When I was a kid, I used to think that this structure with Shivaji’s statue on top next to Sankey Tank in Bengaluru was one of his many impressive forts. I was stripped of the notion when I had an argument about it with a senior in the school bus who mocked me for believing in such nonsense and my parents ruefully confirmed my humiliation at home later that day.
With the senior continuing to mock me about it now and again and learning of Shivaji’s hold over Maharashtra, I foreclosed the possibility of Shivaji ever having had any connection with Bengaluru, much less Malleswaram, where I live.
Fast forward to a couple of decades later, and I found out about a history walk being conducted by a former history teacher Sujatha Balakrishnan on Malleswaram. This was a part of a series of walks on Bengaluru’s history that its residents are largely unfamiliar with. For most school going students in India, local history is not a priority. We tend to know more about Delhi than our own cities. I thought this walk was a good way of making amends. History – like our politics – should begin locally.
My ignorance meant that during the walk, I was seeing the neighbourhood – where I was born and brought up – through fresh eyes. Malleswaram was founded as the result of a plague in the 1890s. It was an attempt to decongest the ravaged city centre and create safer enclaves. Housing was divided along lines of caste and religion and there were segregated spaces created for Brahmins, Lingayats and Muslims. A hundred and thirty years later, these divisions can still be seen and I understood that this had not happened over time. This was how Malleswaram was meant to be.
But while Malleswaram was born of a plague, the space was not uninhabited before. Malleswaram gets its name from the Kadu Malleswara temple that is centuries old. In Kannada, ‘Kadu’ means forest and according to local lore, Malleswara comes from ‘mele eshwara’. Put together ‘kadu mele eshwara’ means ‘the god on top of the forest’ as the temple is built on top of a hillock. The god is Mallikarjuna, a popular form of Shiva worshipped in Karnataka. A long flight of stone stairs led up to the sanctum sanctorum. A lush garden with old trees surrounded the stone steps, a vestige of the old ‘Kadu’ protected from modernity by faith. I could hear the occasional clang of the temple bell, the chirping of birds and no traffic. It felt like I had entered the eye of a storm.
There was an inscription on a boulder beside the temple which was enclosed by an iron cage that had a picture of Shivaji on top of it. Sujatha explained that this was Bengaluru’s only Maratha inscription written in HaLe (Old) Kannada by Venkoji the first, dated to the year 1669. This Venkoji was also Shahji’s son and Shivaji’s half-brother. Shivaji did have a connection with Bengaluru and Malleswaram after all.
When Shivaji’s father Shahji served the Bijapur Sultanate, he had led an attack on Kempegowda the third and defeated him in battle. As a reward, Shahji had received the annexed territory of Bengaluru as a jagir. He settled down here for a few years with his second wife Tukabai and their son Venkoji. When his first wife Jijabai wrote him a letter telling him that their son Shivaji was old enough to be married, Shahji called for them to come to Bengaluru in 1640. The twelve-year-old Shivaji was married in the city to Saibai Nimbalkar from Phaltan. While Shivaji was sent back to Shahji’s jagirs in the North, his second son Venkoji was given the jagir of Bengaluru. As Ekoji the first, Venkoji would shift his base to Thanjavur in Tamil Nadu where he would begin the Thanjavur Maratha dynasty that would last into the nineteenth century. He sold Bengaluru to the Mysore Wadiyar Kings – who were feudatories of the Mughals at the time – for three lakh rupees.
But while he was in Bengaluru, he had extended his protection and patronage to the Kadu Malleswara temple and left an inscription behind to that effect. He granted the temple the revenue of a village that existed in what is today the Indian Institute of Science as manya or sacred offering. The inscription also had a warning for anyone who attacked the temple. It said that anyone who defiled this sacred space would be committing an act akin to a Muslim eating pig’s meat in Mecca and a Hindu slaughtering a cow. Their fate would be the worst hell.
Venkoji’s inscription tells us that temple demolition was common then. It also tells us that patronage of temples was a means of legitimising power. What I found most interesting about the inscription was that Venkoji warned not just Muslims but Hindus too. If building, renovating and protecting temples were means of legitimising power, defiling and destroying them were means of undermining it. This is why both Hindus and Muslims indulged in it and why the warning was for both faiths. I was left thinking that Malleswaram’s founding history – speaking through Venkoji’s warning – might have clues pointing to the dominant narrative of temple destruction. Apart from making me feel a little less stupid about linking Shivaji and Bengaluru, of course.