Postcard from Medighesi: A Living Legacy

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    It doesn’t take long to reach Medighesi from Bengaluru, just 150 km away. It has the same rugged appeal that most villages in rural India have but that is not what brings us here. Medighesi is special. Back in the 18th century, it had something the British East India Company wanted, which is why it has forever found a place in the archival records that the Company left behind.

    Medighesi, situated along the Madhugiri-Pavagada highway in Tumakuru district of Karnataka, has a troubled but fascinating past. It takes its name from a local princess who immolated herself on her husband’s funeral pyre. The Tumkur region was then ruled by princesses of the same family until it was captured by a feudatory or palegar, Chiccappa Gauda in the 17th century.

    There are more twists in Medighesi’s story. With the rise of Haider Ali as the de facto ruler of Mysore in the mid-18th century, and his dismantling of the palegar system, a feudal system of administration in the 16th to 18th centuries, Medighesi and the Tumkur region was brought under his control, only to pass into the hands of the Marathas and subsequently back to Haider’s son, Tipu Sultan.

    The British East India Company under Lord Cornwallis invaded the Kingdom of Mysore and captured Medighesi, which presented an opportunity for a descendant of Gauda to return. However, when he realised that the village would be returned to Tipu, he ruthlessly plundered whatever remained of it.

    Tipu Sultan was defeated and killed by the forces of the East India Company in the Fourth Anglo-Mysore in 1799, giving the Company a strong foothold into the affairs of the kingdom of Mysore. Although the Wodeyars were reinstated to the Mysore throne, the Company continued to hold the reins. With their eye on the rich resources of the region such as sandalwood, teak, ivory and rice, the Company began to systematically survey the people and resources. Medighesi, known for its breed of tough, hardy and spirited bulls like Amrut Mahal, Hallikar and Nadudana, would certainly have interested the Company.

    In 1800, the Company appointed Francis Buchanan (1762-1829) to survey the resource-rich and socially complex but war-devastated region of Mysore. Buchanan was a Scottish physician but was also known as a geographer, a botanist and a zoologist during the time he spent in India.

    He is perhaps best known for the two surveys he conducted in India for the East India Company – the first was the Mysore survey, between 1800 and 1801; and the other was of the Bengal region, between 1807 and 1814. These surveys contributed greatly to understanding nature and social life in these regions.

    Buchanan recorded his findings of his Mysore survey in three volumes titled A Journey From Madras Through The Countries of Mysore, Canara And Malabar (1807). Fascinated by his survey of Mysore, we have, over the last few years, been retracing his Journey, to discover – and record for the future – the continuity and change that can be observed along his route.

    On 8th August, 1800, Buchanan had visited Medighesi (Buchanan called it ‘Madigheshy’) and its neighbouring villages to inquire into the activities of cattle breeders or Goala. More than 200 years later, we visited Medighesi, to capture Buchanan’s mundane descriptions of landscapes and his records of people through photographs.

    We have been encouraged to remember history as spectacular, whether palaces, battlefields, forts and the opulent lifestyles of kings and queens. Buchanan’s report captures the prosaic world of ordinary people, their lives and livelihoods. Even the landscapes he describes are not the kind published in glossy magazines but are, in their own way, stark.

    In our own journey, we have been drawn by the unexciting rather than by the extraordinary or by grandeur. It is this mundane world described by Buchanan that has kept us anchored to his footsteps for over a decade.

    Having being informed that, in the woods to the north and north-east of Sira, many cattle are bred… I determined to take a short journey in these directions…

    These places, however, being much out of the way, I determined to proceed to Madighesy, where, I was told, there were several herds…

    The road led through pretty valleys, surrounded by detached rocky hills

    The only cattle in place [at Madighesy] were a few cows to give people milk…

    At the foot of the hill is a well-fortified town, which was said to contain a hundred houses…

    In the vicinity, there is very little cultivation; owing, as the natives say, to the want of rain…

    Near the town is a fine quarry… easily quarried fine masses of grey granite

    The wells here are too deep for the use of the machine called capily

    The famers here allege that, in the last twenty years, they have had only one season in which there was as much rain as they wanted

    The want of water is everywhere severely felt, and the poor people live chiefly on horse-gram…

    The villages of the Goalas, or cow keepers, are scattered about in the woods, and surrounded by a little cultivation of dry-field

    The pastures are such waste lands as are not more than two miles distant from the village, and are in general poor; the tufts of grass are but thinly scattered, and the bare soil occupies the greater space

    The Goalas keep many curis and maykays, or sheep and goats

    These always accompany them in their expeditions; and even those who are servants to the rich men generally carry with them flocks of sheep and goats…

    The cows and sheep eat grass, and the goats the leaves of every kind of tree, bush or climber…

    They [the cows] are indeed miserably lean, and at twenty yards’ distance, their ribs may be distinctly counted…

    There are a great many different races of Goalas…

    These men have no fire-arms, the report of which would terrify the cattle; and for driving away the tiger, they trust the noise which they and their dogs make

    The Goalas live in huts near the small villages, in parts of the country that contain much uncultivated land…

    [The Goalas] live in the midst of the woods, in places where small reservoirs, called cuttays, have been formed to supply their cattle with water

    These poor people have a small temple, containing two shapeless stones…

    [The Goalas] also sacrifice to the Goddess Marima

    Being very long in the body, and capable of travelling far on little nourishment, the merchants purchase all the best [oxen] for carriage

    The cows of this breed are pure white; but the bulls have generally an admixture of black on the neck and hind quarters

    The one is a small, gentle, brown… animal

    In the evening, they are brought home… and the sheep are folded on the field of their proprietor.

    In the backyard of every house stands a large earthen pot, in which the water used for boiling the grain consumed by the family is collected…

    But as local failures of rain frequently occasion a want of forage near their huts, some of the men drive their flocks to other places where the season has been more favourable…

    These vallies [Valleys] showed marks of having once been in a great measure cultivated, and contained ruinous villages of their former inhabitants

    …the fields between the rocks were formerly cleared and well cultivated, and are said to be very favourable for Ragy[Ragi Millet]…

    Nothing can be rougher than the neighbouring country, which at first sight appears a mass of rocks and bare hills thrown confusedly together; but on nearer inspection, many fertile spots are observed

    History never really relates to a distant past, disconnected from the present; it lives on, not merely in structures and monuments but as a way of life. From their struggles for water to their daily chores of trekking long distances in search of fodder for their sheep and cattle, we could see continuity in the lives and livelihoods of the Goala.

    At the same time, we could sense a change in the air. And the most disruptive change could come from an aspect Buchanan never saw or recorded – schools and the midday meal. This has transformed the lives of the villagers like never before.

    Photographs: Shashanka Adiga
    Compilation and essay: Sashi Sivramkrishna
    Project Coordination: S Sreedhar & Mahadev Naik
    This project was funded by the Foundation to Aid Industrial Recovery (FAIR), Bengaluru/New Delhi

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