A devotees hotel from the past, the Bombay Ananda Bhavan Hotel, an oasis set amongst the Raj-era bungalows in the cantonment of Bangalore, India.
The Bangalore cantonment of bungalows, gardens, race courses, clubs, barracks and parade grounds for its mixed civilian and military population, was established in 1809, separate from the city.
The original address for this 12-room establishment built in 1920, was 12 Grant Road and then 10, before the renaming of the street, when it then became 68 Vittal Mallya Road. The guest’s name and country of origin were displayed in the lobby, so no trouble to see who was checked in. Situated in the quietest area of Bangalore, the guests could easily walk to M.G. Road, via Lavelle or St. Mark’s Road to Koshy’s famous Bar and Restaurant. Koshy’s is today recognised as an ‘establishment of Bangalore,’ a very popular restaurant and hangout owned by the Koshy family since its founding in 1940. It is a meeting point for journalists, artists, theatre folk, students and foreigners. It retains an old-world charm with huge pillars and large fans. The Bombay Ananda Bhavan Hotel was demolished around 2005. In 2018, the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage, stated that private buildings are the most poorly conserved in Bengaluru, in the past 30 years, the city has lost 75% of its heritage homes, with only 129 out of 510 surviving today.
The main menu at the hotel consisted of puri bread, idli and other rice dishes, toast that came as ‘jam butter toast’ or ‘butter toast,’ toasted sandwiches, excellent omelettes of cheese tomato & coriander, tomato soup, tea (but not so much ‘bed tea’) and superb pots of coffee. While the owner Mr B. L. Gupta was running the establishment, his daughter in-law did most of the cooking in a traditional Indian kitchen out back in a dark corner of the building. Mr Gupta spent most of the day sitting in the lobby/reception area keeping an eye on things and didn’t talk much. His son had died and so Mr Gupta took care of his wife and the grandsons, who would go on to inherit the establishment and live on the lane next door in modern apartments. The grandsons, Bobby (Vivek) and Bindy (Rohit) Gupta did an amazing service keeping the hotel running in the years that followed.
Many of the women guests were resourceful enough to secure items such as hair colour from outside the country, as India didn’t allow certain ‘luxury’ imports. This did take a little effort and time to arrange. Hair colour was available in India, however only in 3 colours, black, black and black. Bangalore’s best-known supermarket chain Nilgiri’s, was a main source for items and some devotees even sent taxis from Sai Baba’s main ashram 160 km away in Puttaparthi to the Brigade Road store in Bangalore to get soft toilet paper sold there. Indian made toilet paper tended to be very thin and non-absorbent back then.
Long-time receptionist was the quite beautiful Latah who kept the boys under control, including the head boy Muthu. She helped with many enquiry’s, such as looking for someone who was not in, then you would be kindly informed that they were “out of station.” One long term guest asked her where in the city she could buy Jewellery, looking at her as though she was a moron, she replied “Jeweller’s Street of course.” The boys had extraordinary long days and dossed down on the floor late at night only when all the guests had retired for the evening. Latah went home each night to her husband and family. Muthu saw his wife and family further south, only once a year and only for a week.
Part of the daily routine for Muthu and his boys was to keep the electricity running by resetting the breakers as they tripped (Bangalore’s power supply was notoriously, only mostly available at best), ensuring the hot water was on the boil and available for delivery through the antiquated piping system into the rooms. On more than one occasion guests helped him out with this by getting up into the ceiling with him to demonstrate the best way of keeping up with the problems. When the showers did not work, the buckets were in good supply and always available.
The hotel had its regular taxi drivers operating from there, the best guys in the world, Ali with an Ambassador with sometimes bald tyres, another operator with small and mostly uncomfortable Padmini, and Yousuff with a few cars, including a new Suzuki van. There were others that came and went as the patronage required. These drivers operated at all times and were often first with the news of where Baba was as he moved around between Puttaparthi, Whitfield, Madras and Kodaikanal.
Many of the residents would take a buffet breakfast mid-morning at the Oberoi on M.G. Road after the early morning darshan of Sai Baba while he was in the suburb of Whitefield, just 19 km away. Some guests often spent part of their day at other 5-star hotels by the pool where for a few rupees they could get a decent shower afterwards, drying off with big fluffy towels, and all the while enjoying the silver service coffee.
After a long day in the hot and dusty crowded streets with constant horn tooting, it was always a joy for guests to return to the cool tranquil hotel, where the boys had just watered the plants and front lawn in late afternoon, making it feel fresh and cool. In the evenings, some of the guests went to the Windsor Manor, the West End and other 5-star hotels, where they enjoyed excellent meals and service for so little.
The hotel had long-term residents from time to time and management were always patient with the time it took to receive any payment from them. The hotel was a safe haven for all the devotees of Sathya Sai Baba, who felt very safe and welcome and often felt his presence there.
Grant Road was renamed Vittal Mallya Road in memory of the former chairman of United Breweries in the Eighties. During the British Raj, the area was part of the Cantonment and was then known as Maciver (Maclver) Town. Grant Road extended from Bishop Cotton Girls School to the then Tiffany Circle and along Sampangi Tank. Things changed when the Kanteerava Stadium was built on the tank.
Gradually the colonial houses were replaced by stylish glass-chrome buildings, there are just a few heritage homes remaining.
Though Bangalore had few restaurants, Vittal Mallya Road was the platform for three eating places, housed in colonial bungalows, each styled differently – the Shilton Hotel, the Bombay Ananda Bhavan Hotel and the Chinese restaurant Nanking which was then famous, apparently its owner cooked for Pandit Nehru.
The Bombay Ananda Bhavan Hotel, 1992: Author Paul William Roberts recounts checking into the hotel in his 1996 book Empire of the Soul.
Bangalore, from my porthole, lay spread out like a vast flat garden. On a plateau high above sea level, it was essentially that in 1974. Now it’s more like an Indian Silicon Valley. Tall rain trees waved their ragged arms in a mild breeze. As I stepped out, I noticed the air had markedly cooled and dried compared to Bombay’s Turkish bath. We walked over to what resembled the airport in Casablanca: a low building, a control tower, some basic radar equipment. The luggage was wheeled from the aeroplane on a huge cart to an area beyond two high chain-link gates. On the other side waited an orderly, well-dressed crowd. Everyone was meeting someone. Flower garlands were placed over heads; children reverently touched the feet of elders; small pujas were performed: hand-sized trays of burning camphor waved around as friends and relatives clapped and chanted, praising the gods for a safe arrival. With us it’s a hug, then hand over the bottle of duty-free. Indians do things with grace and style. They’ve had more practice at it.
Far from being harassed by competing taxi drivers, I noticed only one taxi waiting outside the airport, alongside a manicured lawn containing riotous pink hibiscus beds. And someone was already commandeering it. A little distance off were several of the covered three-wheel motorcycles known as autorickshaws. I consider them a distinct improvement on the old rickshaw; who feels good about having some emaciated octogenarian in a loincloth and turban hauling him barefoot around the city streets? There is a drawback: most of these vehicles are piloted by maniacs. I was approached by a short man with a crazy smile, no shoes, and a filthy tea towel wrapped around hair that shot out like black palm fronds.
‘Autoauto?’ he said, as if it meant something. I had the address of a cheap hotel, the Bombay Ananda Bhavan (literally the ‘Bombay Bliss House’) on Grant Road. I asked him if he knew the place.
He nodded in that unreassuring South Indian manner and hefted my bag over to the buggylike rear of his machine. Then he proceeded to get into a nasty argument with one of his colleagues, a man who could have been his twin, that was clearly related to my custom and seemed to reach the verge of blows but went no further.
Cursing and spitting red gobs of betel-nut juice through rusty-looking teeth, the driver finally kick-started his sputtering engine and we took off like a gnat in high wind. I bounced from side to side like a bell clapper until I learned to brace myself with steel struts supporting the auto’s canvas roof. Between the driver’s handlebars and the murky windshield were attached several small framed portraits of gods and film stars. In their midst, an incense holder held two burning joss-sticks emitting a smell like charred bubble-gum.
We turned abruptly onto a broad boulevard teeming with every vehicle known to humankind, entering the vast honking caravan like a weaver’s shuttle. I wondered if my driver had a personal problem with everything and everyone else on the road. When I dared to look, there were faded but elegant Raj-era bungalows – some, in their cuteness of detail, almost gingerbread houses – on either side. The bungalows of Bangalore attained enough fame to have once merited a picture book of that name, but were not famous enough to survive into the nineties. With its tolerable climate and strategic position in the centre of the South, the city was a major army base during colonial times – indeed, was still a significant base in the third decade of independence. As the focal point of Karnataka state, Bangalore, which borders communist-influenced Kerala to the west and the troublesome and occasionally separatist-minded states of Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh to the east, is still valuable in military terms. India’s bewildering variety of politics usually coexist in a kind of querulous harmony. Usually.
Relaxing his grip on the accelerator for the first time in fifteen minutes, the driver zigzagged through cows, donkeys and people, coming to a jarring halt in the heart of a stupefyingly chaotic and noisy fruit and vegetable bazaar.
‘Bombay Ananda Bhavan?’ I asked, hoping it wasn’t.
The driver raised a grimy palm. He clambered out and began a belligerent conversation with a skinny and toothless man who must have been at least ninety-five years old. Both lit up beedies, the tiny, lung-ripping cigarettes wrapped in leaf that in those days cost about a cent for fifty and still weren’t worth the price. The old man pointed in several different compass directions over the course of this conversation, and I detected a look of desperation in my driver’s eyes as he glanced my way.
‘Grant Road,’ I reminded him.
I soon learned that, in India, even someone who lived on Grant Road might be unable to tell you how to get to Grant Road – not that this would prevent him from offering utterly wrong directions. There was a certain shame in admitting you didn’t know, so people frequently and confidently offered complex and entirely erroneous instructions. The driver evidently knew this and was not about to head off in the five different directions suggested by the old man. He waylaid a porter carrying about a ton of huge red bananas on his head. This man had been using tar for toothpaste, by the look of his mouth, and had one eye so bloodshot it could have been recently boiled. He uttered what sounded like one word a hundred syllables long. The driver pulled on his beedie, brows knotted. Then he jumped back and, sitting sidesaddle now, zipped off at maximum velocity, terrifying animals and any humans unfortunate enough to be in our path.
Twice more I endured similar stops, and presumably similar misinformation. Finally we hit Mahatma Gandhi Road – there is at least one of these in every town and city the length and breadth of the subcontinent. Then we turned onto St. Mark’s Road and off this onto a quiet, lushly tropical street of large, stately houses and bungalows . . . actually labelled Grant Road.
The whole history of Indian cities could be told through street names. The signs reading Grant Road and St. Mark’s Road have now gone, replaced by Vithalpatai Road, by Indira Nagar, or some such – yet the old names survive unofficially. Grant Road is still somewhere a taxi or auto driver will take you, if you’re patient.
The Bombay Ananda Bhavan proved to be one of the stately houses, its title on a weather-weary board looking at once out of place and a sign of the times. A semicircular drive drew you up to a robust, monsoon-proof porch over steps leading to double doors. After a screaming argument over the fare, my driver flew off, his machine sounding more and more like an angry bee trapped in a jar.
A reception desk with a bell greeted my entrance. There was no sign of human life. I rang the bell, hearing an odd guttural gurgling, apparently from beneath the floor. I rang again, shouting out that I was here. Nothing. Just the subterranean sounds of a viscous drainage. A clock ticked. A pleasant breeze blew in, carrying perfumed greenhouse smells on its wings. A fly the size of a small bird – or possibly a small bird the size of a fly zoomed straight for my nose, veering drastically away at the last moment. I looked in a room to my left – a bed draped in mosquito netting – and a room to my right – a bed draped in mosquito netting, and an armoire the size of a van. Then I peeked behind the narrow reception desk, to discover a bearded man in a T-shirt and lungi sound asleep on the floor.
The occasional gurgling was his snore, which aggravated a standardised fly that was busy gathering sebum from his glistening nose. It darted back and forth to the safety of a nearby shelf each time the man’s mouth puckered with another imminent snore. He had toenails like a bear, this sleeper, and the soles of his feet looked like desiccated mudflats, riven with cracks half an inch deep in some places. They weren’t like leather; they were leather.
He looked serene, with his hands behind his head. I called to him quietly. No response. Finally I shouted at him. Beyond an irritable gurgle, still no response. This was no ordinary nap. In the end I took him by the shoulders and shook, all but slapping his face as if he’d OD’d or passed out from booze, or both. Finally his droopy eyelids fluttered.
Standing up, he could have been Peter Lorre’s son. Both eyes looked off to the side, adding to the impression that he wasn’t certain that I was there, that he was there, that it wasn’t all a dream. Pretending he hadn’t just woken up, he spoke gibberish and performed menial and meaningless tasks – dusting the counter, checking his saucer-sized wristwatch, and closing the heavy shutters about one-tenth of an inch. Then he indicated a ledger, handing me a ballpoint pen from the Sheraton Hotel, Kathmandu. The last entry in this huge tome read: ‘Maynard Billings, San Diego. A really beautiful stay.’ I wrote my name and address, assuming it was premature to comment.
‘Mr. Billing,’ the man said, pointing at the previous entry with swaggering pride. ‘He like this place too much. Very good man, Mr Billing. Very good. You know him?’
I confessed I did not.
‘You want room, is it?’
On one wall hung a framed photograph of Sathya Sai Baba, the local holy man, looking like Jimi Hendrix’s grandfather. A garland of flowers placed around it perhaps a week before gave the image a funereal appearance.
‘You come for bhagavan?’ asked the concierge, noticing my interest in the picture. ‘Bhagavan’ means God, basically, but in India, where all that lives, and much that is inanimate, is holy, it is a term liberally applied to gurus, yogis, sadhus, film stars, musicians, teachers, and even politicians. I had indeed come to Bangalore ostensibly to see the famous ‘Man of Miracles,’ Bhagavan Sri Sathya Sai Baba.
‘Currently out of station,’ the concierge informed me.
Sai Baba, I knew, generally stayed near Bangalore, but had his main ashram in the village of Puttaparthi, in Andhra Pradesh, where he was born. Puttaparthi was notoriously difficult to get to, I’d been told, at least a day’s journey away.
I did not want to give this sleepy man the satisfaction of seeing I was disappointed. ‘Any other gurus in the area?’
He pondered the question seriously, as if I’d asked him to recommend a good local restaurant. I assumed this was a preamble to saying no, but I was wrong. He mentioned someone apparently named Siva Bala Yogi – or possibly Sivabalayogi.
‘Where do I find him?’
Near the Bangalore Dairy was the closest I got to an answer.
My room had three four-poster beds in it, their mosquito nets hanging in the air like ectoplasm. It also had six doors – one an entrance, one leading to a bathroom containing a tap, a bucket, and a squatter, and the other four leading into adjacent rooms. I washed, lay down on bedsheets that felt as if they’d been baked in an oven full of dust, and listened for an hour to a couple of geckos wheezing endearments at each other across the peeling whitewash of the wall. A calendar adorned it, emblazoned with a highly retouched image of Mahatma Gandhi at his spinning wheel. He literally glowed with health and looked about eight years old. According to the mahatma, it was June 1963. From what I’d seen of Bangalore so far, it would be hard to refute this. In fact, it looked more like 1943 out there still.
Ian McGillis interviewed Roberts for the Montreal Gazette in 2015;
Delving back into the years with Roberts, a unifying thread soon emerges. In common with many who came of age in the 1960s, he was drawn to all things Indian partly through the evangelizing of the Beatles. In his case, though, the process was a little more direct. Through the sculptor father of a friend he ended up at a party at George Harrison’s house in the stockbroker belt outside London, where the guitarist passed him a copy of Paramahansa Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi. A lifelong identification ensued, one whose depth is evident when Roberts is asked to name a favourite among his books.
“Empire Of The Soul was really written from the heart, a love letter to India,” he said of the book, drawn from extended visits in the early 1970s and early 1990s, that has been an essential item in the backpack of many a subcontinent traveller. “When you love a subject, it changes everything. Although I predicted India would soon amaze the world, I didn’t think it would be so soon. I often feel I should update some parts to reflect a country on its way back to where it was before the invaders and colonizers stole everything and crushed a great civilisation under their boots. The wounds of colonialism are now healing fast, though, and the book needs to show an India that made it, rather than one trying. It is the only country where I kiss the ground upon arrival and feel I’m home at last once more.”
On St. Marks Road is Koshy’s famous Bar and Restaurant
More photos taken at the Bombay Ananda Bhavan Hotel
Hotel residents and devotees in Whitefield and Kodaikanal.
Back and forth in time
Deepak Sarma writes for the newspaper ‘The Hindu’ in 2012.
MacIver Town? Where’s that?” asks Sharath Maney on being quizzed about his neighbourhood. He’s lived on Lavelle Road in the heart of the city for thirty years — that’s all his life — but screws up his face in disbelief when told the answer. MacIver Town, or Shantala Nagar, as it’s now called (not that Sharath’s heard its current name either), envelops portions of the very heart of the city, with Kasturba Road, Lavelle Road and Vittal Mallya Road at its core.
Sharath isn’t the only one who’s never heard of MacIver Town; curiously, many Bangaloreans, have had the same reaction. The area is jinxed on that front: named after L.J. MacIver — who was Collector and president of the Municipal Commission of the Civil and Military Station between 1934 and 1937, and president of Bangalore Club in 1935-36 — MacIver Town has a rather amusing relationship with names. South Parade is now Mahatma Gandhi Road; Sydney Road, Kasturba Road; Grant Road, Vittal Mallya Road and Lavelle Road, M.L. Subbaraju Road, the last never having quite caught on.
Melting pot of cultures
As a BBMP ward, Shantala Nagar encompasses Bangalore’s central business district, and as a neighbourhood, these days, it is associated with a vibrant (and expensive) nightlife. But over half a century ago, and in a different way entirely, it was still an exciting place to be, says M. Bhaktavatsala, who moved to the Cantonment as a student in 1947.
“Jeeps would patrol places like South Parade and Brigade Road to make sure none of the soldiers had sneaked into the bars there.” Basco’s on Brigade Road was a favourite haunt, with ‘Gunboat’ Jack, the African boxer who had fought in World War II, recounting his stories to fellow patrons. “There were so many beautiful Eurasian women — all like Ava Gardner — but they all emigrated,” he says, half-joking.
Preserving the past
Bhaktavatsala, who was the first to contest the proposed demolition of the Attara Kacheri in a PIL in the ’70s, and later fought to preserve Bowring Institute, says he’s done more than anyone else in the city to “save old Bangalore.” He’s also been the president of Bangalore Club, an institution that preserves its colonial architecture and adheres to rules that may seem outdated to some, with its separate gentleman’s bar and dress code. “It’s only followed for its curiosity value, as a mark of tradition,” he says in its defence.
Before MacIver Town transformed into the shopping hub that it now is, it housed a number of tiny neighbourhoods right at its heart. Sophie D’Mello, a retired nurse, lived in a beautiful bungalow on Rest House Crescent Road for around 50 years after she was married in 1952. “You know, foreigners would come to take pictures of my house, and it was even featured in a book,” she says, referring to T.P. Issar’s The City Beautiful. After the house was sold, she says even passing by it was difficult — a block of apartments now stands in its place. While some old colonial-style bungalows still remain in parts of Shantala Nagar, most old houses have gone the way of Sophie’s, replaced by luxury apartments available for no small sum.
While a walk through Shantala Nagar can serve as a reminder of Bangalore’s colonial past, it also makes apparent the casual attitude of the city’s residents to its history. For better or for worse, commercial buildings now dominate its skyline, having edged out the monkey tops, bay windows and verandahs that characterised many of the older structures.
In The City Beautiful, Issar anticipated that many of the buildings featured in his book would soon fall victim to commercialisation, describing a house on Lavelle Road rather poignantly as “a doomed-looking but remarkable ground story bungalow set in a compound as neglected as the building.” Not all of the structures he wrote about in his 1988 book were similarly doomed-looking, but he was right; most of the ones in MacIver Town are gone. Perhaps it’s a sign of the times that today, landmarks such as the theatres ‘Empire’ and ‘New Imperial’ exist only as photographs.
Bungalows of the City
Poornima Dasharathi writes in the ‘Deccan Herald’ newspaper (2013).
Janet Pott, the author of Old Bungalows of Bangalore South India, states that the name and the form of the bungalow originated in Bengal. ‘Bangla’ or ‘bangala’ referred to the indigenous Bengali huts of the 17th century.
In Bangalore, bungalows first started to appear in the Cantonment region. The early bungalows were “typical white or cream washed”, describes Elizabeth Stanley in the book, ‘Monkey Tops – Old Buildings in Bangalore Cantonment’. These bungalows were to the South of Parade Ground, i.e., on St Mark’s Road, Museum road, Residency road and Richmond Road.
The structure consisted of a flat-roofed portico with support pillars and behind it a curved verandah. Its size varied, based on the owner’s social stature.
The general basic plan is usually a verandah with support pillars, a living or a drawing room and a dining room in the centre. The bedrooms and dressing rooms open to each side of the living room.
The front of the bungalow was imposing and offset by huge gardens. A servants’ quarter, a stable and other necessities like poultry or a cow shed were present in the backyard. In the leisurely life of the pre-Industrial era, the bungalows sometimes included tennis courts or putting greens. The building, with its stone work, balustrades marking roof levels and imposing look contributed to the ‘classical’ look, she concludes.
An example of the classic bungalow is the Raj Bhavan, which was once the home of Sir Mark Cubbon, the Commissioner of Mysore (1834-1860). Raj Bhavan is out of bounds for visitors and there aren’t many bungalows of its kind left to look at. But I had some luck. Maureen MacDonald, who recently visited the City, shared a picture postcard of her grandfather and his home in the City in the 1850s.
A typical white bungalow with flat roof, it looks straight out of the Victorian era — spacious home, horse carriages, the burra sahib, ladies in long white gowns and hats and children in their European dresses. But she did not know the address and hence we don’t know its current avatar. For her and many others, these homes live in memories.
By the early 20th century, the fashion of classical buildings gave way to ornamental buildings that were taller and had high-pitched roofs. The flat roofs were now pyramidical and tiled; the balustrades gave way to battlements, towers with high-pitched roof and bastions. The most important change was the pointed roof for the windows called the ‘monkey tops’. These lovely pointy wooden roofs can still be seen in the few bungalows or even old public buildings that still exist today.
As I walk across into Usha Kumar’s home, the first thing I notice is the beautiful monkey tops that decorate the front windows. Though the wooden trellis work of the front door was beautiful, it’s the patterned sunlight falling in the living room that made me truly appreciate the architect’s plan.
Homes, in those days, looked good from the outside as well as the inside. The verandah is covered. But the high-pitched roofs, the high ventilators, the single storey are reminders of the erstwhile ‘bangala’.
Though the bungalow is European, the name is very Indian. Usha has named it after her parents. There is a tulsi plant at the entrance. This cultural contrast comes up in many anecdotes and conversations with her which I find charming.
The Cantonment was, and is, a very multicultural place, informs Mona, the curator of ‘aPaulogy’, artist Paul Fernandes’ gallery on the Bangalore of the 60s and 70s. She recalls her neighbours were a mix of different communities.
Though culturally diverse, there was always harmony and co-existence, she declares. The illustrations in the gallery do illustrate this fact.