I was the lone visitor. Two ladies manned the door that leads from the porch to the museum upstairs. “There’s nobody inside,” they said. “Repairs. The repair fellow broke his arm. He’s gone home.” There wasn’t a guard even, but that’s all right. The Mayo Hall Museum has no antiquity save the building itself.
There’s one lone artefact in the hall, and it dominates the show. It is a statuette of Kempe Gowda in brass, a lean and wiry Kempegowda in the attire and aspect of a devotee, hands folded and eyes shut in bhakti. A sword dangles from his left shoulder, close to the armpit. The artist exercising his license, I first reckoned. Then I mimed drawing a sword with the scabbard at the armpit. It appeared to work: The scabbard would’ve to be pushed back and gripped under the arm, and the sword pulled forward, instead of clumsily upward.
The second exhibit is a glass-topped map on the floor that you walk about on. Smudged by splashes of light at the time I stood over it, the map proved itself more novel than informative.
The third and last exhibit is a set of flexes that tell the history of Bangalore under the Yelahanka clan. The flexes are mounted on glossy scaffolding that surrounds the statuette of Kempegowda. The museum seeks to memorialise Kempegowda, the unanimously acknowledged founder of Bengaluru — and Kempegowda’s Yelahanka clan, which ruled in this region for 497 years, from 1230 until 1727.
The first Yelahanka was Devarasagowda. He established himself at the time of the Hoysala, as a vassal to him. In a short time, the last Hoysala fell to the Turk, who stuffed the Hoysala’s carcass with hay and hung it at the gate of the Madurai fort.
Two Yelahankas passed. The fourth Yelahanka was Bhairadeva II. In his time the Vijayanagara empire was nascent, and Bhairadeva II participated in its early growth.
Vijayanagara reached its zenith at the time of the seventh Yelahanka, Kempegowda the Elder. The emperor was Krishnadevaraya, Kempegowda the trusted vassal. Kempegowda asked to establish a new city in his realm, an ambitious mercantile city, and Krishnadevaraya said yes. That city was Bengaluru, equidistant from the sea on the west and the east, on a plateau in jungle country, with even weather all year. The empire was teeming with the finest craftsmen, traders, warriors, mercenaries — every stripe of achiever. Kempegowda invited traders to his new city, built a walled pete for them, and sank wells and built tanks and made Bengaluru a fine place to work and live in. Feeling grateful for his success, he built temples across the city in thanksgiving.
The next two Yelahankas — Kempegowda II and Kempegowda III — furthered the elder’s works.
But Vijayanagara had to see its end, too. Ramaraya, its last ruler, was defeated by a united front of five Bahamani kingdoms. The year was 1563. He was beheaded on the field even as the battle raged, and his severed head was held aloft for all to see. Two-hundred years of a prosperous empire ended with that stroke. The Bahamanis had no wish to rule Vijayanagara. They plundered the place and left.
The empire crumbled and the Yelahanka found himself a sort of sovereign, now surrounded by hostile neighbours hungry to expand. He fought and won and then lost. The Yelahanka was tiring.
The tenth Yelahanka was Kempayya. He was captured in the Savandurga fort by Doddakrishnaraja of neighbouring Mysore, and thrown into the dungeon at Srirangapattana. The base of the dungeon was lower than the riverbed of nearby Kaveri. Kempayya didn’t last long in captivity. He died in 1727. The story of the Yelahankas ends there.
The origin of Mayo Hall itself begs narration.
We shift our attention to 1872, when Lord Mayo was viceroy, having taken charge in 1869. En route somewhere by sea route, he halted at the Andaman Islands, where the British ran a prison that mostly held political prisoners, among them the vanquished in the 1857 Mutiny.
Mayo went into the prison, where a convict leapt upon him and stabbed him. That convict was Sher Ali, and his motive was to avenge his father who’d fallen in the Anglo-Afghan War. Mayo didn’t deserve punishment for Sher Ali’s tragedy, he appears to have been a decent administrator, the reforming type, an Indophile even, but he was British, and he was viceroy, and so there’s argument favouring Sher Ali as well.
Sher Ali was quickly hanged, and Lord Mayo’s body was shipped to Dublin, where they gave the deceased his due in full.
Meanwhile, in Bengaluru, the British were planning a building to house administrative offices for their cantonment, with room for gatherings. They wished to make the building their best in South India, grand in Greco Roman style. Came news of Mayo’s death and they decided to name the building after him.