Kempe Gowda Towers and the Founding Fathers of Bangalore

Situated on a high rocky outcrop immediately south-east of the pretty Lalbagh Botanical Gardens in Bangalore (Bengaluru), the Kempe Gowda Tower is a relatively small unassuming structure that I spent a few minutes photographing without really thinking it was something significant enough to subsequently blog about. Although its origins appeared to be quite old, I had no idea at the time that this is one of a number of similar structures dotted around the city that play a part in the story of the origins of Bangalore.

Hampi, the capital of the Vijayanagar Empire, reached its zenith in the 16th century under the rule of Krishna Deva Raya. This was a vast empire encompassing much of southern India, far too large to be centrally managed and controlled by a single ruler alone. Instead, the empire was divided up into several districts, each one ruled by a chiefton who would in turn report to the king.

Yelahankanadu (now known as Yelahanka and part of Bangalore city) was one such well established and prosperous town ruled by a chieftain named Kempe Gowda (1513-1569). In the mid 1530s he visited his king at Hampi and was awestruck by the sophisticated rich city, well planned out with streets, water tanks and temples, and with a vibrant economy underpinned by a wide variety the tradesmen equally drawn in by what the city had to offer. As a result of that visit, Kempe Gowda became determined to establish his own version of Hampi.

Just a couple of years later in 1537, Kempe Gowda received a sign that he should now strive to build his own city. The story goes that he was out hunting one day in a forest close to Yelahankanadu and saw a rabbit chasing a dog, an unusual sight that is perceived as an auspicious and heroic sign. He decided that this was the very spot where he should build his dream city, and after seeking blessings and permission from Achyutharaya (the King of the Vijayanagar Empire), Kempe Gowda spent the next few years establishing Bangalore.

Achyutharaya was so impressed with Kempe Gowda’s vision, dedication and sincerity, that he bestowed on him 12 Holies (clusters of villages), which included Halasuru (Ulsoor), Kengeri, Varthur, Begur, Tala-gattapur, Jigani, Kumbalgod, Kanalli, Banavar, and Hessarghatta. The combined annual revenue from this land surpassed 30,000 gold coins, which was invested in establishing, maintaining and then expanding Bangalore.

The original footprint of Bangalore can still be seen on modern maps over 500 years later. The north-south street was named Doddapete Street (now Avenur Road), the north-south street was named Chikkapete Street. The boundary of the city was fortified with a mud wall and water-filled ditch, which can be traced by modern streets today. Areas within the city walls were divided up for specific professions or traders, such as sheep, gold, rice, oil, cattle, salt and cotton traders.

A map of Bangalore made by James Ross in 1800 clearly shows the extent of the original old city, as well as the more recent addition of a fort annexed to the south. Interestingly, this map also depicts a circular hedge marked as “Bound Hedge of the Cusba of Bangalore”. These are thought to have been a British innovation, primarily to block the free movement of salt for which a salt tax or customs duty could be applied. Often also referred to as a “Customs Hedge” and made from large cacti and Euphorbia, many scholars now think that the idea had already been implemented in India long before the British arrived.

The 1804 map also clearly shows numerous reservoirs and water tanks surrounding the fortified city that were built by Kempe Gowda, creating an infrastructure to underpin the increasing success of the city.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, neighbouring chieftons became increasingly jealous of Kempe Gowda’s success, and they collectively started to plot ways by which they could engineer his downfall. Such an opportunity presented itself in the 1550s, when Kempe Gowda started issuing his own currency without seeking prior approval from the Vijayanagar Empire. The neighbouring chieftons immediately reported this to the king, who was so infuriated that Kempe Gowda was immediately imprisoned at Anegundi prison near Hampi for five years.

After securing his release having paid a huge fine, Kempe Gowda continued to establish numerous temples (such as the Bull Temple) and water tanks, he was clearly very successful in convincing traders to relocate from towns and rural villages and settle in Bangalore. This was very much the start of Bangalore becoming the major business hub that we see today.

Kempe Gowda passed away in 1569, paving the way for his eldest son Immadi Kempe Gowda (Kempe Gowda II) to continue growing this now prosperious city that was established by his father.

Kempe Gowda II continued to grow the city envisioned by his father, building numerous new lakes and temples. He also built four watch towers, all of which are still standing today in the following locations :

Scholars have debated for many years as to why these watch towers are located where they are. Some have suggested they mark the outer limits of the expanding city, but we have numerous paintings and sketches from the 18th and 19th centuries that clearly depict them on high ground in a rural setting.

It seems far more likely that these towers were strategically placed next to major routeways into the city, guarding the city from any undesirables and perhaps also to collect toll charges. These towers would also send a very clear message to anyone traversing this landscape – what lies ahead is well established, successful, and highly organised.

In addition to these four main watch towers, Kempe Gowda II constructed a further three, one at Bugle Rock (Basavangudi) and two near Gavi Gangadhreshwar Temple. All seven towers appear almost identical with four pillars and a gopura, but only the four major towers have been declared protected monuments by Archaeological Survey of India.

The Bangalore city administrators seem keen to raise awareness of the heritage value of the city, and these humble watch towers have become one of the adopted symbols of Bangalore in recent years. There are even plans to erect some replica new ones, but hopefully this will be done in moderation so as to not dilute the value of the original structures. Kempe Gowda is also receiving increasing recognition as the founder of Bangalore, with a bus station, main road, museum and even the international airport being named after him.

If you plan to visit any of these watch towers, by far the easiest to see is the example at Lalbagh. Unknown to almost every visitor here is the existence of a hero stone (a memorial stone, also known as a Veergal) and a broken Nandi lying forgotten just before you start to climb the rocky outcrop from the botanical gardens. Hero Stones have become a bit of an obsession for me in recent years, you can read more about them in my blog post : The Heroes of Loni Bhapkar.

Bangalore today is the third most populous city in India, and is still growing at a significant pace. The economy is now dominated by technology related industries, with the city contributing 38% of India’s total IT exports. It is thanks to the astute entrepreneurship by both father and son, the founding fathers of Bangalore, that have made the city such a beehive of commercial activity 500 years later in modern day India.

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Categories: Bengaluru, India, Karnataka

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