THE AMRIT MAHAL-Bullish About Battles

I saw a magnificent bull standing in busy Taramandalpete the other day. While my overseas visitors were thrilled with the unexpected opportunity to photograph local transport, I was struck by this happy coincidence. Despite name changes, rusty signboards here continue to call the area Taramandalpete. The name comes from another time in city history, and this nonchalant bull played an important role in the making of it.

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Image Credit: Meera Sankar

Long after local legends recalled four bulls that were used to mark the boundaries of Kempegowda’s settlement and Basava the Bull God lent his name to a suburb in the same,  these bulls began to be reared in the 17th century by the Mysore ruler Chikkadevaraja Wodeyar along with cows that supplied milk and butter to the royal palace. He assigned large tracts of (now encroached upon) grasslands or `kavals’ across Mysore region for grazing and rearing what he called the `Benne Chavadi’, a cattle department established for the task. He even branded them with his initials.

A century later, Taramandalpete in the old Pete area is believed to have been the site of Tipu Sultan’s pioneering rocket workshops in the 18th century. Alongside the famous projectiles that inspired modern rocket technology, the bullock too played a significant role in the Anglo-Mysore Wars that the Mysore Sultanate rulers fought for over thirty years with the East India Company.

British officers were astounded at the speed with which Tipu’s father, Haider Ali transported his armies and artillery across the region. They later learned that the draught bulls employed here were reared in the old Mysore region and were assumed to have descended from the Hallikar breed brought to Srirangapatna somewhere in the late 1500’s by the Vijayanagar Viceroy who governed the area at the time.

The bulls were distinguished by long, tapering heads, a bulging forehead with a narrow furrow in the centre and uniquely shaped horns. They soon came to be favoured for their speed and endurance. Haider Ali used them to his advantage in warfare (he is said to have owned at least 60,000). This legacy was passed down to his son, Tipu Sultan who also relied on them heavily. Sir Mark Cubbon writes that Haider once clocked in a 100 miles in two days but Tipu beat the movement of General Medows by making it to Bednore with a record time of 63 miles in two days¹. Tipu renamed the cattle department `Amrit Mahal’ and carefully organised them into gun, pack and plough bullocks. He personally attended the annual musters and distributed rewards. Departmental regulations were stipulated in his formal `Hukumnamah’. Following his death in the Fourth Anglo-Mysore War (1799) the cattle and his departmental systems were absorbed into the British administration.

The Mysorean taurines also contributed to Governor General Arthur Wellesley’s (later Duke of Wellington) reputation for `marches of unparalleled rapidity’ within the Madras Presidency. They were sorely missed by him during the Peninsular Wars he then fought against Napoleon in Europe. About 230 of them were also sent to the Afghan Wars sometime later.

Following the Anglo-Maratha Wars, there were no more battles to be fought in and around Mysore region.The Amrit Mahal, consisting of strains of Hallikar, Chitaldroog and Hagalvadi cattle were now not required as draught bullocks. Their importance diminished thereafter but saw a feeble revival by the Mysore government several times in the 1800’s. It is recorded that between 1700 and 1900, the weight of the food for soldiers amounted to 10 percent of the army supplies and fodder for the animals was 90%.

The Diwanship of VP Madhava Rao saw the setting up of a Veterinary Department and the appointment of an Inspector of cattle diseases whose duties consisted of `the investigation of the nature of epidemic diseases among cattle, visits to localities where such diseases were prevalent and the adoption of measures for checking their ravages. He was also required to devote his attention to improve veterinary knowledge in rural parts by organising and encouraging local effort that could then instruct the rural cattle doctors and large cattle-owners in a scientific diagnosis of cattle diseases and a proper application of easily available indigenous drugs.’²

In January 1908 a veterinary hospital was started in Bangalore and in May of the same year, hospitals and dispensaries were opened at Mysore, Chickmagalur, Kolar and Hassan in furtherance of the scheme for a Civil Veterinary Department. The serum required to inoculate cattle was obtained from a Government of India Bacteriologist working at the Muktesar laboratory in Punjab.

But long before measures were initiated for cattle welfare, the draught bulls were busy being pressed into less arduous service. Bullock carts carried the uncle-nephew artist duo, Thomas and William Daniell across the region, while they painted their way through it. Their water colours and lithographs of Bangalore emerged around April, 1792. The bulls also took Mrs Bowring, wife of Commissioner LB Bowring on a memorable journey to Mysore for the coronation of the new Maharaja Chamarajendra Wodeyar X in 1868. They were also critical for the transportation of food supplies to remote areas during the great famine of 1876-78 and they made visits from Bangalore to Whitefield possible in the early 1900’s. Some victories it seems, were achieved not just by heroes on horses.

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This story was previously published in the Bangalore Mirror, June 6, 2016.

1.BREEDS OF INDIAN CATTLE. NOTE ON THE CATTLE OF MYSORE BY A. KRISTNASAMIENGAR, B.A., and Captain H. T. PEASE, Page 2-5

2.Modern Mysore, M Shama Rao, Page 228

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7 comments

  1. shashi · · Reply

    A wonderful article. My uncle always keeps telling us how much the draught bull was a major driving force in the progress of the old mysore region. Your article brought back fantastic memories and also helps us appreciate the contributions of these magnificent animals. thank you!

    1. Hi Shashi, thank you!

  2. Pounds, Oil mills, Cane crushers, Lime crushers, Cement mixers, Carts, Gun carriages, Tractor trollies, Broken down “Tempos”, Brick kilns, Quarries, and of course farms – these beauties have hauled and ground and ploughed and carried so much! The absence of grazing grounds and the high cost of fodder have seen these fade away…
    They continue to be common in north Karnataka, and used for all of the above!

    1. I agree! There’s so much worth holding on to and so much we are losing.

  3. BRaman · · Reply

    I am “bullish” on you.Do you have the latest decision of govts on Kaval ? I saw the story on encroachment linked to your story.Are there no effective protest groups against govt taking away the kaval ? GreenTribunal/Environment dept also may give in to demands to clear proposals to usurp natural habitat.They cannot be relied on to save nature.

    1. Sir, I am not an ecologist or environmentalist by profession, just by allegiance.I believe there is a wonderful report on this issue done by the Environment Support Group (ESG) and an evocative article by Mr. Chandan Gowda in the Bangalore Mirror for your reference.

  4. Dear Aliyeh, I still await your ph no.I commented on your story below.

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