Tipu, silk, ISIS, dargah, scooters where an old armoury stood, a Bengali 'para', all in Bengaluru

Heritage walk The old and new live side by side in Bengaluru along with politics
Blog Heritage Saturday, November 12, 2016 - 21:15

Skeins of silk of about 14 colours hung from the roof of the dimly lit room. Golden, blood red, a racy, bright red, blazing pink, peacock blue, yellow, green, black. Undyed skeins lay on the floor, their creamish colour glistening in the insufficient white light, of one of the few silk dying units still functioning in Bengaluru’s Nagarathpet area.

We were taken there by a man who organises one of the many heritage walks in the Karnataka capital. Negotiating the narrow lanes of the old city that existed many years before Bengaluru exploded into the urban agglomerate it is today, Achu* took a group of seven – including one man – on a tour of parts of the old city, or the pete (pronounced peytey) area. 

The silk dye shop was in a narrow lane well off the main road in Nagarathpet, near the Corporation. 

Its owner Dinakar, explained that Bengaluru’s climate – though now degraded, he says with a shrug – used to be the best for silk. “Nowhere else is the climate as good for silk production. Starting with the silk worm and leaves, to the weather for drying the skeins, Bengaluru has great weather,” Dinakar said.

In winters, it takes about a day for the skein to dry after it has been dyed in the hot water and wrung. In the monsoons, it can take up to three days. Dinakar explains that from the moment the farmers sell the silk cocoons, to the point of purchase of a silk garment, there are about a dozen stages. Only the prices of the cocoons are fixed by the government, but the rest is managed by silk work units. 

“Silk from Bengaluru is supplied all over the country,” Dinakar says, that thread makers create three-ply, five-ply and seven-ply threads depending on the type of sari required. 

As we are looking around, Dinakar takes a call, speaks in Telugu before turning back to us: “It is because of Tipu that Bengaluru became a silk hub. It was he who made it possible for small makers like us to have a business. Before he came along, silk was only for the rich,” says Dinakar.

What does he make of the uproar over Tipu Jayanti? “I don’t know about that, that’s all politics; let it be. But I’ll tell you something about Tipu. He made this possible for us.”

Dinakar says this in Kannada, in an accent that is hard to place. “I speak Tamil at home, Telugu for work, and Kannada because…” he says, gesturing downwards with his hands to mean the place, Bengaluru. 

At this, someone points out that Kempegowda, believed to be the founder of Bengaluru, hailed from Kanchi, in Tamil Nadu. He was a palegar (chieftain) who ruled over certain areas for the Vijaynagar empire. 

Although the concept of a heritage walk would presumably preclude mention of anything remotely political, conversations within the group, and the encounters during the heritage walk were a reminder that although the city has been characterised by consumerism and an apolitical stance, there was no escape from the burning questions of our time.

We had started out with the dargah of Syed Shah Sharfuddin Khadri near Corporation. Syed Shah Sharfuddin, a Sufi saint in Tipu’s army, had been killed in battle and buried there. 

Amid the loud honking, it was hard to imagine that the land we stood on – once contained soapnut shrubs which witnessed a fierce battle between the British and Tipu. But along the wall of the corridor that led to the shrine, there were cannonballs of different sizes, made of stone. 

After explaining the history of the place, the guide said that Sufis were saints who belonged to the people, and spread the message of Islam.

Not to be outdone, one of the staff at the dargah, told stories of how a Mongol ruler embraced Islam because of a Sufi saint who predicted his death, of the Ajmer dargah, how a pir (the teacher) taught his murshid (disciple), how ISIS was barbaric and could not be followers of Islam.

“If ISIS turned up here and saw all of us standing here, any idea who they would kill first? Me, because I believe in Sufis,” the man said.

We also visited the site of a factory that Tipu Sultan, the erstwhile king of Mysore had set up in the Taramandalpet, named so because of the ‘constellation’ of factories in the area. We stared at the rows of two-wheelers parked where the factory stood and tried to image what it might have looked like then. Now, a school and a mosque stand adjacent to the site of the factory.

On the way to the garadi mane, a traditional gymnasium – the two Bengali women, who were part of the group, stopped for a moment. There was a sign written in Bengali. Later, one of the women said it read ‘Bengali para’ (Bengali village).

Standing outside the garadi mane located in Tigalarapet – named for the Tigala community of horticulturists – the guide gave us some bad news: women were not allowed. So, as everybody joked about being left out, the guide and the sole male member of the group went in. A minute later, Achu* came hurrying out and said, we could go in. The owners’ son appeared to have had a change of heart. 

The two Bengali women, two Bulgarian women, a Tamil woman and I, hurried in, laughing. It was fun to be truant. The garadi mane was small. The small chamber immediately inside had a plaque with names. This chamber gave way to a larger room. Mud with small leaves was stacked against one wall. 

There was just enough time to see a statue of Krishna wearing a sacred thread (janivara in Kannada), high on the opposite side of the wall. Outside, the statue of Hanuman too, wore a sacred thread.

The next thing we knew, the woman who gave Achu the key to the garadi mane was yelling, her thin but loud voice asking him why all the women were inside. Although Achu repeatedly told her that it was her son who said the women could go in, she said: “He’ll say anything. I told you not to go inside!”

As we walked away, towards the next stop on our walk, all of us laughed and joked. For all of us – two Bengali women, two Bulgarian women, a Tamilian couple, our guide, and me, it was a shared moment of silliness in a city that is home. For the time being, at least. 

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