I CANNOT COUNT the number of times I have passed Johnson Market on my way between Koramangala, where my in-laws live, and central Bangalore. The market building stands close to the busy intersection of Hosur Road and Richmond Road. Recently, I went on a guided walking tour of the area around Johnson Market. It was led by my good friend Mansour Ali, who runs a great organisation called “Bengaluru by foot” (www.bengalurubyfoot.com). I had visited Johnson Market several times before on my own, but Mansour’s tour enhanced my experience of it and its surroundings.
Johnson Market was built in an indo-saracenic style in the early 20th century on the site of stables that housed horses, which were imported into India in 1824 from Persia by Aga Ali Asker who was born in Shiraz in 1808. Some of the stables still exist, incorporated into the structure of the market halls. Ali Asker was one of several brothers. While the rest of ghem returned to Persia, he stayed in in Bangalore where he died after carrying out much valuable public work. One of his grandsons, born in Bangalore, was Sir Mirza Ismail (1883-1959), a great Indian statesman.
Johnson Market is for selling food. In addition to vegetables (including exotic vegetables like Chinese pak choi), there is a wonderful fishmongers shop and a beef market.
Near to the market, stands ‘Koshys Automatic Bakery’, which was the first mechanised bakery in the city. A stall beside it sells bread, cakes, and delicious filled puffs.
At both ends of the long building housing the Islamic Educational Board of India on Richmond Road, there are gateways leading to Muslim shrines well hidden from the road. One of them is a Sunni shrine, and the other is Shia/Sufi. Soon after the birth of Islam believers in this religion split into two main groups: Sunni and Shia. The majority of Muslims in India are Sunni, a small minority are Shia. It happens that there is a concentration of Shia establishments close to Johnson Market. This might be because Ali Asker and his descendants, many of whom had homes in the area, were Shias. Each of the shrines or ‘dargahs’ are peaceful enclaves, which although close to the main road, feel far away from the hustle and bustle of the city.
The leafy shaded Mysore Tobacco Company compound is across Richmond Road facing the two dargahs. Surrounded by trees and luxuriant foliage, the main building is a delightful example of colonial Bangalorean domestic architecture. Its windows are partially covered with monkey top woodwork. The large front porch is rich in wooden latticework and rustic carving that hints of idealised quaint country cottages in far-off England.
All Saints Church, founded by the Reverend Pettigrew (founder of Bangalore’s Bishop Cotton School for boys) and designed in Victorian gothic style by the English architect Robert Fellowes Chisholm and consecrated in 1870. It stands at the intersection of Richmond and Hosur Roads, and must have brought feelings of homesickness to Britishers living in pre-independence Bangalore. Stepping inside is like entering a village church in England. The garden surrounding the church contains a rich variety of plants, including a rather spindly olive tree, reflecting Pettigrew’s interest in botany. Tragically, part of this garden is under threat because the municipal authorities want it for use in the construction of a new metro line.
After visiting the church, Mansour took us to see another Shia dargah in a lane leading off Hosur Road. This shrine is connected with the battle of Karbala (600 AD) during which Hussain, grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, was slain by the caliph Yazid I. The shrine, which is revered by Shias, contains fine glass lamps and chandeliers which were probably made in Turkey over a century ago. Unlike mosques, where worshippers of different genders are kept separated, males and females can pray together in dargahs.
The Masjid e Askari is the only Shia mosque in Bangalore. Adjoining it, there is a recently built replica of a mosque in Karbala, the city close to where Hussain, sacred to the Shias, met his death. The replica, which is smaller than the original, is a beautiful construction with amazing mirror work mosaics in which words from the Koran are inserted in black tiling.
After spending three hours with Mansour, I felt that I had learnt much about the Shia branch of Islam and a great deal about a part of Bangalore which I have passed often without realising how interesting it is.