The living past

The social sciences are ideally suited to a learning that draws on immediate and surrounding worlds. The very term Social Science embodies its own scope and approach. This field may be viewed as a systematic study of human beings and their environments. As in the natural sciences which from an early age may engage children in learning through direct observation and contact, the social sciences may engage children in learning based on encounters with the worlds about them. The social science student has the village, town or city as resources from which to make observations, gather primary information and interpret findings. An example given here is an account of the Magadi Project at the Centre For Learning (CFL), with our ten- and eleven-year-olds.

CFL is located ten kilometres east of Magadi, a medieval town in boulder-strewn scrubland. Ancient temples dot the town and its surroundings. Over the years, children have wandered the landscape, spending time in the courtyard of Kallur temple, two kilometres away, scrambling over the remains of granite fortifications on elephantine Savandurga hill, and watching the Arkavati river dwindle and swell. Many questions have arisen for them about these environs and their inhabitants.

Keen to learn more, we decided to go to tangible sources, to places that embody stories of the past, places which are still alive. We chose three temple sites as bases from which to explore. We planned to spend time at each of these sites and see what we could glean from direct contact. At the beginning of each visit, we spent a while looking, sketching and sharing our findings. As we proceeded, we were delighted with surprises. We were also faced with puzzles.

Kallur temple: Kallur temple has a small mantapam with four pillars, each adorned with bas relief sculptures or ubba chitragallus. Some children sketch the sculptures: a lion head, a peacock, a person playing a flute, a drummer, a man leaning on a staff with a calf nibbling at his elbow, two women holding hands, four figures entwined in a geometric pattern, a snake motif.

Other children are outside, sketching and pondering over a dilapidated structure in the corner of the temple site. A sculpture detached from the entranceway seems to be a horse with an extended elephant's trunk! A gasp of excitement has us all running to a lower outer panel of the temple. Inscriptions run all along the length of the base! The rest of the term could have been spent copying the inscriptions and unearthing their meanings. We try fruitlessly to make rubbings - the granite is too bumpy. The letters seem to be of Old Kannada. One letter, a K, seems to resemble Tamil! Written evidence is there for us to interpret. Yet with our current resources, there is only so much that we may say, and that too, tentatively. As we discuss what we might be able to say about life in Kallur as reflected by the temple, several themes arise - people engaged in worship, music, dance, carving, building with granite and herding.

In Kallur village, 50 metres away from the temple, we listen to 84 year-old Hanumanthiah's narrative.

The temple used to have copper doors.

The inscriptions mention the Hoysala king Veera Ballala.

In earlier times, village folk lived to be 110 years old.

Water boiled with neem bark was a common medicine.

Homes were made of mud.

Everybody farmed.

With bits of evidence before us, material, literal (which we could not decipher) and oral, how could we assess the likelihood of a statement? Our discussion brought up the themes of both interpretation and reliability. What does a piece of evidence suggest about life at a particular time? How likely are our conjectures? If Veera Ballala's name appears on the inscriptions, what does this mean?

Among the answers that emerged were:

The temple was built during Veera Ballala's reign.

Veera Ballala made a grant to the temple.

The temple was built after Veera Ballala's time and he was referred to at a later date.

Rather than dwell on establishing fact, we alerted ourselves to both basing our statements on evidence as well as learning to use may or might or possibly!

We read a piece on inscriptions in south India. We learned that the largest source of evidence for south Indian history is from inscriptions. There are thousands of stone inscriptions and a few hundred copper plate inscriptions. The short inscriptions found in natural caves in Tamil Nadu have the names of the rock carvers. The script used is Brahmi, or the script used during the time of the Mauryan emperor Ashoka, around 200 BC. However, the language is an ancient form of Tamil. These inscriptions may be a sign of the presence of Jain and Buddhist monks in south India around 200 BC (Nilakanta Sastri, A History of South India).

Ranganathswamy temple: Ranganathswamy temple, closer to Magadi town, is a larger and active temple. Outside is a beautiful old step well. Within is a buzzing flurry of bells, chanting and the aroma of agarbattis. As we look for a spot to settle down and sketch, we talk to a couple of pujaris who tell us about the legendary origins of the temple.

A certain rishi, Mandavya, meditated on an adjoining hill. Here he saw the divine and asked him how he would prove to others that he had seen god. He was told to build an idol of Ranganatha. He did this at a later date. Chola rulers built a temple around the idol. Magadi town derives its name from the rishi Mandavya. The place was first named Mandavya kutti, this changed to Makutti and finally to Magadi.

Frail, 95-year-old Shamanna Ajja, who guards the clothes of deities that are periodically paraded in a temple ratha, holds forth about his childhood in Tirumala, where the Ranganathaswamy temple is located.

Earlier, there were stone-cutters, farmers and potters. Roads were small and dusty. Now the government provides facilities. He prefers his present life as he is assured  of food and basic comforts.

We find a spot and write accounts of what we have heard. One of our children glances upward and notices that the roof structure and designs are just the same as in Kallur! What does this mean? The hypothesis (by this time we have learned the word hypothesis: a guess about why something happens or exists) is that both temples were built around the same time in the same style, or that one was built earlier and the style lasted over time.

Our third foray led us to the Someshwara temple on the further outskirts of Magadi town. At this stage, we had paused to read about the temple and the village in South India. Rather than leave it all to conjecture, I felt it important to also draw on the writings of scholars. Even these we could assess on the basis of our own observations. We looked at the relationship between the temple and the village. We learned about the multi-dimensional nature of the temple. It was a place of worship, music, art, dance, pilgrimage and trade. Schools and hospitals were often located in the temple area and it served often as the town hall where people assembled. (Nilakanta Sastri, A History of South India).

With the widespread building of temples in the thirteenth century and later, the importance of artisans, labourers and merchants involved in temple-construction increased. Skills, goods and services necessary for the creation of temples played a role in developing towns and cities. The rise of temples and towns went together. Many towns grew around the base of hills on which temples were located (Burton Stein, South India: Some General Considerations in The Cambridge Economic History of India, ed. Tapan Raychaudhuri and Irfan Habib).

Someshwara temple: The Someshwara temple is perched on a mound. Inside is a sprawling complex of mantapams, separated by open grassy spaces, used for farming, we are told. It is peaceful and unpeopled. Amidst the quietness, we settle down to sketch. The function of temple spaces is freely debated. Some students hold that the raised platform in the center of one mantap may have been used for weddings. Others wonder if musicians sat here.

The bas relief sculptures are of many characters. A drummer with his smiling face turned sideways, dancers, an upside down rishi in meditation, a person cloaked in a woollen blanket, perhaps a prince. We find one inscription in Kannada which reads 'labana'. What does this mean? On the floor is a long engraving of a snake. Is this a protective sign at a spot where wealth may have been buried? Outside is an exquisitely carved wooden ratha, adorned with numerous human and animal figures.

In brief conversation with a historian of South India, I learn that rectangular pillars and double-headed animals or double-bodied (single-headed) animals date to the late or post-Vijaynagar period. So this temple may be dated to around the late 1600s to the early 1700s. We cannot say for sure.

Within a locked mantapam (we climb up the outer wall and peer in) is a board that says that Mummadi Kempe Gowda made a donation to the temple in 1712. To add to our puzzle, there are sculptures here with distinct Indo-Saracenic features - a face with a neatly trimmed beard, arches which resemble Islamic art forms. Where did these artisans come from? Who were they influenced by?

Finally, we found ourselves at Agalakote village, seven kilometres beyond Magadi. We'd had an evolving plan, deciding what to do next as our journey unfolded. While the earlier plan was to look at contemporary Magadi, we realised this was too ambitious and so we recharted and visited this village we had heard of. A significant theme in this course was engaging not only with the material and aesthetic surroundings but connecting with people. In Agalakote we had a meeting with a small group of women and children in the Muslim mohalla.

Agalakote village: Women roll beedis as they speak. They tell us of how their main aspiration is to have their children attend school in Magadi. All money saved goes towards this. Many people from this village have migrated to the city to work. Some young folks come back to look after their parents.

We learn that Agalakote was a stopping place for Tipu Sultan as he rode from Seringapatnam to Savandurga and then Bangalore. This is where people and horses would rest. Kote means fort but there are no signs of a fort nearby.

The old mosque here was built in Tipu's time. Habibul bhai, a maulvi, tells us the mosque is 400 years old. However, if it dates back to Tipu's time, it is probably around 200 years old. Inside, old bulbous glass lamps hang from the ceiling. They are meant to hold candles.

We walk through the inside of the mosque. We then gather in the verandah and I ask the maulvi to talk to the children about whatever he chooses. A homily ensues. He tells us about the main tenets of Islam, finally saying that the main message and purpose of namaaz or prayer is to remind yourself of how to relate considerately to people around you, your family members, your guests, like us.

By this stage of our Project, we had drawn a Timeline and marked out dates we had come across. These included dates of various rulers and kingdoms in this area - the Cholas, the Hoysalas, the Vijayanagar kings, the Yelahanka Nadu Prabhus (one of who founded Bangalore city), the Wodeyars, the British.

The students did reference work on some of these rulers. Some also looked at existing rulers in other parts of the country - the Delhi Sultanate rulers and the Mughals. We asked ourselves whether life in these rural areas would have been significantly different over these periods.

Our investigations wove in and out of experiential and text-based learning, each bringing the other alive. My own role was more of facilitator and organizer, and teacher and student became one as a picture emerged. At the end we were left with more questions than answers, eager to delve further.

 

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