What Bengaluru’s peepul tree sanctuaries can teach us about urban planning
Bangalore is increasingly becoming a city with more roads and flyovers, and with fewer spaces for public interaction or informal get-togethers. As in other Indian cities, here too, administrators envision a city that meets global standards of urban form and infrastructure. While at the neighborhood level, people continue to nurture and maintain spaces like ashwath kattes (peepul tree shrines), informally generating community spaces. And these spaces – which equate the rural with the urban – survive even as government agencies have rampantly usurped public spaces for various projects.
There are two competing processes in city building – one, from above, generated by the administrators; and the other, from below, based on how people informally inhabit public spaces. The case of ashwath kattes leads us to ask ourselves: can these two processes work together? Can there be a more people-centred approach to urban planning that retains our traditional informal spaces?
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Ashwath kattes are religious, social and ecological spaces
The Peepul tree (known as Ashvattha in Sanskrit literature, or Bodhi tree in Buddhist contexts) is a type of fig tree (Ficus Religiosa). And the platform around the tree is the ‘katte’. In Bangalore, ashwath kattes are usually found next to Mariamman temples.
Many ashwath kattes in Bengaluru are hundreds of years old. The kattes of Ashwath are also linked to the growth of the city – for example, after the plague epidemic of 1898, an extension was given to the layout of Basavanagudi, and the temples of Mariamman as well as the kattes of ashwath became very popular there (as the goddess was believed to protect people from diseases like the plague).
Conservationists consider the peepul tree to be one of the “keystone” species. They are crucial species for maintaining the diversity of their ecological communities. In India, the ecological importance of the peepul tree is embedded in daily rituals and religious ceremonies.
Over the past few years, we at Everyday City Lab have documented 75 ashwath kattes in Bangalore with the support of citizen volunteers. We learned that people come to ashwath kattes not only to pray, but also to socialize.
While a few kattes in the city are fenced off and used exclusively for religious worship, the majority are open spaces where people socialize and engage in various activities, where informal vendors sell their wares, and where children play. Some like the Siddappa Mess katte at Sampangiramnagar (where a mess adjoins the katte) are also secular spaces, fostering interactions between temple visitors and the mess. It is not uncommon to see a local, a flower seller, a tea seller and a group of retired men spending their time together in an ashwath katte, exchanging views or sharing experiences.
So far, our main takeaways from careful observation of kattes ashwath are:
- It is a place where religion and ecology intersect.
- The peepul tree has a wide canopy and provides enough shade for people to sit, interact or sell.
- Ashwath katte is a gathering place for men and women where social relationships are nurtured and strengthened between people from different backgrounds.
- The interactions of people at the ashwath katte contribute to creating a collective memory and social capital. And the higher the collective memory, the less likely the government is to encroach on these public spaces.
Urban planning in India
In the post-independence period, urban planning in India was largely influenced by the ideas of Western architects like Le Corbusier and Louis Kahn. Nehru had invited Le Corbusier to propose a plan for the new city of Chandigarh.
As political scientist and anthropologist James Scott has pointed out, Corbusier drew up these plans in the same way he had planned cities like central Paris and Buenos Aires before – as if no city existed before, without reference to history or urban traditions. Of the place. Corbusier planned Chandigarh with the same geometry, and an affinity for order and efficiency, and with little connection to the city’s past or present.
In the years that followed, Indian urban planners and administrators continued to nurture this approach that planned the city from a distance, making the daily life of the city invisible and therefore non-existent.
Is there an alternative?
The random gathering of people in the street during a festival; a messy platform around the peepul tree; the cluster of push cart vendors – should everything be cleared for a formal plaza with neatly arranged stone benches around a water fountain? We believe that it is possible to develop an Indian idiom of urban design if we understand how our existing public spaces work – who comes there, how long they stay there, what is the nature of the interactions it houses, etc. Our planning processes could integrate existing ashwath kattes into the changing urban fabric of older neighborhoods.
Patrick Geddes, the biologist and sociologist who drew up a series of plans for Indian cities in 1915, defended an ecological theory of town planning. He argued for an approach to urban planning where the work of civil servants and urban planners would be combined with fruit growers and gardeners, where the focus would be on nature rather than engineering. He appreciated local customs and the role of festivals in Indian cities to conceptualize the urban space of the future.
Taking note of an ashwath katte in Thanjavur in 1915, Geddes had remarked that this street element had to be repeated a thousand times. Today, after studying ashwath katte for a few years, we too believe that ashwath kattes should be part of our urban fabric, which can function as small public spaces in every neighborhood.
We believe that at the city level, Bangalore needs to find its own relevant and local solutions to the problems of urban growth. Currently, there is no mechanism to resolve the conflict between the planning criteria on which the government relies and daily life at the neighborhood level.
Considering that our existing cities have developed by historical chance, can there be any common ground in designing our future city – which is based in part on the logic of how we know a city works , and partly on the reasoning that our urban spaces are changing according to the evolution of the social, cultural and economic processes that make the city livable?