When it comes to the Ashwath katte (peepal tree shrine) in the old part of Yelahanka in north Bengaluru there is an intricate web of unspoken understanding of who will use the space and how. Two “sacred” stones are installed at the base of the tree, and a cement platform surrounds the trunk. Passersby and people from the neighbourhood pray, sit, and even sell their wares there.
“It’s really fascinating. Only one vendor has the right to sell idols of gods and goddesses at the Ashwath katte. The few tea vendors who stand in the periphery of the katte take turns to stand opposite the idol, as they consider it lucky for business. A few elders ensure the katte is maintained and no one litters at least within a 2m radius of the square,” says Shikha Patel, research assistant, Qatar University, who volunteered for a year for the ongoing research project on Ashwath kattes undertaken by the Bengaluru-based Everyday City Lab, an urban design and research collaborative.
Peepal trees are considered sacred in most parts of the country. In Bengaluru, the kattes transform into spaces where communities worship, socialise, and small vendors sell their wares. In olden times, Patel says, villages used to mark their boundaries with Ashwatha kattes.
Over the last six years, since research on Ashwath kattes started, Everyday City Lab has managed to gather information about 70 such kattes in Bengaluru. Its co-founder, Kiran Keswani, is now looking to collect all the interviews, videos and other data into an interactive website under a creative commons licence. The website, she believes, will generate interest and enable knowledge-sharing about streets and public spaces.
“Since I don’t have the skill sets or any grants, I am talking to various people (to see) if they will volunteer their time and skill in creating this website,” says Keswani, who teaches at CEPT University, Ahmedabad, and Azim Premji University (APU), Bengaluru.
What started as a fun project turned into serious research when Keswani’s abstract on Peepal Tree Worshipping was accepted at the Asian Urbanisms conference at NUS Singapore in 2015. Subsequently, Keswani and her husband, Suresh Bhagavatula, a professor at the Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore, received an year-long grant from APU for the project, in 2018. The scope of the research too expanded. Instead of merely looking at kattes from an urban design perspective, they began exploring the social capital it generated as a community space.
The research began at a time when a great many road-widening plans were being carried out to ease congestion. “We have found that while the administrators imagine a city that meets global standards of urban form and infrastructure, at the neighbourhood level, people continue to pray at the local tree shrines, making the spaces around them into places of memory and cultural value,” Keswani says. So, the greater the collective memory of a katte, the less the chance of it being swallowed up by development, she adds.
While the APU grant allowed her to hire two full-time research assistants, who did in-depth research on 20 kattes, she also started receiving queries from people who wanted to contribute part-time to the project. These volunteers helped gather basic information and interviewed local people in 50 kattes.
Use, they found, depended on the area. For instance, the two Ashwath kattes within the premises of a temple in Chickpet and the katte in Sirsi Circle, with a compound wall and gate, are both primarily religious spots. However, Keswani says, what distinguishes them is the level of publicness. The Chickpet temple, like many others, closes its gates in the afternoon, restricting access to the katte. The katte in Padmanabhanagar, however, is situated in a neighbourhood park. It has a temple beside it, and serpents carved in stone. “People who come to the park double up their morning or evening walk into pradakshina (circumambulation) of the temple and katte,” says Keswani . Similarly, the Ashwath katte in Sampangiram Nagar, close to a popular eatery, functions both as a religious and secular social space. “The people who came to pray were mostly Kannadigas, while those who visit the eatery were mostly Jain, who hung around the katte before or after the meal as there is ample shade. So, the social, religious and economic layers are inter-independent,” she says.
One of the kattes that initially piqued Keswani’s interest is situated at the Bisulu Mariamma temple in Dodda Mavalli, near Lalbagh. It’s an example of how a public space that caters to religious needs shares the space for economic activities (informal vending) as well. Vegetable and fruit vendors set up shop there in the mornings. In the afternoons, the space is taken over by vendors who sell clothes.
Kattes, the researchers discovered, are places where women too can socialise comfortably. In 2019, a three-month study found that their visiting times to these shrines varied, with some women preferring to pray at kattes in the morning, and others at the end of the day. But in every case, it offered them a chance to meet up with other women. “We found women spent anywhere from 5-10 minutes to a couple of hours at the temple and Ashwath katte, and the reasons varied,” Keswani says.
Kattes, in fact, seem to be an “essential source” of social capital for local neighbourhoods and, in turn, the city, she says. While their “sacredness” tends to offer them a protective shield, it would be good to promote trees as places for creating small, public spaces in neighbourhoods. Constructing simple platforms around trees, ones that enable them to breathe, could be a good place to start, says Keswani.