By Lucy Gibson
In the heart of Bengaluru, the state capital of Karnataka, lies the state-of-the-art Sri Kanteerava Stadium. However, just behind this stadium is a small, largely ignored for the majority of the year, water body. A water body which is now the only remnant of what, only a century ago, was one of the city’s largest and most prominent lake, Sampangi Lake – 35 acre lake boasting trees, open spaces, a source of water and a livelihood.
Bengaluru has been an urban settlement since the mid-16th century, although settlements have existed even prior to this. Due to lacking access to large rivers, the city’s water came from a networked system of storage reservoirs, primarily lakes. In fact, the importance of lakes for Bengaluru can be recognised from the city also being called ‘kalyananagara’ (city of lakes).
As well as critical drinking water sources, Bengaluru’s lakes were crucial to the livelihoods for several communities, including brick-makers, farmers, pastoralists to name a few. Oral histories indicate that the lake acted as an urban commons, supplying water for drinking and domestic uses, as well as supporting horticulture, fishing, brick-making, laundering, and pastoralism. Given the interconnection of the people with water-bodies, it is not particularly surprising that a lot of importance was attached to them and annual festivals celebrated them.
This is the story of how a beautiful lake, which supported several different communities, became a stadium.
In the late 19th century, the city was divided into two jurisdictional regions: the British Cantonment and the native city, or Pete, governed by the Mysore kings. Sampangi Lake offered an important water source for both zones due to its central location and it was protected as both Cantonment and Pete were dependent on it.
However, after 1898, the Hesarghatta reservoir began to supply water to the British cantonment. As they were no longer dependent on the lake for water, Sampangi became seen as valuable for a very different reason: aesthetics and recreation.
As a result, to maintain the ‘aesthetics’ of the lake, local livelihoods such as brick making were banned, under the claim that this created unsightly pits, and entry to the lake became guarded, restricting the access of local communities of fishers and washers. These communities migrated away from Sampangi Lake, and new communities (who practiced livelihoods which were not dependent on the ecosystem services from the lake) immigrated to fill the gap.
Moreover, British polo players went further, asking the colonial government to drain the lake so that they could play polo on the lakebed. Although 49 horticulturists (Vanhikula Kshatriyas) petitioned the Mysore king to prevent this, and despite the king writing in favour of the horticulturists, the lake was drained and used to play polo. At the end of 1937, the 35 acre lake had become a small tank.
Sampangi Lake no longer represented an essential water source for the city. Its reclamation and conversion into a built-up space was catalysed by urbanisation and a changing perception of the lake’s utility. As Bengaluru grew into a 20th century city, aspiring from modern identity, what was previously Sampagni Lakebed became the Sri Kanteerava indoor sports stadium.
In present day Bengaluru, the landscape around Sampangi Lake bears little resemblance to its former social and ecological importance. As mentioned, only a small rectangular tank remains due to its centrality to the Karaga festival, the city’s oldest festival which is celebrated by the Vanhikula Kshatriyas horticulturists. Only once a year, during Karaga does the water body become a focal point, a site of celebration, visited by thousands.
The pattern observed in Sampangi Lake, where aesthetic and recreational perspectives are prioritised over utilitarian uses, continues today. Many other lakes with Bengaluru have also been impacted by urbanisation. They now form bus terminals (previously Dharmambudhi Lake), and hockey stadiums (previously Akkithimmanhalli Lake).
Yet, Bengaluru still needs water for its resilience. Now such large, the piped water from distant rivers can no longer supply all of the city’s needs.
But all is not lost.
Citizen movements across Bengaluru have begun to focus on protecting and restoring their lakes. In some neighbourhoods, where sufficient water supply is a persistent challenge, community wells, once ignored, are now protected, and maintained. Moreover, mass citizen protests have gained significant victories for the city’s green cover, including reversing the decision to build a steel flyover, which would have destroyed thousands of trees.
In order to build socially inclusive and ecologically sustainable cities, we must consider stories such as that of Sampangi Lake, and understand that the sustainability of these resources depend largely on their accessibility as an urban commons, with utilitarian and recreational value for all to enjoy and protect.