Today I had the pleasure of another Five Oceans/Bluefoot tour (the first was to a Bengaluru slum). Five Oceans is a social club that generously offered two-month memberships to teachers and parents at Tom’s school. I had assumed that I would get as much as possible out of the trial membership and then let it go, but their offerings are so varied and so consistently good that I will definitely continue. They also have a strong relationship with Bluefoot Tours which introduces cultural activities that I really value. India is a fascinating place, but as a foreigner, it’s so easy to look at the ornate, bustling, baffling surface and miss all of the context that provides the richness. With Kaveri as guide, our small tour explored an old neighborhood of Bengaluru, and got to hear the stories that explained its origins and continued life.
Malleswaram clearly has ancient origins dating back to the earliest days of this city (we’ll get to that), but also a more recent creation story. In the late 19th century, Bengaluru was hit by the plague, driving many residents to look for new homes further from the city center. At that time, Malleswaram (also spelled Malleshwaram) became the first planned suburb of Bangalore with streets actually arranged on a grid. It has lovely tree-lined streets with broad, functional sidewalks. It has a residential feel with thriving business all around.
In the 1930’s, Shri Sagar (also called Central Tiffin Room or CTR) opened its doors in the heart of Malleswaram. It’s just a little younger than the Mavalli Tiffin Room, and just as delicious. This is where we started our day with strong, milky South Indian filter coffee, masala dosas filled with tasty potatoes, kharabath which is almost like a spicy risotto made out of semolina (ok, that’s kind of a stretch, but trust me when I say it’s wonderful), idli which are like flat steamed dumplings made of rice and dal, and vada which is a savory lentil donut. Yum.
From there we walked to the first of three temples on today’s tour. The Sri Venugopala Krishnaswamy Temple is devoted to Krishna, with the stories of his life in detailed, painted carvings on the walls facing the sidewalk. Kaveri walked us along the wall, telling us the stories of this avatar of Vishnu the Sustainer, who has come to earth nine times in nine different guises to restore balance to the world. We left our shoes outside, carefully stepped over (not on) the threshold, and entered the courtyard where a group of men were working on a new carved structure. The impressive buildings of this temple and some of its idols may only be 100-150 years old, but the priest at the temple told us that the main Krishna idol in the shrine is itself 1000 years old. The inner temple had a wonderful serenity, with one man seated cross-legged practicing the balancing pranayam while another man sat wrapped in a purple stole chanting vedic scriptures along to the accompanying music playing on his iphone. This combination of old and new felt just right in this setting.
Our next temple was the 17th century Kaadu Malleshwara Temple to Shiva from which this neighborhood gets its name. Kaadu means forest in tribute to the lovely trees growing so densely in the area while Mallikarjuna is one of the names of Shiva. On the way in to this temple, we paused to greet the priest standing in front of his cow shed. This temple is entered on the backside, overlooking a gorgeous forested park area. Just inside is a large Nandi, or bull. This bull is Shiva’s conveyance, and also the closest creature to him. As such, people whisper into the ear of the bull all the things that they want Shiva to know, whether a painful confession or a wish for something better.
Leaving the temple, we descended the stairs and saw to the right a large statue of a hooded snake sheltering a god and a great collection of smaller snake idols behind it. Kaveri explained that when a new construction project is undertaken (like the creation of a new neighborhood), the snakes that live underground are disturbed. To placate the snakes and prevent harm to the new residents, a snake temple is erected. When people become ill or otherwise distressed, they may suspect that the cause is a curse from a snake that must now be given offerings before the curse can be lifted. It was a beautiful, peaceful setting, even with all the snakes.
Beyond the forested area was yet another temple, this one with an amazing story. The Shri Nandeeshwara Teertha Temple was, at some point, lost to time. It was erected in a topographical depression and, with disuse, had been completely covered by mud and disappeared. That is, until a group of boys saw something shiny in the mud and tried to dig it up, shocked to find a complete bull statue. They told their parents, and the community lobbied to unearth the temple and prevent the construction of a mall on this site. While there are claims that this temple is 7000 years old, it is likely that it’s closer to 700 years old. It features a nandi spitting water which falls onto the lingam of Shiva, ensuring the continued procreation of the world. In front of them is a pool fed by an underground spring with fish and turtles happily swimming about.
Aside from the amazing temples of this neighborhood, we also walked by Malleshwara’s vendors. They used to have a very popular and thriving market, but the government wanted to build a new mall (currently under construction). In the middle of the night when no one was there, they bulldozed the market structures to make way, entirely against the will of the community. People are remarkably resilient, though, and they continue to sell their wares along the sidewalks where the market used to stand.
We completed our tour with a visit to Dwaraka Plus, an organization that supports rural communities that create beautiful paintings on cotton or silk, using natural pigments that they create themselves from vegetable sources. The fabric becomes wall hangings, sarees, purses, boxes, and all manner of other things. Before the founder of this organization discovered these artisans, their community was dying – they were far from major roads or water sources and were struggling to feed themselves – but she helped them create a market for their goods and reinvigorated their expression of this art form.
I’ll definitely be back, to Dwaraka Plus and to Malleshwara.