Meera Iyer's Will To Preserve Bengaluru’s Overlooked Legacies

Meera Iyer of INTACH, the Bangalore chapter, talks about the city's hidden heritage that people often fail to notice and the challenges faced in order to restore them
Meera Iyer
Meera IyerBy special arrangement

When you think of Bangalore, a cosmopolitan outlook colours your vision. With the city being one of India's thriving tech hubs, words like heritage and history rarely cross our minds. However, in the pronounced labyrinth of the city's modernity, one will find roots tangled in a storied past, structures overlooked that echo stories of its heritage, if only you care to look closer. The city's narrative is not merely etched in concrete but interwoven with the bedtime tales of our grandparents and the time-honored alchemy of recipes passed through generations.

In her quest to restore the city's lost heritage, author and columnist Meera Iyer joined INTACH (Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage), Bangalore and has been a volunteer for 16 years now. Her journey began when she visited the Devanahalli fort and could find no information about it, which spurred her into action. INTACH has become the custodian of Bangalore's rich past, ensuring the city's heritage continues to shine through the vibrant present.

INTACH Bangalore, had played a pivotal role in documenting the Belur, Halebid, and Somanthpura temples with the aim of inscribing the "Sacred Ensembles of the Hoysalas'' as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. It marked a significant moment for the state because the last time Karnataka had a cultural heritage site was 34 years ago when the Pattadakal monuments were declared UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1987. OT spoke to Iyer about her journey as a custodian of Bangalore's legacy through her work at INTACH.

Could you give us an overview of what INTACH does?

INTACH's primary aim is to make people aware of the heritage around us. There are protected sites, like the Tipu Sultan Palace in Bangalore, protected by archaeological surveys in India. There are some other buildings that remain without protection, such as the building in the High Court of Karnataka or Tipu's Armory, close to Tipu Sultan's Palace. Although our primary aim is to create awareness, our second aim is also to conserve and restore heritage.

We have worked on the restoration of four or five schools. We are currently working on restoring another building called the Rani Vilas, opposite Victoria Hospital. We also try to work with the government about heritage legislation, meaning to be proactive about protecting heritage in the city. Since we are the Bangalore chapter, most of our work is in Bangalore and surrounding regions.

INTACH team recording Inscriptions at Someshwara Swamy temple, Halasuru.
INTACH team recording Inscriptions at Someshwara Swamy temple, Halasuru.intachbengaluru/Instagram

What kind of challenges do you come across often in your field of work?

Very often, the government turns a blind eye to all the heritage spread across Bangalore when we go to them asking for support in restoring buildings. This mindset is a huge problem for us because there are several reasons for it. For many people in Bangalore or southern Karnataka, Mysore is the only city that has a legacy of heritage, which makes them overlook the rich history we have in Bangalore. Bangalore, ever since becoming an IT hub, has given a lot of people the impression that it has no past worth restoring.

Secondly, the definition of heritage is also somewhat blurry. For instance, people who regularly go to Cubbon Park would not want to see it demolished. They would be considering its heritage in that way. But if you go to the government, they don't really consider it as heritage. So, the idea of heritage is itself confined. When you say heritage, they think of palaces, forts, and monuments. The idea that heritage can be living heritage, like a school building or an institutional building, is not thought of. So, the main challenge lies in convincing people.

What are the financial sources of INTACH? 

Some projects are funded by the public. We have worked with the governments on a few projects. We restored the residence of Shivam Karanth, a famous Kannada writer in Puttur, near Mangalore. There was a school building and another building within the police quarters, which belonged to the government, but it was privately funded. We are also restoring the railway station buildings, which is again private funding. Our heritage walks are self-funded. We charge a nominal fee of INR 200 for the participants. We also conduct exhibitions by ourselves.

What are some methodologies that you employ in the restoration of the buildings?

The INTACH team doing structural assessments of Bangalore's All Saint's Church
The INTACH team doing structural assessments of Bangalore's All Saint's Churchintachbengaluru/Instagram

I am not a conservation architect, but when you are looking at a heritage building, the materials they are built with are different from modern materials. Many of them are built with brick and lime water and not cement. It helps to have conservation architects who are actually familiar with these materials and methods.

The guiding principle in the work of INTACH is the International Charter of Conservation. There are two principles. First is minimal intervention, and second is replacing. We cannot always stick to these principles, so sometimes, if we have to replace some part of a building, we make sure the original structure remains as unchanged as possible.

At the time when Bangalore continues to develop more every day, what are the key considerations to be kept in mind about conserving our heritage buildings?

I don’t think development and modernity are mutually exclusive. They can go hand in hand. For example, in New York, more than 37,000 sites are protected in the city. Keeping that in mind, can you really still believe that modernity and heritage cannot co-exist?

You cannot erase your entire past to build your future. We are not asking not to build the city; we are asking to leave out places that are historically important. The spirit of the city lies in its older neighbourhoods and in its living heritage. This is pro-development. Heritage is a part of Bangalore's brand. It can enhance the brand's image.

INTACH restored a private building in Mysore that is about 120 years old. It is now rented by a South African who is running a chocolate factory there. It’s called Naviluna. He deliberately chose a heritage structure because it gives his brand a certain value. Heritage is an asset and not a hurdle.

Can you share any of your memorable experiences?

We conducted an exhibition in Frazer town and Richards town which talked about that place's history, culture and architecture. As part of the exhibition, children worked with older residents of the neighbourhood and asked them for recipes typical of that community. It was an important addition to heritage and its stories, people's memories and food. All of it came together amid architecture and culture.

Finally, how was your experience working for the "Sacred Ensemble of Hoysala"?

INTACH, the Department of Archaeology, Museums and Heritage, Government of Karnataka and the Archaeological Survey of India worked together on this project. It gives me a warm feeling to know that I have been part of this.

We worked with many scholars, experts, sculptors, and local stakeholders, looking at 40 temples and archival literature and sources, understanding what has happened to these temples over time. For example, if you had visited Belur in 1910, it would have looked very different. There were many more structures in the compound. Those structures were removed in the 1930s. So, we had to understand these things along with the kind of conservation that had been done. It was a wonderful immersion into Hoysala history.

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