The who's who of Bengaluru at the time had gathered to usher in a new era.

Streetlight_BengaluruPhotographs provided by Mansoor Ali
Features History Wednesday, August 05, 2020 - 20:52

The time was 6.30 pm and it was the first week of August in 1905. The who's who of Bengaluru at the time had gathered near the Delhi Gate (close to present day Victoria Hospital). JW Mears, the electrical adviser to the government of India, Colonel PH Benson (after whom Benson Town is named) and Dewan PN Krishnamurthi, the then dewan of Mysore, were among those present. 

The occasion was the installation of the first streetlight in Bengaluru, replacing the kerosene lamps which dotted the city's centre and introducing electric streetlights for the first time in southern India. 

According to Meera Iyer, author of ‘Discovering Bengaluru: History. Neighbourhoods. Walks’, the oldest and still functioning hydroelectric plant was established near Darjeeling in 1896 and it was the Cauvery Falls Power Scheme that was the next project to get the nod.

The idea came from Major ACJ de Lotbiniere who worked for the Mysore kingdom. A hydroelectric power station was set up in Shivanasamudra near Mysuru in 1902 and the power scheme began powering the mining operations in Kolar Gold Fields, 150 km away. 

At the time it was built, it was India's second hydroelectric power project after the one set up near Darjeeling. 

The dewan of Mysore then decided to harness the power from Shivanasamudra to provide electricity to Bengaluru, which still used kerosene lamps that needed to be cleaned regularly to remove the collection of black soot. 

After a redrawing of the plans at the last minute, the city was ready to be electrified for the first time in August 1905. Meera Iyer, quoting the Daily Post newspaper's archived copy in the state archives in Mysuru, says that the inauguration took place on August 3. Even though several reports suggest that the inauguration took place on August 5, a  newspaper clipping shows an article titled 'Electric lighting for the city' published on August 4 depicting the events of the inauguration which took place a day prior.

“There was a ceremony with a tent erected to celebrate the occasion. Residents who came from the Cantonment area celebrated the occasion but it was not until a few years later that they got electric lights in their streets. But this day in 1905 was the start of the electric age,” says Meera, speaking to TNM.

Photograph of Russel Market

Gajanana Sharma, a former employee of the Karnataka Power Transmission Corporation Limited who penned the book ‘Belakayitu Karnataka’, says that the street light came up close to where Victoria Hospital is currently located.

“The substation was set up close to Delhi Gate near Victoria Hospital. It was the area of the fort at the time and the KR Market as we know it now was not there,” Gajanana tells TNM. He says that the urban legend that it was ‘Asia's first streetlight’ is not true. 

It was Sir John Hewett, a member of the Viceroy's council who was in Mysore at the time on matters related to the Commerce and Industries Department, who threw the switch on, lighting up 104 lamps outside the substation near Victoria Hospital. There is now no trace of the transformer house near Delhi Gate where Hewett turned the switch on, but there is a Karnataka Power Corporation transformer a few hundred metres from the old fort. 

The power station itself was moved to Anand Rao Circle in the 1920s before a slew of changes took place in the city. Even a century later, power problems persist in the city but the electric age dawned 115 years ago with flick of a switch. 

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