For decades, Bengaluru was known as the Garden City, its pleasant climate drawing all manner of people, including retirees, to ‘settle down’ here. All that changed in the late 1990s, with the Dotcom boom. Suddenly, Bengaluru found itself zipping along the Internet superhighway, reinventing itself as India’s Silicon Valley.
Today, this southern city in Karnataka is home to fast-growing start-ups that are redefining business. But the reason for Bengaluru’s resilience and success as a commercial hub goes back 400 years. It has survived the rise and fall of empires, raging battles and political upheavals, yet business has always gone on, uninterrupted. Geography and one man’s vision turned the fortunes of this city, which was once no more than a backwater.
The rise of Bengaluru coincides with the rise of the Vijayanagara Rayas, who ruled most of South India from 1336 to 1646.
During this time, all roads led to Hampi, the sprawling and exquisite capital of the Rayas of Vijayanagara along the Tungabhadra river. Bengaluru was an important pivot due to its location. It was plum in the middle of the east and west coasts, on the edge of the Deccan plateau, and conveniently close to the biggest port at the time, Mangalore. Did you know that Bengaluru marks the point where the Western Ghats end and the northern tip of the Nilgiris? This also makes it a plateau region of high altitude, the reason for its cool climate.
There was one man who spotted this and the potential that the city held. He was an ambitious feudatory of the Vijayanagara Rayas, the Chief of Yelahanka (roughly where Bengaluru’s airport is today), Kempe Gowda.
Close to the powerful Vijayanagara Emperor, Krishnadeva Raya, Kempe Gowda was conferred the special title of ‘Raya’ and given a grant of 50,000 gold coins by the emperor. Kempe Gowda took charge in 1536 and began to construct a city 13 km from Yelahanka. In a year, he had brought in artisans and traders from Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, to systematically create a new, well-planned market town. Aralipete, Akkipete and Balepete were the first few petes or markets that were built for selling produce. Chikkapete and Nagarthpete were where silk manufactures set up a textiles industry.
The Pete area had two main streets – Chikkapet Street, which ran east to west, and Doddapet Street, which ran north to south. The intersection of the two formed the Doddapete Square, present-day Avenue Road, which bustled with business during Kempe Gowda’s reign.
At that time, the population of Bengaluru’s petes was 41,664. The cool climate worked in the town’s favour as it was conducive to growing fruits, vegetables and grains of many varieties. Moreover, most of the customers at the petes were European travellers coming from Madras, who sought relief in the cooler climes of Bengaluru and stopped to buy goods from the artisans at the petes.
The route passing through Bengaluru grew important with an increase in trade with Europe in the 16th century. Close to an important port and midway in peninsular India, Bengaluru even became a junction for traders travelling by land to far-off Bengal. It was easier, after all, to cross the country by land than to go around the southern peninsula by sea.
Bengaluru became a junction on the route to Hampi and many other places in India. It was also a pit stop for the horse trade, crucial for any kingdom with a sizable army. As trade prospered, riches poured in. Traders who passed through Bengaluru had to pay a toll tax.
For a century, Bengaluru remained under the governance of the Kempe Gowda family. It was their administrative as well as military base from 1537 to 1638 CE. It even survived the rout of Hampi in 1565 after the city was razed by a coalition of the Deccan Sultanates. In fact, most residents here fled to Bengaluru. The subsequent decline of the Yelahanka feudatories marked a period of transition, although business continued.
The city was then taken over by the Maratha chief Shahajiraje Bhonsale, Chhatrapati Shivaji’s father, for a short period after 1638 CE. Later in 1687, the region slid into the hands of the Mughals by the siege of Bengaluru led by Qasim Khan, the general of Emperor Aurangzeb.
In 1689, Qasim Khan sold Bengaluru to Chikkadevaraja Wodeyar of Mysore for a sum of 3 lakhs. The city now entered into its next phase of commercial growth, this time connecting to Mysore as an epicenter.
In 1759, the city prized for its wealth was given as a grant to the father of Tipu Sultan, Hyder Ali.
The Mysore ruler, Immadi Krishna Raja Wodeyar offered this as a prize for his victory against the Malabar Nairs. This victory was part of the campaigns against the states of Malabar led by Hyder Ali. They were fledged because of Calicut's attack on Palghat from 1756 to 1757 which was a threat to the reign of the Wodeyars.
For Hyder Ali, Bengaluru’s main attraction seemed to be its weather and strategic location. He set up the Lalbagh Garden in the city and also rebuilt Kempe Gowda’s mud fort near the Kote Venkataramanaswamy temple. His son, Tipu Sultan, followed in his footsteps and continued to develop the Lalbagh Garden and construct buildings, roads and mosques in north and central Bengaluru. He brought back the silk industry to Sarjapur and revived the toy-making business in Channapatna. He also built his summer palace in the early 1790s at the centre of Old Bengaluru, near Kalasipalayam in exquisite Indo-Islamic architecture.
In 1791, the British East India Company took over the city under Lord Cornwallis after the Carnatic wars and the death of Tipu Sultan in 1799 CE. Interestingly, records show that the British had first wanted to use Tipu’s capital Srirangapatnam, 125 km away, as their military base and cantonment after the war, however, the city was so hot, humid and overrun by mosquitos that they opted for the far more pleasant Bengaluru. Old establishments were demolished and replaced with new commercial hubs and wide roads. Flowers bloomed aplenty in this by-now-famous Garden City under the British. Bengaluru was developed as a city for floriculture, orchards and stud farms.
Sadly, like most other cities in India, a large part of Old Bengaluru is disappearing. Instead of enjoying the romance of history in the old petes or Bengaluru Fort, you are more likely to be assaulted by noise and traffic that has become ubiquitous here. But there are new areas developing in the far reaches of this ever-expanding metropolis, as old commercial districts give way to swanky new highrise office complexes. The spirit of enterprise is alive and kicking in Bengaluru, taking the tradition of its founder, Kempe Gowda, forward.