Circling the Past-A walk around St.Mark’s Square

“The traffic park at the intersection of Lavelle Road and St.Mark’s Road used to be called the Indian Children’s Park” a friend told me one sunny morning while we were sitting at the Bowring Institute. “A story from my childhood says that when non-British civilians were denied entry into the posh Cantonment clubs at the time, they petitioned for an alternate recreation space and so land was allocated to build the children’s park in this corner.” As I left the Institute a little later, the story popped back into my head. I decided to take a walk around what was once called St. Mark’s Square and make some then- and- now connections to places in its vicinity. Sometimes, a city changes so fast that its memories get left behind.

Long before Prakash Padukone honed his talent on its badminton courts, the erstwhile Bangalore Literary and Scientific Institute (as Bowring Institute was once known) is where men of letters gathered for intense cerebral workouts.  The BLSI  was established around 1868 by a young BL Rice, the pioneering epigraphist, author of the early Mysore Gazetteers and Director of Public Instruction, along with other city philanthropists about 8 years after his return from a higher education in England.  In 1888, Lady Prendergast, wife of Sir Harry Prendergast, the Officiating Resident in Mysore,  then laid a foundation stone here for the new Bowring Institute at St.Mark’s Square. It was a stately building named after LB Bowring, the Commissioner of Mysore (1862-1870), himself a man of letters and colonial discourse. Portraits of Rice and other luminaries including Rao Bahadur Arcot Narainswamy Mudaliar still hang alongside English royalty under the impossibly high gabled roof of the Bowring Institute’s library.  The wooden floor too must have been worn out by dainty heels kicked up in a fox-trot or two.

Image from "Picturesque Bangalore" published by The Times Press, Bombay. Photographs taken by C H Doveton.

Image from “Picturesque Bangalore” published by The Times Press, Bombay. Photographs taken by C H Doveton.

I turned left from the Institute gate facing the India Garage petrol station where Haji Osman Sait `Khilafatwale’ set fire to British goods during the 1940’s. As I walked past the Bowring petrol station, I briefly paid homage to childhood memories of the Bowring Kulfi booth that once stood here. It has moved to Residency Road. The kulfi tastes the same, but it isn’t the same if you know what I mean.

Before turning left at the petrol station, old timer stories resurfaced. They used to walk down Church Street to a skating rink located on the spot where Berry’s Hotel once stood.  Skating enthusiasts then teetered across towards the Central Hotel, # 13, St. Mark’s Square (now the Chancery Pavilion) when US diplomats brought the never seen before `Circurama’ to town in the 1960’s. They apparently built a dismantlable dome here with a circular cement floor. It became the new skating rink once the film company left town. Lassi (buttermilk) guzzlers in the city would later know the place as Sreeraj Bar and Lassi Restaurant and grieve when it too vanished.

Right opposite the demolished Central Hotel, St. Mark’s Cathedral (1808) still stands resolutely watching the area change.  It was built 60 years before the BLSI and is also the oldest Church in the Cantonment. As I walked on, connections were revived with the Irish soldier Michael F Lavelle who went prospecting outside Bengaluru only to hit the jackpot in Kolar Gold Fields around 1850. While Lavelle Road today is full of eateries and hotels, hotelier traditions in this area (as recalled by city chronicler, the late Ronnie Johnson) go back to when Mrs. E. Greatorex offered single room and board for Rs. 5 a month at #3, `Strathmore’ in the 1920’s. She competed with `St. Michaels’ further down the road, as well as several paying guest options including `Hanson House’ run by Mrs. A Klyne at #2, St. Mark’s Road. The genteel Cantonment ladies were also sharp eyed business women.

I turned the corner, walked past Airlines Hotel and arrived back at the afore-mentioned `Indian Children’s Park’. Before turning left towards the Bowring Institute gate, I stood facing Museum Road. It runs alongside India Garage and takes you down to Residency Road. The British Resident’s home was once located here on the present day Good Shepherd Convent premises. The Residency was then shifted to a building inside the State Bank of Mysore on St. Marks Road and finally to what is now Raj Bhavan on Cubbon Road. It was once the beautiful home of the British Commissioner Sir Mark Cubbon and is said to have been built by Aga Ali Asker.

Sometimes, re-living memories can make you walk around a square, only to come full circle. The Bowring Institute’s foundation was laid in 1888. In the same year, the British administration restored the Bengaluru Fort to Mysore State in exchange for the Residency house and grounds that was then incorporated into the C&M Station near High Grounds where the city’s elite once lived. So much of Bengaluru has vanished over the years. Nothing much of what once was still remains. But places have memories. Just like people. They help you join the dots.

” …urban forms are not made out of materials and things but out of meanings, language, symbols.It can be relatively easy to knock down a building but it is much harder to demolish a space which is composed around memory, experience or imagination.”  Fran Tonkiss, `Space, the City and Social Theory -Social Relations and Urban Forms ‘.

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3 comments

  1. Anup kumar · · Reply

    Very nostalgic ! I remember visiting the British council library as a member, after School break from Cottons.
    much later during 1986 visited the Kulfi shop for fresh juice and pack kulfis’ in a plastic bag filled with Ice !
    Now I sit and sip coffee in the Bowring Institute and wonder what happened to the Dosa at Airlines hotel…..
    time flies.

  2. Narayanaswamy.S · · Reply

    The present Raj bhavan,was earlier Residency till 1947,there after it became state guest house as the Raj pramuk H.H.Jayachamaraj wadeyar preferred to stay in his palace,only after his exit in 1962,it became Raj bhavan.
    Still earlier it was Coomissioner Bungalow till Rendition which took place in 1881.
    It was built by Sir Mark Cubbon, in 1840,s at his own cost.It was sold by his agent to the Government when Bowring was Commissioner in 1860.s.

  3. Sunil Cavale · · Reply

    Great post. I will take a walk in the locality pretty soon. Thanks!

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