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.