Bungalows of Bangalore

Image courtesy: Maureen MacDonald

My article, titled, ‘Where time stands still‘  was first published in Deccan Herald on  April 2, 2013. The article is presented here as a blog with some more photos. 

As I pass through some bylanes of Bangalore, I can’t help but stop and admire a charming bungalow standing still as a reminder of a bygone era. The bungalows of Bangalore that were once the rich man’s home have quietly made way to newer structures, radically, in the last two decades. But a few still stand tall, maybe because its owners wait for the right price, or maybe because of the families’ care for them.

How did these bungalows come to Bangalore? Where did they originate? The history of bungalows is as charming as the bungalow itself.

Janet Pott, the author of ‘Old Bungalows of Bangalore’, South India, states that the name and the form of the bungalow originated in Bengal. ‘Bangla’ or ‘bangala’ referred to the indigenous Bengali huts of the 17th century.

Origins aside, how did this basic peasant housing, made of locally available materials, become an Officer’s or even a Commissioner’s prestigious bungalow?

In his book, ‘The Bungalow: Production of a Global Culture’, Anthony King describes that the period of the East India Company’s rise from being just ‘traders’ to keeping an army and ruling the country (1757-1857) also led to improvements in housing its men.“The basis of Company rule was military strength”, he states. 

The first permanent military camps or cantonments were established outside Patna (Bankipur) and Calcutta (Dinapur, Behrampur & Baraset) in 1772. Indian and European troops were housed in tents and barracks; their European officers in a rapidly evolving version of the bungalow. The emergence of the bungalow, he narrates, as a culturally distinctive house form, is inseparable from these developments.

Soon, the bungalow became a symbol of power. In 1857, when the rule was transferred from East India Company to the British government, there was extensive adaptation of Indian forms. Though the European Resident kept improving on the basic model, e.g. converting the verandah into rooms, the main characteristics borrowed from the Bengali peasant’s hut — free standing, single storey, plinth, pitched, thatched roof and ‘virandar’ (verandah) were largely present.

Bungalows of the City

In Bangalore, bungalows first started to appear in the Cantonment region. The early bungalows were “typical white or cream washed”, describes Elizabeth Stanley in the book, ‘Monkey Tops – Old Buildings in Bangalore Cantonment’. These bungalows were to the South of Parade Ground, i.e., on St Marks road, Museum road, Residency road and Richmond road.

The structure consisted of a flat-roofed portico with support pillars and behind it a curved verandah. Its size varied, based on the owner’s social stature. 

The general basic plan is usually a verandah with support pillars, a living or a drawing room and a dining room in the centre. The bedrooms and dressing rooms open to each side of the living room.

The front of the bungalow was imposing and offset by huge gardens. A servants’ quarter, a stable and other necessities like poultry or a cow shed were present in the backyard. In the leisurely life of the pre-Industrial era, the bungalows sometimes included tennis courts or putting greens. The building, with its stone work, balustrades marking roof levels and imposing look contributed to the ‘classical’ look, she concludes.

An example of the classic bungalow is the Raj Bhavan, which was once the home of Sir Mark Cubbon, the Commissioner of Mysore (1834-1860). Raj Bhavan is out of bounds for visitors and there aren’t many bungalows of its kind left to look at. But I had some luck. Maureen MacDonald, who recently visited the City, shared a picture postcard of her grandfather and his home in the City in the 1850s.

 A typical white bungalow with flat roof, it looks straight out of the Victorian era — spacious home, horse carriages, the burra sahib, ladies in long white gowns and hats and children in their European dresses. But she did not know the address and hence we don’t know its current avatar. For her and many others, these homes live in memories.

Monkey tops

By the early 20th century, the fashion of classical buildings gave way to ornamental buildings that were taller and had high-pitched roofs. The flat roofs were now pyramidical and tiled; the balustrades gave way to battlements, towers with high-pitched roof and bastions. 

The most important change was the pointed roof for the windows called the ‘monkey tops’. These lovely pointy wooden roofs can still be seen in the few bungalows or even old public buildings that still exist today.

As I walk across into Usha Kumar’s home, the first thing I notice is the beautiful monkey tops that decorate the front windows. Though the wooden trellis work of the front door was beautiful, it’s the patterned sunlight falling in the living room that made me truly appreciate the architect’s plan. 

Homes, in those days, looked good from the outside as well as the inside. The verandah is covered. But the high-pitched roofs, the high ventilators, the single storey are reminders of the erstwhile ‘bangala’.

In today’s world, what does it take to live in an old charming bungalow? For Usha and her family, the home has many memories. She recalls her childhood memories of living in a bungalow and of the fun she and her siblings had. Her son Akhilesh points at a mango fallen from a tree in the compound; it reminds him of the delicious pachadi they make during Ramanavami. 

But it also means, a lot of hard work – repairing fallen plaster, getting the right material and labour for repair and keeping the compound and home clean. Huge compounds do attract unwanted debris or construction material from a local construction site.

Though the bungalow is European, the name is very Indian. Usha has named it after her parents. There is a tulsi plant at the entrance. This cultural contrast comes up in many anecdotes and conversations with her which I find charming.

The Cantonment was, and is, a very multicultural place, informs Mona, the curator of ‘aPaulogy’, artist Paul Fernandes’ gallery on the Bangalore of the 60s and 70s. She recalls her neighbours were a mix of different communities. 

Though culturally diverse, there was always harmony and co-existence, she declares. The illustrations in the gallery do illustrate this fact.

I walk around the gallery, lost in Paul’s  Bangalore where cycles had dynamo lights and police wore half pants and the streets showcased monkey tops. 

For many of us today, owning a bungalow can only be a dream. But the few bungalows that still exist bring memories of another era; a way of life that gave this city the ‘Garden’ adjective. 

Of a chieftain and his dreams

My article on Ulsoor, Bangalore, titled ‘Of a chieftain and his dreams‘ was first published in Deccan Herald, Spectrum, in September 2012. It is reproduced as a blog here.

Mention Ulsoor and the immediate associations are those of the Someshwara Temple and the lake. The famed temple still stands proudly in  the bustling locality. The lake, said to have been built by Kempegowda, the Yelahanka chieftain who founded modern Bangalore, continues to be one of Ulsoor’s major attractions, writes Poornima Dasharathi.

A king, tired, after a long enjoyable hunt, lies under the shade of a tree. His eyes close and soon sleep overpowers him. As he slips into the world of dreams, the mighty Lord Someshwara appears before him in all his glory. 

Even as he marvels at his luck, the Lord smiles as he gives the king a task. “Erect a temple here in my name,” he commands. To aid the king, the Lord reveals the location of a hidden treasure. As the vision fades, the king opens his eyes, wondering about the truth of the divine experience.

But to his amazement, he discovers the treasure at the very location as told by the Lord himself! The king is convinced now. He has work to do. He employs a sculptor from Belur, a descendant of the famous Janakachari himself and constructs a temple dedicated to Lord Someshwara.

Soon the king, who has a penchant for building cities, creates a small hamlet around the temple for the Brahmins who maintain it. A royal decree is made – “From all the thirty three villages surrounding the Someshwara temple, one kolaga for each kandaga of grain would be given as endowment for the maintenance of the religious services at the temple”.

The narration (slightly dramatised) is a colourful medieval tale on how Ulsoor was founded. The king is none other than Kempegowda, the Yelahanka chieftain who founded modern Bangalore. The Someshwara Temple is the temple which stills stands proudly in the bustling area of present day Ulsoor. Kempegowda is also credited with building Ulsoor lake for irrigation and water for the surrounding villages, thus making it one of the oldest water bodies in the City. 

Much older than thought?

Though the area, the temple and the popular Ulsoor lake are credited to Kempegowda, historians believe that the area was older than his times. As evidence to this, they point to the architecture of the Someshwara Temple, which dates back to the Chola period.

S K Aruni, historian, ICHR, classifies the construction to three different periods – the Cholan period (inner most sanctum sanctorum, inner hall and its enclosing wall), the Vijayanagar period (outer pillared hall – mukhamantapa and early colonial period (Kamakshi Amman temple, the nandimantapa and balipeeta). The inner hall (navaranga) has beautiful Vijayanagara columns with sculptures and the outer bigger mantapa contains the popular yali pillars of those times.

On the inner wall of the temple complex that encloses the shrine, there are many reliefs; one of them in a cloak holding a stick is believed to be that of the Bangalore founder. The huge gopura of the temple, built in the typical Dravidian style, undoubtedly makes one marvel at the art of temple building.

As we come out of the temple and skim the pages of medieval history, we see that Lord Cornwallis first camps here while mulling over methods to overpower Tipu Sultan. 

As new lands are conquered by the British, the area transforms into a Cantonment; the lake is spruced up and becomes a water source for the troops. Post the colonial period, the area transforms into a residential area, the lake becomes an entertainment spot, a lung space. Boating, regatta events take place.

Pages from history, even as recent as 35 years back, describes Bangaloreans watching in awe the fireworks held by TTK in the islets of the lake.

Today the villages are gone, the jackfruit orchards that might have given the area its name (Halasuru) have also vanished, but some foundations of the story of Ulsoor remain. 

The temples are still revered, the lake still used, albeit for leisure, the area has still got a thriving economy and is a commercial hub. 

The British history remains through the names – Murphy town, Kensington Park and, of course, the MEG that embodies the military station.

The story of Magadi Ranga

Magadi, now a small hamlet near Bangalore, was once the home an refuge of Kempegowda – the man who built a fort in Bengaluru and placed it on the map as an important trading centre.

However, Magadi, just like Bangalore is much older. It is famous for a temple built for ‘Magadi Ranga’, the Lord Ranganathaswamy, built during the time of Cholas.

As one enters Magadi, a street on the right lazily meaders towards the temple. The temple complex is typical of those times. At the right of the entrance is a kalyani with steps leading to the water. The courtyard is quite spacious, reminds one of the bygone era, where temples just like any public buildings were built with much importance to its design and architecture; unlike the temples that spring over footpath in the city today. 

One has to leave the footwear near the entrance. Don’t expect old world charm from the folks here. They are very wise and would be happy to share the money that a city dweller brings in. 

Everyone from the lady who ‘guards’ the footwear to the gurkha and finally even the priest is out to get a few rupees. Only the Lord stands mute amidst this religious marketing.  

As I entered the inner courtyard, the inner gopuram was clearly old styled and different to the colourful outer one. Many temples have mixed architectural styles that show how the temple evolved during the patronage of kings during different periods. 

Inside the garbhagriham, to my surprise the usually reclining pose of Lord Ranganatha is standing upright here! The priest then enlightened me that this Lord was ‘Pashchima Venkateshwara’, ‘west facing Lord Venkateshwara’.

The Lord here, however, was alone. The Goddess, Padmavathi was worshipped in a different garbhagriha. At the back of the main deity was a small reclining deity of Lord Ranganatha, who has made the place more famous than the standing lord.

 A boy priest gave me theertham (holy water) and mentioned that the idol keeps growing – atleast that’s what he has heard from the older ones. Hence the name ‘Belayo Ranga’ (growing Ranga). The explanation seemed to me more convincing about the priest than the Lord! The idol is so small that even the lord here has one leg folded!

No one knows the reason why this temple is more famous for the small idol of Ranganatha rather then the main deity. There is a story that this place was hastily renamed during the time of Tipu Sultan’s reign who knew only the famous Ranganatha who presided in Srirangapatna, his capital! Of course like all charming stories, it has no facts, atleast not that I know of. Here’s a link from Alemaari‘s blog that i liked.

Once a bustling town that flourished under Kempegowda, the place Magadi is now a sleepy town famous for its history. Don’t expect a flourishing tourism industry here like Hampi. Its an ideal place for a picnic or a hike in the nearby hills of Savandurga. For a decent meal, one has to come back towards the Bangalore City which is not more than an hour by car. One could also try Ruppi’s Resort off Magadi road, near the Dodda Alada Mara (Big Banyan tree).

(This post was originally written in Apr. 2010 for my personal blog,