This week, Bengaluru woke up to some bad news.
The 10,000 protestors who had lined Sankey Road on Sunday to say an emphatic “No” to the proposed steel bridge to the airport were dismayed by the government’s reaction. Chief Minister Sidaramiah declared he would go through with the project come what may.
Once upon a time, there was a pretty junction in Bengaluru called Ringwood Circle. This was the converging point of roads coming from the Bangalore Race Course, the Golf Course and Cubbon park. All the iconic lung spaces of central Bengaluru.
Today Ringwood is just a distant memory. Although officially named Basaveshwara Circle, most people refer to this junction as Chalukya Hotel Circle and it teems with the traffic pouring in through the half a dozen roads which lead into it. Offices, apartment complexes and eating places are crowded around the once wooded circle. On one side of the circle stands the image of the crusader Basaveshwara who fought against untouchability.
Further down the road is the junction originally known as High Grounds. This is where the rather cute High Grounds Police Station once stood. It stood opposite the ornate colonial style Bengaluru waterworks and it had the lush green Golf Course on one side and Balabrooie, the iconic Government Guest House with its tree-filled garden on the other. The High Grounds Circle was a sleepy place. Cycling or walking down the pleasant uncluttered road adjacent to the golf course was a pleasure as the cool breeze coming across the open space would brush past gently wafting the perfume of flowers and leaves and newly mown grass.
Things have changed dramatically over the years. Basaveshwara circle is now a busy junction with a constant stream of traffic. The High Grounds police station has shifted. A pedestrian over bridge rises beside the water works compound. And the golf course breeze has to squeeze through the nets which surround the once open space. The fresh perfumes of nature have been drowned by the smell of exhaust. The only slender spark of remaining hope lies in some old trees which have stood along this road forever and continue to stand guard still, seeming to say all is not yet lost with this city.
But for how long?
Basaveshwara Circle is the starting point for the proposed controversial steel fly over which will loom its way along this stretch of road and snake further down peaking to a height over the railway over-bridge near Windsor Manor and Sankey House before it continues past Cauvery Theatre and Mekhri circle and ends abruptly at Hebbal. It will without doubt mangle this beautiful road, taking in its wake hundreds of trees, bits and pieces of heritage buildings and stifle forever the remnants of the golf course breeze.
Fifty years ago, my grandfather lived in a palatial rented colonial house called “The Links”. It stood on this stretch of road hardly half a kilometer away from the High Grounds circle. The Links stood at the intersection of Cunningham Road and Sankey Road with the Golf Course stretched out in front…where Le Méridien now stands.
The sprawling garden of The Links was full of the most exotic trees imaginable, planted by some unknown sahib who must have been quite passionate about his plants. The most majestic of these trees were the three huge java figs with their large canopies and tiny red fruit which attracted an amazing variety of colourful birds.
In the laid-back 1950s and 60s, Bengaluru was still a garden city, where every home, however small, had a tree — usually a “practical” fruit tree like mango or chikoo or custard apple. Bigger gardens had more showy plants like a Christmas tree or a gulmohur along with the ubiquitous mango. The garden of The Links had all these and more. There was even a weeping willow in a corner of the garden!
Sankey Road had hardly any traffic then and the open golf course served as a short cut for pedestrians to reach Crescent Road on the other side. We would sometimes run across the empty road before our house and play on the greens till the golfers chased us away. The tiny wooded copse in the center of the course was a secret haunt for lovers. Sometimes a crow mistaking a golf ball for an egg would carry it to a nest in a tree in our compound and later throw it down in disgust, much to our delight.
By the 1960s, the once empty stretch of land between The Links and Balabrooie had sprouted houses for ministers. Some trees were felled but the trees inside our compound still stood strong.
Further down the road, however, the area was still green and tree filled as it belonged then to the armed forces. And the Golf Course retained its greenery. Sankey Road sloped down past the Golf Course to a level crossing. On the left the beautiful Sankey House stood at a height with its huge java fig and rain trees. Further down came the thickly wooded Palace Compound on the right. On the left were the Orchards belonging to the Palace.
Changes started happening in the 1960s. First the Orchards went. They were razed to the ground to make way for a posh housing colony. Then the property owners along Sankey Road started selling and the gardens went. The trees in the palace compound also started disappearing. The roads were widened sounding the death knell for more trees.
By the late 1960s my grandfather had moved out and the house owner had sold his property off piecemeal to different buyers. Every time I passed The Links I would anxiously look out to see how many of the favourite trees I had climbed as a child were still left standing.
Soon the golf course became out of bounds for the general public as huge nets came up to keep the wanderers out and the golf balls in. Sankey Road became a four lane highway which was totally pedestrian unfriendly. The level crossing had become an over bridge. Humpbacked bridges and underpasses changed the nature of the road forever. The compound walls of the palace as well as Balabrooie got pushed back.
Today, the trees have dwindled dramatically. But they are still there. Whenever I pass Le Méridien I still look out for my familiar trees. I can spot one java fig, a rain tree and a peepul. Most of the others are gone. Sankey House however has managed to keep its java figs and rain trees probably because the owners have retained the property. And the huge trees in Balabrooie still stand.
In spite of all the changes, this stretch of road has managed to hold on to its special Bengalurean charm. A charm which the Steel Bridge can destroy forever.
The amazingly large turnout of concerned citizens who came to protest against the steel bridge on Sunday were protesting not just against the bridge but also against the systematic unravelling of the Bengaluru way of life, of the ravaging of its iconic structures and of the destruction of its green cover. They were fighting to reclaim their roads and their lung spaces and their pride in their city.
And now with this setback, the battle has become tougher. Will the voice of the common Bengalureans be heard? Can they make an impact on a system which has been corrupted over decades by various land, timber and other mafias? Time alone will tell.
Gita Aravamudan is a journalist and author
Updated Date: Oct 22, 2016 15:13 PM