From village to city: An ecological history of Bengaluru

Stones with inscriptions found in Hebbal village.

Stones with inscriptions found in Hebbal village.  

The elevated landscape around the city can be divided into two topographically distinct areas

Popular belief attributes the ‘founding’ of Bengaluru to Hiriya Kempe Gowda in 1537. However, archaeological remains demonstrate that the landscape was settled by humans for millennia before this with records of stone implements, megalithic tombs and microliths found in many parts of the city. From the 6{+t}{+h}century BC onwards, we are fortunate to have a rich record of epigraphical inscriptions, which provide insights into the landscape within which early settlers lived, fought, grew food, and raised animals.

Situated on the Deccan plateau, the elevated landscape around Bengaluru can be divided into two topographically distinct areas that occupy roughly equal halves of the current city. To the east is the plains called the maidan or bailu , with gentle slopes and fertile soil, amenable to tank irrigation and cultivation. To the west lies the relatively more rugged landscape of the malnad , with thorny scrub jungle cover, granite outcrops and less fertile soil. This contrast in terrain influenced the number and nature of early settlements in and around Bangalore.

The earliest settlements documented in inscriptional records are of areas governed by local chieftains who owed their allegiance to rulers of the Ganga dynasty, between the 6{+t}{+h}and 9{+t}{+h}centuries CE. Most settlements with inscriptions dating from this period are found in the fertile maidan , including one of the earliest recorded settlements of Begur (with an inscription dating to 517 AD).

During the period of Chola rule, between the 10{+t}{+h}and 12{+t}{+h}centuries CE, older settlements continued to persist, with new settlements advancing further into the plains landscape. During the 13{+t}{+h}and 14{+t}{+h}centuries, there was a spurt in growth under the Hoysala empire, with at least 32 new settlements recorded for the first time. Settlements advanced into the central and western, higher elevation parts of the city, perhaps because of the lack of space in the maidan , although they avoided the highest ridgetop areas.

The Hoysala administration placed great importance on constructing water reservoirs (lakes or keres ), expanding the area under irrigated cultivation. The large number of settlements ending in ‘ sandra ’ (such as Singhasandra and Hongasandra) indicate that water bodies were present in these areas ( sandra or samudra being a term used for large bodies of water). The only trace of many lakes now are the vestiges of their place names, or the continued presence of temples associated with lake deities ( sans lake), witnesses to a time when Bengaluru was a city of lakes and tanks.

By 1537, when Kempe Gowda established the medieval town of Bangalore, settlements dotted the entire surface of the city, covering the fertile maidan and the rocky malnad . The early settlements in this area paved the way for the modern city. Bengaluru now sprawls across hundreds of kilometres, indifferent to ecology and topography.

Yet, inscriptional records show differences between the pastoral users of the maidan , who dealt with wild beast attacks and cattle raids, and the farmers of the maidan , who grew irrigated crops in a fertile landscape with open wells, orchards and temple complexes, each adapting their use of the land to optimise the different opportunities offered by the varying terrain. Now, with food and water brought into the city from vast distances, it is only in times of floods and drought that we think of terrain, ecology and the biophysical constraints of land. A careful consideration of history reminds us of the importance of staying rooted to our landscape: a lesson that cannot be more timely, given our current break-neck race towards urbanisation.

Harini Nagendra is a Professor of Sustainability at Azim Premji University, and author of a book “Nature in the City: Bengaluru in the Past, Present, and Future”, by Oxford University Press India, forthcoming in April 2016. This article draws on material from the book.

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Printable version | May 30, 2020 12:22:10 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/karnataka/From-village-to-city-An-ecological-history-of-Bengaluru/article14018167.ece

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