Cavalry Road-Banking on the Army

I was walking down from Commercial Street last week, determined to find Cavalry Road.  Of course I knew it was Kamaraj Road with an older name. But Cavalry Road was where Dharmaratnakara Rao Bahadur Arcot Narainswamy Mudaliar had set up the grocery shop that speed tracked him to greater success. The new born Cutchi Memon Union (1933) had rented an office room here for Rs.13. It was where Bangalore’s premier Jewish family of Rubin Moses, owner of Rubin Moses store on #9, Commercial Street had built a home. It was definitely not what it is now. And like Bangalore’s Brigade Road, Artillery Road, Infantry Road and the South Parade that was renamed MG Road, Cavalry Road too was relevant to the Cantonment legacy.

I walked with no fixed agenda and chanced upon a little lane before the Sufi Dargah of Hazrat Garib Navaz. I turned into it and discovered a bridge to the past. Marwady Bazaar Street is easy to miss at first glance, especially for those in a tearing hurry to get from one place to the next. But it is easily approachable on foot, in the style of the merchant-bankers who arrived here in the latter half of the 19th century. The narrow lane had an architectural vocabulary that expressed itself in a curious haveli-meets-Tamil row house style. Standing outside was Arun Kumar, who invited me in for a cup of tea and a closer look.

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According to experts, the term `Marwari’ was first used by Col. James Tod, an army officer, who wrote an extensive historiography on Rajasthan. Though often used without distinction, it is essentially a geographical identity derived from the Marwar area in the state. The community itself is made up of distinct groups including Jains, Brahmins and Banias.

Arun Kumar says his great-grandfather, Hydan Ramchand Bohra, was originally from Beawar town in Rajasthan and “came to Bangalore via Hyderabad around 1880 on a camel in a military caravan.”  The family was the first in the Marwari Jain community to settle here and eir house is the oldest in the locality.  Arun Kumar is the eighth generation to live here. The front door leads onto the street while the private rooms with 20” thick walls are built in an `open to sky’ tradition around an old stone well and tulsi muttram in the inner courtyard. The ceiling on the second floor is hand daubed lime and mortar from a pre-RCC slab era. A secret room with a 2’ door was where the traditional tijori (safe) was once placed. “You had to bend going in and out. Robbers did not stand a chance.”

I walked around the corner and found pawn broker B Gautham Chand sitting outside his two storeyed home.He too invited me in and proudly pointed out the vintage Belgian glass chandelier hanging from a thick teak wood ceiling and the teakwood cupboards carved with British crests.The windows overlooking the street were framed by pretty painted monkey tops with decorative barge boards. Priceless community stories too lay hidden behind these closed doors.

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As I listened, a picture emerged.The princely states of yore relied heavily on estate bankers and therefore created a positive climate for trading- banking communities to settle and strengthen market centres. While business was initially conducted on a regional basis, princely powers gradually diminished and new commercial centres, including the military Cantonments emerged across British India. Enterprising Marwari businessmen left their desert homeland (a locus of inland trading routes from the west) and migrated to mercantile centres exhibiting rapid growth. After functioning in a whimsical business climate for centuries, the British commercial codes were very welcome. East India Company records from 1660 mention Marwari businessmen in Patna and Mumbai and Kolkata too witnessed extensive migrations during the 19th century.

The migrant merchant-bankers built a collective habitat in new environments, maintained strong links with their homeland and played the role of a support system for community members who followed. Their dominant culture of banking, brokerage and trade was supported by an instinctive ability to adapt and evolve. They became integral to the military and`bazaar’ economy in Bangalore and clustered around British administrative and commercial areas. Arun Kumar says the locals began to call them `Sowcars’ (hence the name Sowcarpete for a Marwari dominated area in the old Bengaluru Pete).The Bangalore Cantonment too benefitted from their business acumen. Arun Kumar’s great-grandfather was appointed to disburse salaries for the MEG regiment stationed here and later, the newly set up Bangalore Turf Club (1920).

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Chajulal Chauthmull (b.1909) too was a prominent banker to the Cantonment regiments. “Soldiers would walk through a gate onto Cavalry Road to encash their monthly cheques” recalls his son, Raghunandan Sharma, a Marwari Brahmin. Like others in his community, he was also a freedom fighter and would scatter grains on Cavalry Road to trip unsuspecting British horsemen! The Austin owning`Mr Mull’ (as he was called by his colonial clientele) was the first in the area to have a radio and a three digit telephone (4-5-7). The family owned property in the Cantonment and sold 4000 sq.ft on present day Lloyds Road at a price of Rs. 1 per sq.ft. “We were so happy to have found a customer!” says Raghunandan Sharma. He insists that I stop for a cup of tea and a chat.

Chajulal Chauthmull also initiated a unique Diwali ritual for friends and family. “The owner of the sweet shop `Mandhata’ on Ebrahim Saheb Street would come every year with some sheaves of paper. My father would stamp them and gift them to people instead of sweets. When we grew older, we realised that these `coupons’ were redeemed at the sweet shop. At the end of the season, my father settled the relevant amount in cash. Our acquaintances got fresh sweets, Mandhata got business and everyone was happy.” Everyone here has a story to tell and the time to tell it. I am happy to listen.

Raghunandan Sharma then tosses me a snippet of city gossip and reveals that the Simbu Vilas (1924) building owned by the noted Chaganmull Mutha at Shoolay Circle is where a young subaltern called Winston Churchill allegedly pawned his wristwatch due to dire financial circumstances. “It will definitely be worth a lot more now than what he must have got for it back then!” he laughs.

My head spins with stories as I walk on. I stop periodically to admire this old world streetscape. It has many heritage buildings and over 16 temples on it! It also has secrets. `Jai Durga’, a beautiful heritage mansion on the exterior, is actually a privately owned shrine with red oxide flooring and Chettiar style teakwood columns inside. It was dedicated by its erstwhile Marwari owners to the Goddess and is now looked after by Chandrashekhar Panditji. Nihal Jain’s Marudhar Artefacts sells original and replica period furniture while the Dhanraj Heerachand Kataria building contains a photograph of the Mysore Maharaja presenting them with a memento for services well-rendered. Further down Kamaraj Road, Ramdev Sweets and Chats from Jodhpur brings out jalebi-kachoris at sunset.

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The BBMP Health Office nearby is also an old building. It is believed to have once been the local police station where the wildly publicised reward of 12 annas for killing a dozen dead rats was collected during the famous plague epidemics (19th-early 20th century) that afflicted Bangalore. The stories of Cavalry Road now included not just the military but also the eco-systems that emerged around it.

As I walked towards the Veerapillai Street Junction, I began to realise that whoever said” what’s in a name’ was wrong. Names come with relationships, meanings and legacies attached. They contribute to an identity. Cavalry Road is closely connected to Bangalore’s military past and the history of Marwari Bazaar street. It will remain preserved this way in the memories of the Marwari community who settled here over a century ago and built a future.

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Find it at: Between Armstrong Road and Cavalry(now Kamaraj Road) behind Commercial Street.

———————————————————————————————————————————————–*All images courtesy of: Nirlek Dhulla at Dejaview: www.dejaview.in

The memories and information in this story are excerpts from `A remembered city’, my project that maps Bangalore through the personal narratives of its people.  This story was originally published in the Bangalore Mirror, September 1st 2014. 

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One comment

  1. Raghavendra Bangalore · · Reply

    The color combination of monkey tops are lovely…again lovely piece of info..thank you

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