Breakfasts in India are a cause for celebration. The variety of ingenious ingredients, cooking methods and tastes found across the diverse subcontinent, is a study in itself. While some items like puris and kachoris have managed to transcend borders and cultures, there are some hyper-local foods that serious food researchers and connoisseurs travel far and wide just to sample. I’ve never considered dosas to be a part of this hyper-local collective because they can be found in any part of the country, be it at restaurant chains, hand-pulled carts, homes or udipis—but standing in front of an establishment that completed its platinum jubilee last year, I was beginning to reconsider this notion.
It was an early Bengaluru morning. The flower sellers were still setting up shop, the roads were still relatively empty, and there was a slight chill in the air. I had reached Vidyarthi Bhavan, located in the Gandhi Bazaar area of Basavanagudi. Having reached earlier than expected, I decided to wait outside for my companion, in front of what looked like a humble dosa joint with a handful of customers. But to my utter surprise, in exactly 15 minutes, the line grew so large that people spilled outside the waiting area and on to the footpath. The smell of fresh jasmine flowers and dosas was enticing but the wait isn’t particularly fun for an impatient person. “Why are there so many people here?” I wondered and, very soon, as I tucked into a plate of dosa did I realise the reason. The food is simple and, yet, finger-licking delicious. Vidyarthi Bhavan opened in 1943 to cater to students of nearby colleges but, over the years, it has become an institution. Closed on Fridays because India got its independence on the same day in 1947, the exterior still remains humble. Inside, servers, who’ve been here for long, go about their jobs barefoot—bringing out carefully balanced stacks of masala dosas for the many, many tables. It is worthy of a social media moment. Smartphone cameras are trained on a server who comes out of the kitchen every 20-odd minutes until all the plates are served.
The price has changed over the decades but the taste is the same. Or so I am told. A couple sitting opposite to me and gleefully tucking into vadas, told me they’ve been coming here for a dosa breakfast for the past 30 years but, over the years, “the size has become smaller”. As a person who is constantly famished, the thick dosa, served with coconut chutney (no sambar, which is found further south), was enough to last me till lunchtime.
Slurping down the last vestige of filter coffee, I found it a tricky proposition to make my way out of the establishment because the sea of people waiting for their chance to eat the dosa seemed to have magnified. But I managed to navigate successfully. By then Gandhi Bazaar had picked up momentum. Once the main shopping district of the city for condiments and flowers, it is home to many big stores today. Yet there was a sense of calm chaos, so prevalent in market areas in the country.
I had been coming to then-Bangalore since my school days. As the notion of a city changes for a traveller visiting it over the years, it went from a family holiday destination to a pub and shopping haven, to a place I often ended up for work. Yet, this time, I was in search of something more.
Bengaluru’s has a shrouded history. One story tells us that a hungry king of the Hoysala dynasty came across an old lady after losing his way during a hunt in the 12th century CE. The lady gave the king water to quench his thirst and boiled beans to curb his hunger. In return, the ever-grateful king called the area ‘Bendakaaluru’ (after the Kannada word for beans). However, it is agreed by historians that Kempe Gowda I founded what we know of the city today in 1537 when he built a mud fort. Bengaluru then had petes (markets) and there were two main roads, their intersection forming Doddapete, the heart of the old city. His son built watchtowers to enhance the boundary line of the marshy landscape. It is believed the Kempe Gowdas’ rule was peaceful up until the Sultanate of Bijapur began eyeing the town. Adil Shah dispatched Shahaji Bhosale to dispose of the Kempe Gowdas in 1638. But once Bijapur came under Mughal influence, Bangalore was sold to the Wodeyars of Mysore, who in turn gave it to Tipu Sultan’s father, Hyder Ali. By the late 18th century, the British had their eyes on the town but Tipu’s army successfully defending the place until the third Anglo-Mysore War, when the Bangalore Fort was captured by Lord Cornwallis in 1791. Thus began the city’s influence under the British, which is prevalent today in the architecture and road names.
If you walk a little further from Gandhi Bazaar, you will come across a lush green park with a gigantic, three-billion-year-old rock (peninsular gneiss) in the middle. Called the Bugle Rock, it has one of the four remaining watchtowers built by Kempe Gowda II right on the top. Standing where sentries had stood guard centuries ago, I imagined the panoramic view it must have offered as guards blew the bugle to warn of intruders. Today, it is a hotspot for photography enthusiasts, birders and lovers, amid the avid greenery and hanging fruit bats.
There is a famous bull temple in the vicinity from where the Basavanagudi area gets its name. The bull temple, also called Nandi (after Shiva’s vahana), is one of the oldest in the region. Legend goes that a bull was busy gobbling up groundnuts in the area and a farmer tried stopping it. But, to his horror, the animal turned into a stone and kept growing in size. After prayers to Shiva, the god struck his trident on the bull’s head. That stopped the rock’s growth but, by then, it was already 15 feet tall. Legends are so persuasive that, even today, a groundnut fair is held in the temple complex during the Karthika month, which is a major tourist draw. My bare feet don’t fare well on hot stone surfaces so, quick hops later (I decided against the skips and jumps inside the temple complex), I came face-to-face with the huge granite monolith (blacked by years of charcoal use). Another legend says the source of the Vrishabhavathi river, almost a kilometre away today, originated from the bull’s feet. There were people milling about while some devotees were praying with their eyes closed. After a quick tour outside the shrine, I went towards the Ganesha temple next to it. Another monolith, but this one resembled the elephant-headed god so, the story goes, the locals started worshipping it. Today, many new vehicle owners come here for blessings as do students before exams.
A walking distance away, there are two important landmarks in old Bengaluru—the famous-yet-mysterious Gavi Gangadhareshwara temple and the Government Modern Primary School. The former is a Shiva temple in a cave, over 500 years old, which has drawn devotees, historians, and scientists over the years; the latter, almost next to the temple, is superstar Rajnikanth’s alma mater. While the school where the actor had studied from 1954–56 has recently seen a revamp, the temple still harbours its secrets. Math has never been my strong suit, yet architecture with reference to astrological calculations has always fascinated me. I still remember feeling awestruck when I stood in front of the glorious statue of Ramesses II (along with three other statues of gods—Amun, Ptah and Ra-Harakhty) in the inner atrium of the big temple in Abu Simbel. The ingenuity of ancient engineers to bathe three of the statues in sunlight on two specific days of the year draws thousands of visitors today. Similarly, come Makar Sankranti, the temple that looks unremarkable from the outside has devotees line up for miles just to witness the celestial phenomenon. On the particular date, the rays of the sun come through the windows of the cave and pass through the horns of a Nandi statue in front, before enveloping the idol in what is known as a ‘Sun Bath’. After wondering about the temple for a bit, I went behind where the agraharas (old original houses) are located. The families associated with the temple still live there. Having gotten a chance to go inside a 450-year-old agrahara, I immediately jumped at it. I don’t think I can put into words the sense of peace it gave me. The floors and stone ceilings provided the space great ventilation, the backyard reminded me of the famous temples of Angkor, and the owner and I exchanged pleasantries with hand gestures and smiles. The experience felt surreal. Was I even in one of India’s most acclaimed IT cities or had I stepped back in history to a time when everything was so simple?
I don’t think I had consciously reflected so much on the garden city’s history before. Apart from the Kempe Gowdas, a lot of Bengaluru’s heritage is thanks to the efforts of Tipu Sultan and his father. From the conception of gardens to sericulture, to emphasis on local produce, the ‘Tiger of Mysore’s’ contribution can’t be neglected. Crossing his Summer Palace on the way to Nagarathpet in an auto, I was saddened to know that only five per cent of his original fort remains today after the British used the stones to build two hospitals and the town hall.
The Nagarathpet area is a world apart from Basavanagudi. The pete area is filled with shops, food stalls and a sea of people: like Old Delhi’s Chandni Chowk where walking means making sure not to bump into the person in front. But that’s not what I was there for. Karnataka has a rich tradition of silk saris and the small bylanes of Nagarathpet is home to a small community of dyers and weavers who are responsible for creating the cloth with which women drape themselves. It was, in fact, Tipu who is credited with creating sericulture in the region. Legend goes that a Chinese traveller gave him a silk cloth and, later, he secured the know-how from Bengal and introduced mulberry cultivation. But unfortunately after his death (1799), the silk industry, too, died. Thanks to restoration efforts, however, silk is one of the most thriving industries in the city today.
I first noticed a man with purple-stained hands. He was drinking water outside a green-coloured house. Upon stepping inside, it was the multi-coloured ceiling that first caught my eye. If a rainbow could have more colours than usual, this was it. “That’s dyed silk drying,” I was informed. Generations have been involved in this process. The raw silk comes in sacks from outside the city to this no-name centre, where it is washed in cold water, put in a steaming bath with colour added to it, and every millimetre is dyed, the excess dye washed off, spun, stretched, dried, tied in bundles and, then, sent to the weaver. It is hard work in humid conditions but when the workers turn rods of thread in the steaming bath, fired by wood, it feels magic is being created in front of your eyes. Every day, almost 300 kilograms of raw silk is dyed within eight-to-ten hours, just a kilogram of which can command over `5,000 in the market. A few houses down the bylane, the sound of power looms ring out, like wooden beams falling on each other. These machines have long replaced handlooms, multiplying efficiency tenfold. If a handloom required a day to create six yards, a power loom would do it in six hours. About seven or eight power looms were creating machine magic with dyed silk and zari in unison, producing designs on six yards of rich colour that would soon be seen in showrooms. Though the preference for handlooms will forever be at the forefront, personally, it was humbling to understand and see the stages of production of what I wear on special occasions.
By then, it was afternoon and the lovely weather from the morning had been replaced with humidity. Navigating a crowd is never easy but the smell of fresh mangoes kept me invigorated till I reached what looked like a market area from the bylanes. K.R. Market just happens to be the largest wholesale market in the region. Utensils, electrical goods, saws, more fruits and vegetables--the market had everything, including the best smelling fresh flowers. Just following the smell of jasmine brought me to a large courtyard that Pantone would find a challenge accommodating. There were flowers everywhere. I think I could have happily swum there if they could produce buoyancy. Fresh flowers are an integral part of many communities in the city and here they would be spoilt for choice.
As I got in the auto with a jasmine strand in my hair, hurting feet and flushed cheeks, I realised I couldn’t have been happier. History lessons have always interested me and if this wasn’t a live one, I don’t know what is.