Sampangi Ram Nagar is at the heart of one of the hearts of what is predominantly an ethnic Kannadiga community. If the locality were to be equated to a bowl of cooked rice; three fourths of the grains would be Kannadiga, the remaining one fourth Tamil and Telugu, and Hindi would those tiny black balls of mustard; sparsely distributed, and when you find one, you choke.
The locality isn’t a continuous flow of the outside world. It is older, far older than the malls and glass-and-concrete that frame Bangalore. In Sampangi Ram Nagar, Bangalore is still Bengaluru; the implications farther reaching than just an indigenous difference in pronunciation. You see, Bangalore is the name the British gave to this city of Karnataka; and although Bangalore is cosmopolitan, Bengaluru flourishes in pockets.
You reach this area by taking a bus from Majestic to Corporation circle, and then walking approximately four hundred metres back on the route, following the road that goes to Lalbagh. Then, you turn inside at Hotel Geo, and mounds of rubble and broken brick tell you that you’ve arrived. And for a person like me, who has to rely on pointers more than the spoken word; pointers are all that I have- well, pointers, God, and Google maps.
I enter the neighbourhood, and people have just started trickling in. I see a woman in an orange sari among the snakestones; the nagakal. She has a half-litre packet of milk in her hands. She pours it over multiple stones, lights diyas, and then walks around the tree and the stones some fifty-odd times; patting the trunk; placating; on a periodic basis. That is a Katte; the peepal tree and the additional embellishments -the snakestones. They are shaped like tombstones, marking the spot where something lies buried; dead. The concept of a Katte is so alien to me that until a scant while ago, I was pronouncing it cat, instead of cut-teh. As a matter of fact, there is a cat curled up on a mound of concrete blocks, with yellow crystal balls for eyes. The fur around its mouth looks suspiciously white and damp.
“Cold, isn’t it?” I remark. The cat yawns, nearly dislocating a jaw.
And more people walk in; an elderly man with snowy white hair and a checked shirt, and an elderly woman in a yellow blouse and magenta sari. A woman in an eggshell blue salwar kameez and a child of no more than four. The latter clap their hands once, twice in front of the stones – the child tries to while the mother attempts to coil and pin braids, and fasten black satin ribbons in her progeny’s hair. The former, however, as if for juxtaposition, stay for forty five minutes, turning, bending, touching, placating, muttering. The frenzied manner in which they are performing the rituals makes me wonder if they even believe in the ethos of the act; if they are trying to make up in number for what they lack in spirit. Thyagaraja chanted Rama ninety six crore times to have his beliefs substantiated by a vision- all before he was thirty two. It’s like an examination; you write more when you’re not sure, as opposed to when you are. Then, everything is crisp, short, to the point, limited, as opposed to meandering paragraphs where the same is reiterated over and over again. According to Thyagaraja, after extensive repetition of Rama, he began to hear it as mara; which in Hindi, means dead. But Thyagaraja’s mother tongue wasn’t Hindi. In Tamil, maram is tree. In Telugu, marra is the bark of a tree, and marri is a peepal tree.
There is a long line of people who stand with their plates and forks and spoons like drumming instruments. The Katte houses a mess; Sidappa mess. The smell of crispy dosas and freshly steamed idlis disperses through the air. My stomach churns with hydrochloric acid. I know what people come for. I think: what came first; the Katte or the temple? What came first, the chicken or the egg? Did the paraphernalia of bells and carvings and scaffolding spring up around a shrine, or was a tree nurtured under the shade of a temple; to make a holy place seem holier? The difference is that one preserves the sanctity of the Katte and the other renders it superfluous; unnecessary.
The neighbourhood houses metal doors and mesh, tapering staircases into a single dot of light, houses that look like extension of walls; frozen, bubbling plaster, with corrugated sheets doubling as platforms and roofs. Predominantly dark interiors; a simplistic mandala here and there on the plaster wall of a three story building.
Are you aware of the Sidappa Mess Katte, I ask a street vendor; a lady selling gajras; the flowers like tiny curled caterpillars; interlocking. Ashwath Katte, she says. You mean Ashwath Katte. Yes, I say. That. Not Panchalingeshwara temple Katte then. My tongue rejoices. Every time I try to pronounce that polysyllabic title, it comes out sounding differently. And in times of crisis, my skills at language desert me.
Do you know who built it? She shakes her head. Ask Sidappa, she says. Sidappa will know. I recall the swarthy ancient, the dhoti tucked to his knees; personifying intimidation. Even his bristling white moustache was like the handlebar of a firmly locked door.
Are you familiar with the Thigala community, I ask instead. It’s a Kannadiga community. She cocks her head to the side, and beckons to a man in a grey shirt. He has three powdered lines across his forehead. Thigala, I ask.
Thigalru, he nods.
No, I say.
Thigalru is Tamil for Thigala, he pacifies. They built the Ashwath Katte, yes. The Dharmaraya temple is where the Karaga festival begins…do you know Karaga?
I nod. The festival is a known tradition of the Thigala-Thigalru community. It goes back to the story of their origins; this community believes that they are descendants of the Veerakumaras, an army created by Draupadi in her avatar as Shakti Devi, when the Pandavas learnt that one last Asura had escaped their grasp.
In Indian culture, everything is cyclical; nothing lasts forever. It is for this reason that huge statues of the goddess are created during Durga Puja, and then immersed into water at the conclusion. It is for this reason that Shakti Devi had to go back. After defeating Tripasura, the soldiers asked Shakti Devi to stay back with them, but she promised instead to return during the first full moon of the first month of the Hindu calendar.
He nods. He affirms that he visits the Katte only to ingest his daily quote of calories. As does the street vendor selling flowers. As does the shopkeeper opposite Panchalingeshwara temple. And when questions begin to breach the origin of the Katte, its age and the relevance of the snakestones, they all refer Sidappa. Though this locality is about a hundred years, they add, in an attempt to be helpful.
Although trees are cut with a vengeance, and very few boulevards exist side by side with concrete jungles and tar, it still quite regular to see a Katte smack in the middle of the road, or protruding out of a building, the roots tracing the tiles in the pavement. It is because of a subconscious attempt to cling on to some remnant of the past, rather than incurring the wrath of a mystic tree deity. Think: why is the Peepal tree considered sacrosanct -under whose spreading shade Gautama became Buddha? The eponymous J.K. Rowling suite in Balmoral hotel (where she wrote the conclusion to Harry Potter) is fast becoming a pilgrimage site for all ardent Harry Potter enthusiasts. The rituals that I observe have seeds of fanaticism.
Could the Katte initially have been a space and a tree, under which one sat to reflect and think in solitude? A sthal is a holy spot, and vriksha in Sanskrit means tree. A Sthal Vriksha is a monumental tree indigenous to historical Hindu temples, and some temples and places derive their name from this tree. So, to sanctify the area with a label that upheld its sacredness, a temple was built around the tree, complete with the minarets and the carved figure of gods in the stone walls; squashing what it initially stood for.
Or it could just be a tree in a temple. One of the problems with humanity is that we try to look beyond; and in our attempt to look beyond, we invent meaning. Perhaps there is no meaning behind a tree in a temple. Perhaps everything is just as we see it as. India was a heavily forested land at some point of time; and this is just the sorry specimen that has been left behind- or nurtured as some sort of illusion; some attempt to portray the resting place of a sadhu.
I make my way back to Sidappa, since it seems that he is the only one who can fill in the gaps of this puzzle. Right now, he is sitting on a stone ledge that faces the entrance of the mess; hands splayed on each thigh, and a fan of ten and fifty and hundred rupee notes in his hand. There is a cluster of people around him who look as if they would visit a temple; all resplendent and sparkling in silk, and simply dripping with gold jewellery. But they aren’t visiting the temple; they are standing in the queue, waiting to get their share of crispy masala dosas, steamed idlis, ghee kalli dosas, lemon rice and chutney.
I ask him: Do you know who built the snakestones? He fixes me with a beady brown eye. I am reminded of a crow pecking at plastic bags.
Do I look like the sort of person to be overly concerned with snakestones, he says. Why don’t you go to the people who built the snakestones and ask them?
Sure thing, I say. But if you could just tell me how old this Katte is…?
Seventy years. Eighty years. Maybe more, he says, as he hands a handful of coins to an old man, and a piece of newspaper to wipe his mouth on. Just yesterday, he had scolded a couple for eating too close to the relics, and today, there are clothes drying over them. People sit on the ledge overlooking the snakestones, one leg on one side, and one on the other, devouring everything but that banana leaf. The Katte stands forlorn- like an outsider, like me; lurking in the shadows, approached only by a few, who leave when they realise that I don’t understand the language; that I have nothing to give.
Sidappa notices that I’m still there. He asks bluntly: What do you want? His moustache bristles.
Actually, I say; I was just about to leave.
Devki Pande is a student at Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology, intern at Contract Advertising Ltd, has worked for Essel Vision Productions Ltd, developed education oriented content for Laugh Out Loud Ventures, conducted workshops for underprivileged children in rural Uttarakhand and is an avid marathon runner.