How Bengaluru grew and thrived around lakes

Bengaluru’s development as a city is inextricably linked to the development of multiple lakes, says ecologist Harini Nagendra. These lakes were created not only by rulers but also by common people

March 20, 2024 09:00 am | Updated 04:24 pm IST - Bengaluru

Harini Nagendra during the ‘Bangalore Lakes: An Ecological History’ talk at Science Gallery.

Harini Nagendra during the ‘Bangalore Lakes: An Ecological History’ talk at Science Gallery. | Photo Credit: Sankalp Singh

Harini Nagendra brings up the founding myth about modern Bengaluru: how the great warrior Kempe Gowda, a chieftain under the Vijayanagara Empire, saw a hare chasing a hunting dog, a sign of immense bravery. He referred to this area as Gandubhoomi, the land of heroes, and decided that it would be auspicious to build a city here, starting with a fort. “But how did he create a market town in Bangalore? There must have (already) been some activity,“ says Harini, going into the prehistoric past of Bengaluru at a recent lecture titled Bangalore Lakes: An Ecological History at the Science Gallery Bengaluru.  

Nearly dried up Mallathahalli Lake as the city witnesses acute water shortage due to worst drought in about four decades.

Nearly dried up Mallathahalli Lake as the city witnesses acute water shortage due to worst drought in about four decades. | Photo Credit: PTI

The area, which would become Bengaluru, she says, was a very old settlement, as the discovery of megalithic stone tools from 3500 years ago indicates. While other discoveries, like ancient jars filled with coins from all over the world, estimated to be around 2000-odd years old, suggest that Bengaluru must have been an important centre for trade, commerce and cultural exchange, how civilisation developed here is still somewhat mysterious. “

“In your school geography textbooks, you always hear that you develop cities near water... that civilisations come from water,“ says the Bengaluru-based ecologist at the talk, which was part of the ongoing Critical Zones exhibition, a collaboration between Science Gallery Bengaluru and Goethe-Institut / Max Mueller Bhavan, Bangalore. “That makes Bengaluru very interesting because it has no perennial water supply. It is in the rain shadow of the Western Ghats,” she says, adding that in the absence of written record, we will never really know where ancient people got their water from. 

Varthur Lake is one of the biggest lakes in Bengaluru , it was used for irrigation purposes for the surrounding areas are now polluted. Encroachments and construction of buildings added woes to that and the ground water level condition is alarming.

Varthur Lake is one of the biggest lakes in Bengaluru , it was used for irrigation purposes for the surrounding areas are now polluted. Encroachments and construction of buildings added woes to that and the ground water level condition is alarming. | Photo Credit: K Bhagya Prakash

Development of water system

Stone inscriptions dating as far back as the 5th and 6th centuries, however, give us some clues about the development of water systems in this area in the early common era. Using a series of maps, Nagendra explains how various lakes began emerging in the area which would become Bengaluru, beginning by going into the topography of the area, the hilly western part and the flatter eastern part. “The (old) High Ground Police Station used to be its highest point,” she says.

Drawing from various inscription stones, she also talks about the various dynasties that rose, ruled and fell over the centuries-- the Ganga Dynasty (6-9 centuries CE), the Cholas (10-12 centuries CE), the Hoysala Dynasty (13-14 centuries CE) and the Vijayanagara Dynasty (14-16 centuries CE)--and how their presence contributed to developing the water systems of Bengaluru. Kempe Gowda, she adds, had so pleased Achuta Deva Raya, the brother of Krishna Deva Raya, who also went on to rule Vijayanagara, that he was given a number of villages to support the market town that he had founded. “There was a vibrant economy because of all those things,” believes Harini, Director, Research Center & Centre for Climate Change, Azim Premji University..

A view shows parched banks of Nallurahalli Lake, located on the eastern edges of India’s tech hub of Bengaluru is facing water shortages.

A view shows parched banks of Nallurahalli Lake, located on the eastern edges of India’s tech hub of Bengaluru is facing water shortages. | Photo Credit: Reuters

She also mentions how the city’s lakes were created not only by rulers but also by common people (one even by a prostitute) and goes into the connection between water and worship. “They went to a landscape and looked at where the low-lying muddy patches were. From this, they scooped out mud and made the lakes,” she says, describing how cultures were constructed, how history played out, and even how warfare was carried out because of the city’s water bodies.  “Lakes were part of the imagination and a way of life,” she believes.

Vibhuthipura Lake, is one of the many waterbodies that have gone dry in Bengaluru. But this is natural, say seasoned lake experts.

Vibhuthipura Lake, is one of the many waterbodies that have gone dry in Bengaluru. But this is natural, say seasoned lake experts. | Photo Credit: Rasheed Kappan Freelancer

Changing city

Much has changed in Bengaluru’s landscape since the times of Kempe. Harini goes into how the city has expanded massively since the days of that market town, and how that expansion came at the cost of the city’s water systems. Today, what was once a city that was watered by plentiful lakes, channels, and wells is now almost completely dependent on borewells and Cauvery water, which is clearly not enough for its residents, as the recent water crisis indicates. “We only talk about ecology in times of crisis,” she says, pointing out that while poor urban design has altered the topography of the city, it is important to work on nature-based solutions to restore our water systems. After all, “we grew because of attention to lakes,” says Harini, who believes lakes and wells could play a significant part is addressing drought and flooding, both things that Bengaluru is susceptible to.  

She also goes into how urbanisation — India, along with China and Nigeria, are the fastest urbanising countries right now — is capable of devastating ecology. By 2050, 60% of India’s population is projected to be urban, with 415,000,000 people added to its cities. “Where is the housing, electricity, and water going to come from?” she asks. Too often, the conversation lingers on building infrastructure, with people believing that the environment can be looked at later. “People  often say that first India needs to develop and then it can take care of its ecology,“ says Harini, who firmly believes that it is important to develop on the backs of our ecology. Preserving urban ecosystems, while a city grows, is an important aspect of health, energy, economy and people, she says. “We need to understand that we can’t grow as a city unless we keep this in mind.” 

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