that in a later post.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Bus Day

Earlier this month, Bangalore Midday asked for a piece on lesser-known heritage spots in Bangalore that can be reached by Volvo buses. They published this on 4th August, Bus Day. A nice way of promoting the use of buses, I thought.

Here are some of the areas I wrote about for them.


If you know that Kempegowda founded the city of Bangalore, you’ve probably heard of the tragic tale of sacrifice associated with its establishment. The story goes that in 1537, when construction of Kempegowda’s fort was nearly complete, the king ran into a problem: each time the southern gate was constructed, it would collapse at night. Astrologers advised Kempegowda that a human sacrifice, especially of a pregnant woman, would solve the issue. But Kempegowda found this idea repugnant. Knowing her father-in-law’s predicament, Lakshmamma, Kempegowda’s pregnant daughter-in-law, decided to take matters into her hand and sacrificed herself to appease the gods. A distraught Kempegowda raised a temple dedicated to the courageous woman.

You can see this temple and a memorial associated with young lady in Koramangala 6th Block, near the Parikrama School. The temple has undergone extensive renovations and little remains to indicate its past history. The temple opens only on Friday mornings. The memorial lies in the pocket-sized Lakshmamma Park, half a kilometre from the temple. The BBMP-maintained park is also used as a burial ground.

Bus number: 411K


“Lalbagh? Been there, done that,” you scoff. But this wonderful botanical garden has more than spectacular natural heritage to boast of. The best-known monuments in Lalbagh are probably the iconic Kempegowda tower atop the 3000 million-year-old Rock, and the Glass House, built in 1889-90. Lesser known heritage structures in the garden include the 150-year-old building that once served as the cottage of the superintendent and now houses the Lalbagh Library. Also dating from the same period are bandstand and the old now-ruined Lecture Hall, which still bears the double-headed eagle known as ganda bherunda, the crest of the Mysore Wodeyars. The guard room at the entrance of West Gate also has an interesting history. It originally stood in front of the house of Dewan Krishnamurthy. It was to be destroyed in the 1940s but was dismantled and shifted here in the 1940s by Sir Mirza Ismail and HC Javaraya, the then superintendent of Lalbagh.

Bus numbers: 2, 356 Q

Sunday, July 25, 2010

The SECA Kids

A colleague and I led an interesting heritage walk yesterday. We took 35 children from an economically disadvantaged background to Bangalore Fort and Tipu's Palace. The children, aged 6-16, are all part of an English class run by Swagath Education and Community Action, who, of course, do a whole lot more than just teach the children English.

We had taken the same children to Devanahalli last year - 48 of them last time! This time round, the numbers had reduced but their enthusiasm certainly hadn't! At Devanahalli, I had had a constant stream of questions - on guns, cannons, moats, the fort, Tipu, his sons....I was thrilled to see that they remembered so much of all that this time. They drew comparisons between the two forts, they had more questions, and they were bursting with answers and comments too!

At the end of the day, they gave us a card that they had made. The drawing shows Devanahalli Fort. Check out the three cannons on the fort walls, the two guards at the arched gateway, the little lines of soldiers in the foreground....I love it!

Monday, July 19, 2010

The one and only Ashoka

I happened to go to Koppal (in north Karnataka) a couple of months ago to see some Ashokan inscriptions maintained by ASI. As one who hated, nay abhorred, history in school, precious little of what I had 'by-hearted' about Ashoka remained in my memory - fought a war in Kalinga, was filled with remorse, converted to Buddhism, planted trees on roads.

There are two inscriptions at Koppal, one at Palkigundu and the other at Gavimath. You can barely make out the writing from the rock. And it doesn't help that at Palkigundu, some idiot has scribbled his name right on the inscription. But despite all that, the two 2300-year-old messages incised into the rocks stirred something in me. Not the usual All-hail-to-the-all-conquering-king. Nothing about the enemy submitting at the lotus feet of the ruler. Instead, a humble admission that he, Ashoka, had been a worshipper for a couple of years but had only applied himself for about a year, with dramatic results. And then an exhortation to all, whether exalted or not, to do the same so that "gods and men might mingle." In inscriptions elsewhere in the country, Ashoka talks of how he had given up military conquests and wanted only dhamma conquests! And all this because of a war.

Think about it. Have you heard of any other ruler in world history humane enough to recognise the costs of war and repent after one? I know of none. Not one. Even today, you still hear more of the "you're either with us or against us" kind of talk from world leaders, and only lip service, if at all, about the devastation brought about by war...

And talk about being progressive - Ashoka even had ministers for women's welfare!

So yes, as you can see, I came back from Koppal with an addition to my list of favourite people in Indian history!

Palkigundu is beautiful, by the way: hills, goats, goatherds, one dog, birds, quiet all along the way; and history waiting at the end of a lovely trek. What more could one ask for?

Today's Deccan Herald has my article on the Ashokan edicts at Koppal and Maski.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Lalbagh again

What a coincidence, and an unpleasant one, too. Soon after I wrote that article on Tipu's gardens for Deccan Herald a few weeks ago, the Horticulture Dept announced a slew of proposals for one of his gardens - Lalbagh. And what ill-thought out proposals they are!! A musical fountain, and a laser show to name a few. Apparently, they were impressed by what they saw in Singapore's Sentosa Island and want to recreate that look here. As someone on Intach's Facebook page commented, we don't want the Sentosa look, we want the Lalbagh look! And quite apart from questions of water shortage and maintenance of extravagances like musical fountains, have they thought about the effect laser shows will have on Lalbagh's birdlife?

And of course, there is the question of history! For more than 250 years, people have tended to the garden, adding to its wealth of trees. In 1891, when Lalbagh's area was just about 100 acres, it had 3,222 species of plants. Today, its area has more that doubled to 240 acres, but the number of species has decreased to 1,854. Isn't it obvious then where all or at least a part of that Rs. 84 crores should go? Into planting more trees, methinks.

More on Lalbagh in this article I wrote for Deccan Herald.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Tipu and his gardens

There was an item in the news recently about the State Forest Dept. seeking an amendment to the Karnataka Preservation of Trees Act (1976). (A big Thank You to Sheshadri of Hasiru Usiru for this information). The gist of the proposed amendment is that permission should not be required to cut trees of 42 species. Among the 42 species that the Forest Dept. wants people to be able to freely fell are beautiful and useful species such as neem, jackfruit, peepal, banyan, mango, tamarind and sheesham.

I couldn't help but contrast the cavalier attitude our administrators have towards trees with that of a ruler who died on this day 221 years ago: Tipu Sultan. Among his many proclamations was one that directed his amildars to try and plant 200 trees in every village. Another said people found guilty of minor offences could plant trees instead of paying a fine -- 2 mango and 2 jamun, to be looked after till they were of a certain height! There is also a story of how Tipu was thrilled to find a nutmeg tree during his capture of the fort of Cochin: here was one of the species he had been seeking to introduce, for it was not found in his kingdom. Tipu had the tree carefully uprooted, wrapped in rice straw and transported to one of his gardens in Srirangapatna. The tree died unfortunately. But some of the nutmeg and clove seedlings that he asked his ambassadors to bring back from Mauritius and elsewhere survived. Some of those were probably planted in Lalbagh too.

The next time you enjoy the peace and quiet of a morning walk in Lalbagh, spare a thought for one of the men who made it possible.

For more on Tipu and his gardens, read this published in today's Deccan Herald.

Monday, April 26, 2010

St Thomas's Town

Did you know that we have a tomb of one of Jesus Christ's disciples right here in India? St. Thomas is said to have lived and died in Chennai around 72 AD. The apostle is also called Doubting Thomas for it is said he refused to believe Jesus had been resurrected until he could put his finger through the risen Christ's crucifixion wounds. I visited some of the places associated with the apostle in Chennai recently. One thing that struck me was how in death, as in life, St. Thomas' name is associated with doubts...

A severely edited version of an article I wrote on Thomas in Chennai appeared in Deccan Chronicle. Not only did they edit the piece badly (IMO), they also forgot to give credit to the photographer Arul Jegadish. All in all, a bit of a mess :(

Here's more on the apostle’s Chennai connection:

Our exploration began where St Thomas died, at St. Thomas Mount. The peripatetic Italian, Marco Polo, who visited Chennai in the 1290s, says that Church brethren told him how the saint had been killed when a hunter aiming at some peacocks accidentally hit the apostle. Another Italian traveller, Bishop John de Marignolli, who came by about a hundred years after Polo,
corroborates this and adds that St. Thomas continued “throughout the night to preach, whilst his blessed blood was welling from his side; and in the morning he gave up his soul to God.”

Incidentally, the story more commonly given today is that St. Thomas was killed by a Brahmin, because the Brahmins were agitated by how popular the apostle was becoming...

At the summit is the Church of the Expectation of the Blessed Virgin, a simple church that is devoid of ostentation but rich in myth and legend. It was first built by Armenians and rebuilt by the Portuguese in 1521 and again in 1547. The Armenian influence is evident in the 14 beautiful paintings (dating to the 1700s) of Jesus and the apostles that line the walls. You can also see many Armenian inscriptions in and around the church.

The altar here is believed to mark the spot where St Thomas fell. The cross embedded in the wall behind the altar has an interesting story. It was unearthed by the Portuguese during excavations here. The large granite slab bears a cross and an inscription on top, and once had red stains on it. This is the famous bleeding cross which has been reported to sweat blood several times between 1556 and 1704. Tradition has it that it was fashioned by St Thomas himself and that he died holding it.

But controversy and doubts seem essential ingredients of all stories associated Doubting Thomas. The strange lettering incised on the cross definitely added to its aura of mystery. Although it was first assumed to relate to St Thomas, in the late 1800s, historians realised the inscription was actually in Pahlavi and, somewhat anti-climactically, had nothing to do with St Thomas, but recorded only the name of the person who fashioned the cross. Paleographically, the inscription and hence the cross were dated to about 650 AD, making it the oldest among only about half a dozen such Nestorian crosses in India.

Next to the bleeding cross is a beautiful oil painting on wood of the Madonna with baby Jesus, which according to legend was brought to India by the apostle himself and was painted by Luke the evangelist. Most historians scoff at this claim but I was thrilled to see a painting which could well be over 1,950 years old… sometimes, myths left unexamined through the rationalist’s lens are so much more satisfying!

Our next stop was to the stately Santhome Cathedral Basilica, near Marina beach, built over the spot where St. Thomas was buried. Thomas is believed to have built a chapel near the seashore where he prayed and preached, and on his death, was buried there. The church’s fortunes seem to have waxed and waned through the centuries for although a magnificent church stood here in the 1200s, by the 1500s, it was languishing. The Portuguese rebuilt it in the 1600s. In 1893, this building was demolished and the church in its present form came up and was consecrated in 1896.

Today’s cathedral is a grand Gothic edifice, complete with nave and transept, soaring towers and spires. Light streams in through exquisite stained glass windows in the clerestory. One set of three large stained glass windows depicting the episode where Jesus appears to Doubting Thomas, was made in Germany in the 1870s. Recent renovation work removed the paint covering the vaulted ceiling to reveal the beautiful, warm, brown tones of the original teak ceiling.

Signs of antiquity are everywhere. Lining the walls on either side of the walls is a row of ornate hand-carved chairs. In the transept on the right is a statue of Mary, brought here from Portugal in 1543. Called Our Lady of Mylapore, this 3-foot statue is said to be the one St. Francis Xavier used to pray to when he visited Mylapore in the 1500s.

At the very heart of the church, in the basement, is the apostle’s crypt and a tomb chapel. I learned that the soil around the grave has always been renowned for its miraculous powers. Bishop Marignolli, Marco Polo and other European travellers speak of several miracles wrought by the sacred soil. The church even sells small parcels of sand from the grave embedded in a small card which devotees can conveniently carry.

But the crypt itself is empty. According to some texts, the saint’s relics were transferred to Edessa in Syria sometime in the 4th century and from there to Ortona in Italy in the 1200s. But here again, doubts persist: Were his remains completely removed to Edessa? Or were some relics left behind?

If they were removed, why, in the late 800s, did the English king Alfred the Great send alms “to India to St. Thomas”? Several other European travellers over the next few centuries, including the redoubtable Marco Polo, describe “the place containing the body of the apostle St. Thomas”.

In the early 1500s, after strenuous efforts, the Portuguese claimed to have located the tomb and relics of St. Thomas in Chennai. They had planned to transfer the relics they found to Goa but eventually stored them in Cochin before sending them back to Santhome. Yet, when the tomb was opened in 1887, all it contained were a piece of a lance that killed the apostle and a fragment of his bone.

But the church does have some relics of St. Thomas. In 1952, the then Pope gifted a portion of Thomas’s finger from the relics at Ortona to commemorate 1900 years since the arrival of St. Thomas in India. You can see portions of this relic in the tomb chapel and in the church museum. I felt a shiver run through me as I gazed at the fragment of bone from the very hand that is believed to have touched the risen Christ. And I recalled how Doubting Thomas’ had said, “Unless I put my finger in the nail marks in his hands and place my hand in his side, I will not believe." And Jesus had let Thomas do so and had said, “Blessed are they that have not seen and have believed.

Monday, April 19, 2010

World Heritage Day

What a week! One heritage walk to organise and another to prepare for, an INTACH panel discussion to help organise, an article to edit for a friend and two to write. Aargh. Anyway, it all happened, goodness knows how. The INTACH-NGMA heritage walk at the Bangalore Fort was the most fun, the Deccan Herald article (which I had to put together with just about a day's notice) the least. Anyway, here is a link to the article.

Thursday, March 11, 2010


I was in Lakkundi (12 km from Gadag, about 60 km from Hubli) a few weeks ago - hot, dusty, typically bucolic, incredibly charming.

This picture was taken at the Manikeshvara temple, my favourite spot in Lakkundi (it is actually just outside it). The temple is in a small clearing in the midst of trees, and is utterly empty of people. Well, almost. The solitude, peace and quiet, and the large sheltering trees make this an ideal spot to contemplate on the higher things in life, as this man seems to be doing.

The railings that you see the man leaning against are along the Musukinabavi, one of the most beautiful kalyanis I have seen in Karnataka. It has a rather unusual design, complete with an underpass - no, not the ugly variety that you see on Bangalore' s roads, but a rather elegant design. A 'bridge' leads from the temple to where the man is standing. Under this is another 'bridge' - a set of beams that connects chambers (changing rooms?) on two sides of the tank. Underneath both these bridges is a long flight of steps leading to the water. There are small decorative shrines all around the kalyani's steps.

There are other interesting temples in Lakkundi - some with only walls, some with nothing more than a linga left, the rest having long been absorbed into adjacent dwellings. The small square houses, with their white plastered walls contrasting with the deep blue of the sky, reminded me of photos of Majorca. Of course, to my (admittedly biased) eyes, I found Lakkundi much more appealing, what with its cows lounging in the shade, its brightly painted wooden carts, the old men sitting on their haunches watching me...

Lakkundi has a shepherding community who make blankets and durries. I was on a tight schedule on this visit (on a project for the Archaeological Survey of India) and so didn't get to chat with too many people this time. That will have to wait for the next time...

Today's Deccan Herald has an article I wrote on Lakkundi.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Ah Chitradurga!

I had the pleasure of working on a project for the Archaeological Survey of India at Chitradurga recently: some colleagues and I installed some heritage interpretation panels there. What a vast and impressive fort this is!

On one of our visits, hubby and I managed to get to the fort at the unearthly hour of 6:00 am! And incredibly, we were not the only ones hanging about there, waiting for the gates to open. There was actually a rather interesting motley crowd, made up of two sleepy tourists (that's us), a lot of barefoot sari-clad women and dhoti-clad men - these were devotees who come to pray at the temple's many forts - and then there was a group of men in sneakers and shorts. It was only when we reached the Hidimbeshvara temple at the top of the fort that we realised what this last bunch was there for...Let me put it this way: who would want to work out in a stuffy old gym, when you could instead exercise in the brisk, invigorating air, in front of a 1000-year-old temple in a medieval fort atop a hill with a glorious view of a pink sunrise?

Apart from the many visits to the fort (which, of course, were the best parts of the project!), I really enjoyed researching this fascinating fort - its history, its design, its water-harvesting systems, its battles, the redoubtable Onake Obavva...

Of course, only a fraction of all this made it into our interpretation panels. Here are some photos of our panels. We wanted the panels to have a strong visual element so that people could have something to look at as well as read. The panels are all at waist height so that they are easy to read for adults, but can be read by children too. We've also kept the language simple so that anyone who has studied up to the 6th or 7th Std can read and understand the panels.

If you have been to Chitradurga recently and have seen our panels, I would love to know what you thought of them. And if you haven't been to Chitradurga, well, what are you waiting for?

Tuesday, January 5, 2010


I always thought of Bidar as a hot and dusty, centre-of-remoteness kind of place ...I shudder at my ignorance now. For Bidar is really a must-visit kind of place for any heritage enthusiast, teeming with diverse architectural and cultural remnants that mirror its chequered history.

And there is no better place to start than in its sprawling, huge, grand fort that is full of palaces, halls, wells, underground chambers and other nooks and crannies just asking to be explored.

Check out the massive fort walls and the one-of-a-kind triple moat.

The picture below was taken behind the Gagan Mahal, where you can find exciting underground rooms and passages that seem straight out of Famous Five.

Today's Deccan Herald has an article on Bidar that I wrote recently. A rather nice way to start the new year, I must say - having one of your articles published in the first week of January!