by Usha Rao, PhD Scholar, Indian Institute of Technology, New Delhi
The notion that cities are built on sacrifice is a theme that I explore in a literal and figurative sense in this piece.
My research is set in Ulsoor, a neighbourhood with a hoary past that nestles in the heart of Bangalore, merely a kilometre away from the ‘new Bangalore’ hot spots. Bangalore is one of the fastest growing cities in Asia and continues to be pitched to global investors as a ‘world class metropolis.’ The city has spread rapidly into the hinterland, its agricultural fields now in the process of being subsumed into landbanks for business parks and special economic zones (SEZs). The ever-shifting boundaries confound any attempt to define where the city ends or begins.
Ulsoor has a five-hundred-year-old history and a time-less mythical past. The neighbourhood and its boundaries are re-produced annually through its jatres (festivals). These performances anchor collective memory and histories of its inhabitants within the landscape of the neighbourhood. The metro, a symbol of the city of the future, thunders on over the neighbourhood unhindered by the annual performances that unfold and flow in the street beneath its grey, concrete shade. While the city at large is in a state of flux, the idea of Ulsoor as an ooru (as site of collective identity and belonging) endures for many of its inhabitants, past and present.
The city swallows everything, they say. It creeps into the countryside where once grapes glowed in the afternoon light. Between cool green wells and muddy tanks.
Groans and shrieks of earth movers syncopate with the thud of borewells running dry.. Grey pillars rise. Concrete does not hold if the water is not pure enough to drink, they say. If not it bubbles and breaks and will take down 100s of bodies with it..2
Stones are held with thickened blood, they say. Else they fall apart. Like the South Gate of the mud fort from long ago. The Red Man3 despaired. The gate stood strong after she poured her blood and that of her unborn child. In the dead of night. Was that a sigh of death or a curse that was heard as the last drop soaked the earth?
Oorus are built by the rhythmic pounding of feet pushing down on the heavy planks of wood, egged on by cries of Govinda. Govinda. The gigantic wheels heave and move.4
It’s streaming rivers of sweat. It’s raining bananas. Bananas pierced with fragrant ‘dhavana’, flung at the gods, at the copper kalasha atop the temple Car in thanksgiving. Or are they bearers of fresh prayers? The wheels don’t roll unless the air is soaked with the heady smell of mashed bananas. Their smashed bodies ease the clunky wood over the rough road. Even hangmen use the white pulpy flesh to smoothen the rope, they say.
Purple flowers and curving stems drooping with green and yellow. Leaves flap like gigantic ears with every hiccough of the Car. The Lord’s seat is festooned with ripe toddy fruit. The essence of soma5 for Someshwara.
The Car is followed by the moonlit festival of flowers. The stately white swan waits while someone fixes a plume on his head. Mountains of white jasmine buds to decorate one pallaki.6 Look, there are more than a hundred tonight winding their way slowly towards Bazaar Street to meet Kamakshi, the One with desired filled eyes. The flashing red fire from the Red One’s7 mount threatens to singe the delicate blooms. How much does a thousand kilograms of summer fragrance weigh?
Boundaries are made on the fruits of the land. Fecundity feeds boundaries. The ‘kshetra’ (territory) marked by the bounty of another kstetra (agricultural field).
But where have all the bananas gone? The whirring of cement mixers drowns his answer.
“The fourth is the most important and the main one. This is done around 1 or 1:30 am at the temple of M where all the goddesses gather. The mari (sheep) is decapitated and dismembered. The madiga8 – the grave digger blows into the intestines. They bloat like balloons. He wraps it around his neck. He mixes the blood into cooked rice and eats some, like this (hand passes over the mouth). Then, he carries the pot and runs through the old ooru shouting ‘bali bali’’ and flings the red rice into the air in all directions, The boundaries are now sealed. The ooru is protected. Red palm prints on doorways will keep death and disease at bay.”9
Sacrifice keeps the ooru safe and the lords of the ooru strong and brutal. “It was so much work cleaning the blood on the walls of the old toti mane.10 Ayappangay tumba kopaa..yappangay kuri beku enanu saldu – that chap has a terrible temper – he wants sheep and nothing else will do to cool him down.” His fire burns down all obstacles. The men need to remain strong if they need to build a city.11 She said.
Fields of produce are ingested into men and become sinews. Building a city takes sweat and muscle. Digging, breaking stone, laying bricks, dressing those archaic slabs from the earth’s belly. Stones are cemented by blood, they say.
The city devours everything. It demands bodies, blood, oorus, streams and fields rich with ripe fruit, to be placed at the altar. Like the red tongued dark goddess of Time who devours entire worlds, its belly is forever caved inwards. It consumes and is never nourished.
From up in the air, I look down at my city and see a thick, brown scab forming.
Where have all the bananas gone?
Ulsoor has had a historic link with the building of Bangalore. It emerged as a dense neighbourhood towards the end of the 19th century with the growth of Bangalore as a British Civil and Military station. Settlers, most of them migrants from the hinterland and villages of the then Madras Presidency, either established themselves as contractors to the British government or found work as construction workers, carpenters, stone cutters and other tradesmen in work gangs. Much of the British Civil and Military Station – the colonial city of Bangalore – its barracks, administrative buildings and clubs were perhaps built by construction crews from the Ulsoor area. Post-Independence (1947), prominent Ulsoor contractors carried on the project of building modern Bangalore.
Masculine vigour, strength and ability to work together are values held high among the older residents of Ulsoor. This plays out in the performance of the annual Car Festival during which the Car is moved through physical exertion of its residents, its path re-producing the space of the neighbourhood as a ‘landscape of memory.’13
The Ulsooru Car is modelled on ‘archaic’ technology that demands muscle power to move and turn its axle-less wheels. The Car is moved along the path that circumscribes the oldest part of the neighbourhood – a square around the temple of Someshwara (Siva). The festival takes place soon after the commencement of the New Year of the Hindu lunar calendar. Lord Someshwara follows a retinue of smaller cars and rides his wooden Chariot with his newly wedded bride and consort Parvati. Although the gods are seated in the Car, it is the movement of the Car itself which is the highlight of the festival. Men stamp the heavy wooden planks to turn the wheels, while others place wedges in the path to control its direction. Men and women of all ages pull the heavy iron chains to keep it rolling. All of this is orchestrated and monitored closely by the older residents who have lived through this over the years. While many other temples in Bangalore have chosen to motorize their ceremonial cars, Ulsooru residents have chosen to retain the old technology as it brings bodies together. Older residents of Ulsooru claim that the Car Festival is what holds the neighbourhood together and gives it a unique and enduring identity in a city characterized by flux.
Rituals are tied to fruits of the earth. In the Car Festival, bananas are essential ingredients. Stems with flowers and fruit (pendulous and phallic in appearance) are tied to the four pillars of the Car.14 Fruit with fragrant herbs are ritual offerings made to the gods by all those who participate in the festival. Ripe fruit come under the wheel as lubricants and are key to moving the Car itself. Not so long ago, at least 20 varieties of bananas were used in the festival. In the recent past, the varieties have dwindled while prices have shot up. Salt, cheap and abundant, has come to replace the fruit as a ritual offering.
Banana stems and the toddy fruit (dates from a palm that is tapped for liquor) are getting harder to procure with the conversion of farms and common lands into real estate at the fringes of the city. The current source of stems is a farm in Hoskote, 21 kms east of Ulsoor. This area is fast being developed into special economic zones (SEZs) and industrial parks.15
Bananas were sourced from farms from agricultural belts in the periphery of Bangalore, Marathahalli to the East of Ulsoor, being one prominent site. Over the last decade, Marathahalli has grown into one of Bangalore’s largest tech parks (ITPL) which houses tech giants and multi-national companies like IBM, General Motors, GE, Xerox and IGATE. The extension of the metro line into areas like Whitefield (that abuts Marathahalli and Hoskote) has spurred real estate development. High rises have emerged where grape fields and orchards once stood.
The *Po Pallaki* (Jasmine Palanquin festival) follows the Car Festival, in the early part of the summer month of Chaitra. There are several myths tied to the festival. The most popular one claims that the procession is taken out to appease Siva’s primary consort who left his side annoyed by his dalliance with goddess Ganga.
More than a 100 jasmine decked palanquins from temples around Ulsoor set out after midnight and wend their way towards Someshwara temple. They fill the main streets with carnivalesque celebration – dancing, drums, wolf whistles and fire crackers. The parade continues through the early hours of the morning.
The festival is woven around the jasmine bloom – its materiality and symbolic meanings. Its whiteness and heady perfume evoke feminine sensuality, a metaphor for Siva’s consort, Kamakshi (the one with desire filled eyes). She rides an ornate swan-shaped palanquin to be united with her lover and husband on this warm summer night.
The Po Pallaki festival consumes hundreds of kilograms of jasmine flowers and buds. These are used in elaborate ways to decorate the palanquins of gods around the Ulsoor area. Historically, Ulsooru has drawn its steady supply from the farms around Hoskote that have been known for their floriculture. Over the past few years decorators have had to depend on large distributors in the centralized market in the city. The number of palanquins have dwindled in the recent past – flower prices are high as supply has dipped.
The Kempamma festival is strictly an ‘insiders’ event.’ After the Po Pallaki, residents gear up for the annual rituals in honour of the boundary goddess Kempamma who stands at the south-eastern edge of the neighbourhood. Fierce and powerful, she is feared and loved by residents who believe she protects their children from disease and epidemics. The key rituals take place in the dead of night and are out of bounds for women, children and those who are not directly involved in them. Sheep are offered to her in return for protection of the boundaries of Ulsoor.
Families are watched over by family deities who are propitiated for power, abundance and the perpetuation of the bloodline. Often this takes the form of sacrifice. Mrs Reddy, a woman in her late 80s, came to Ulsoor as a bride of 12 years. Her grandfather-in-law, migrated to Ulsoor had established himself as a building contractor for the British in the early 1900s, at a time in the city’s history when there was opportunity for those who could survive intense competition. In order to succeed contractors needed to keep a tight control over work gangs while also establishing trust with the Colonial administration. Mrs. Reddy recalls that the men in her family were ‘tough, strong and hardworking.’ Considerable wealth and status flowed into the family over the years. Mrs Reddy was the mistress of a large toti house in the heart of Ulsoor. She recalls that the inner courtyard of the old home had witnessed the sacrifice of many sheep which were offered to appease the family deity. Power and prestige were expected to flow from these gestures of devotion.
Ritual staging of the jatres are dependent on the agrarian hinterland and its fertility. Fruits, flowers, leaves of specific varieties, and animals are all critical elements in the ritual production of the neighbourhood. The erosion of the agricultural hinterland and its ecology is now a source of anxiety for the inhabitants of Ulsooru.
The metro line that flows above and away symbolizes the expansion of the ‘world class city’ of the future. The relentless process of ‘urbanization’ and city evokes the image of the open maw of the goddess of Time who swallows entire worlds in an act of absolute destruction.
About the Author and Research
Usha Rao, PhD Scholar, Dept. of Humanities, Indian Institute of Technology, New Delhi
This work is based on ethnographic research I conducted in Ulsoor, Bangalore 2016-2018 towards my dissertation. Part of the research looks at festivals and their connections to the production of the neighbourhood as a site of collective memory and identity. A metro line now bisects Ulsoor’s main street. The relationship between the metro and neighbourhood is also part of my study.
I have used Kannada, one of the local languages, through the text.
Email: email@example.com. For details on my film project: www.ourmetropolis.in
Thanks to Gautam Sonti and Kunal Deshpande for their collaboration on video material.
Thanks to Shreyas Sreenath for conversations on the notion of the sacrifice.
Video 1: Camera and Edit Kunal Deshpande (Work in Progress)
Video 2: Camera Gautam Sonti; Edit Kunal Deshpande (Work in Progress)
All still images are the author’s.
Carol Upadhya et al. “Urbanism: Land, Livelihood, and Life on the City’s Edge.” Working paper presented in Oct 10, 2018 at National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore.
Ghertner, Asher D. ‘India’s urban revolution: geographies of displacement beyond gentrification.’ Environment and Planning 46 (2014):1554 – 1571.
Goldman, Michael. “Speculative Urbanism and the Making of the Next World City.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 35, no.3 (2011):555–81.
Goldman, Michael. “Speculating on the Next World City.” In Worlding Cities: Asian Experiments in the Art of Being Global, edited by Ananya Roy and Aihwa Ong, 229-258. U.K: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011.
Government of Karnataka. Bengaluru Rural District Human Development Report. Bangalore: 2014.
Hasan, Fazlul M. Bangalore Through the Centuries. Bangalore: Historical Publications, 1970.
Nair, Janaki. The Promise of the Metropolis: Bangalore’s Twentieth Century. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2005.
Rice, Benjamin. Mysore a Gazetteer Compiled for Government. Westminster. London: Archibald Constable and Company, 1896.
Searle, Llerena Guiu. Landscapes of Accumulation: Real Estate and the Neoliberal Imagination in Contemporary India. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016.
Srinivas, Smriti. Landscapes of Urban Memory: The Sacred and the Civic in India’s High-Tech City. Orient Longman, 2004.
- Kavanaa (in the Kannada language) translates to poem. As this part of the text is a poetic exploration, I decided to name the two sections Poem and Interpretation (Vyakhyana). ↩
- Bangalore’s metro rail is touted as a ‘world class’ infrastructure project. Phase I cost Rs. 14,405.01 crores (US$2.0 billion). Recently a busy section of the line near Ulsoor was blocked as the pillars had developed a structural snag. Experts claimed that it could have been caused by poor quality material, impure water or faulty process. https://bangaloremirror.indiatimes.com/bangalore/others/six-years-into-operation-metro-pillar-at-trinity-station-develops-major-fault/articleshow/67067778.cms ↩
- Red Man is a reference to Kempe Gowda (the Kannada word kempu translates to red). According to myth, he takes his name as homage to the goddess Kempamma. Kempe Gowda is credited with building the old city of Bangalore and enclosing it with a mud fort in 1537, now referred to as ‘city’ that distinguishes it from the Cantonment which has a British past. The raising of the fort has a gory myth attached to it. In one popular version, when Kempe Gowda failed to secure the South Gate of his fort, he was asked to offer a pregnant woman’s blood in sacrifice. On hearing this, his daughter in law is said to offered herself to the fort. https://bangaloremirror.indiatimes.com/opinion/others/gandu-bhoomi-kempegowda-i-hamlet-ranabaire-gowda-kempegowda-dynasty/articleshow/37915226.cms ↩
- This section refers to the Ulsoor Car Festival, the subject of my doctoral work. ↩
- Soma – an intoxicant made from the extract of the mythical soma plant was offered to Indra, the warrior god of the heavens. The Rig Veda refers to soma as an elixir that was ritually prepared, offered in sacrifice and consumed. Soma also refers to the moon, and Someshwara is reigning deity of Ulsoor, a form of Siva, is the ‘Lord who wears the moon.’ ↩
- The Poo Pallaki Festival (Jasmine Palanquin festival) follows the Car Festival, in the early part of the summer month of Chaitra. ↩
- Kempamma, the boundary goddess comes riding a lion. ↩
- Madiga is a term that refers to an ‘untouchable’ caste, now protected under the Constitutional Schedule. ↩
- Extracted from an interview with one of the older residents of Ulsoor, Jayanna. This is a description of the late night rituals for the boundary goddess of Ulsoor. Most people who are not directly involved in the ritual stay indoors as the sights are said to be horrific. ↩
- Toti Mane refers to the old typology of ‘native’ homes in Ulsoor. The ‘toti’ was an inner rectangular courtyard open to the skies above and the earth below. ↩
- Reference to the family deity of Mrs Reddy. ↩
- Vyakhyaana translates to interpretation of poetic text. ↩
- Srinivas S, 2004 ↩
- Bananas are considered ‘auspicious’ as they symbolize perennial fertility and fruition. ↩
- The images of the construction at the beginning of this document are scenes from the Hoskote area. ↩