This heritage building is a mere shade of what it once was, and a visit doesn’t reveal its historical significance easily. Shivani Unakar and Dhiraj Chilakapaty on the design, structure, and systems of trade within a market that was established to serve the cantonment.
Two roads down from Bengaluru’s MG Road, through the organised chaos of Shivajinagar, amidst bales of fresh coriander leaves and baskets of bright yellow lemons stands an old building: Russell Market. Its pastel pink structure, recently repainted all white, stands firm in the bustle of one of the city’s oldest trade hubs.
(In our introductory piece to this Market Archive series, Russell Market: Almost a Century-Down, But Not Out!, journalist Ruth Dsouza Prabhu captures the pulse of this place.)
The history of Russell Market is intertwined with the very foundation of Bengaluru city. Established by Kempegowda I, Bengaluru began as a mud fort surrounded by a pete (pronounced ‘pay-tay’, translating to market). This area came to be known as Bengaluru Pete, and is the historical centre of the city as we know it today. Around 1806, the British set up a military cantonment to its northeast. The geographical separation of these two settlements was conscious, and while Krishna Rajendra Market or KR Market catered to the pete, Russell Market was established to serve the cantonment.
Initially, Russell Market functioned as an open market ground, like most Indian bazaars. But after a major flu epidemic in 1921, a decision was made to formalise all the open markets into new purpose-built markets. It was then that WH Murphy—Executive Engineer of the Bangalore Cantonment Municipal Council at the time—was commissioned to design the building that now houses Russell Market.
(For more on the wares it offers and the vendors who sell them, read Beyond Transactions: People Hold This Market Together.)
The building was constructed in the Indo-Saracenic style, a revivalist style of architecture that drew elements from Indo-Islamic and Mughal architecture, commonly used by British architects in the late 19th century.
The late TP Issar, author and former Chief Secretary of Karnataka, described this in his book, The City Beautiful: A celebration of the architectural heritage and city-aesthetics of Bangalore: “The building has arched panels with ventilators on the first floor. The central entrance is emphasized by buttressed piers with octagonal ‘chhatris’ on top. The wings end with square blocks, each with a higher parapet, chajja and a squat dome with finial.”
The spine of the market runs east to west, with arched entrances at either end. An old clock tower built in1820 forms the nucleus of the market, around which Murphy planned the new structure, along a distinct axis. Aisles lined with shops run north to south.
Shops along the first aisle sell flowers and fruits, followed by vegetables in the next two. While these vendors often entertain retail customers, especially regulars, they operate primarily on a wholesale basis—supplying produce to the Hotels, Restaurants and Cafes (HoReCa) sector and other bulk buyers in the city. This portion of the market is well-lit and sees the most footfalls.
Beyond the clock tower is housed the mutton butchery section—a large open area with three rows of raised stone stalls, equipped with railings and hooks to hang cuts of meat, and circular woodblocks for butchery. High ceilings and broad entryways on either end provide ample ventilation. Each stall belongs to one business, many of which are family-owned, and have been around for as long as the market itself, being run today by second and third generation butchers.
Fresh poultry and seafood vendors flank the sides and rear periphery of the main structure, where the open environment is most conducive to a wet market. Here, one can find an array of live poultry including broiler and country chickens, ducks, turkeys and quails, as well as a variety of saltwater fish, crabs, mussels, squid, shrimp, and more, brought in by overnight train from the fishing docks of Kochi and Mangaluru.
Above the ground level of Russel Market is the first floor, with more shops. Accessed by a staircase in a shambles, most shops on this floor are closed, or used as storage lots. Seeking better access and visibility, a number of smaller vendors set up temporary shops on tarps, occupying a considerable portion of the road outside the market.
In the early hours of the day, trucks bring in produce from farms outside the city. While much of this stock is for the shops inside, some are here to take advantage of the bustling trade in this area, unloading bundles of their wares onto the street, trying to sell off as much as they can in a few hours, before clearing away.
Much like the temporary stalls, seasonal vendors, and other unofficial and ad hoc systems of trade seen here, the market’s management and upkeep, too, are managed with limited regulation or support from the BBMP, the city’s civic amenities administrative body. Some of the veteran vendors share that, in reality, much of the maintenance and upkeep are organised and funded by the four traders’ associations (for fruits and toys; vegetables; mutton; and seafood) that operate within the market complex.
Musheer Ahmed, a third-generation butcher in the mutton section, who has been closely involved in the market for four decades, explained that these traders’ associations are the ones that take charge of most administration. After a fire in 2012 that charred several parts of the structure, these associations pooled resources to raise lakhs of rupees for the repairs. After all, he said, they were the ones that stood to lose out from any delay in the release of BBMP funds. Sadly, this has been the fate of many old markets in the city, leading to their degeneration with time.
Over the decades, Russell Market had grown old and dilapidated, and the heritage building became a mere shade of what it once was. The road to access it was crowded with informal trade and double-parked vehicles in the absence of designated parking spaces. A visit to the market felt far from convenient and revealed little of its historical significance. In the metro city that Bangalore has become, with a number of retail chains, grocery delivery apps, and online aggregators for wholesale supply chains, the market was beginning to lose its relevance.
While a first-time visit may reveal a bustling hub, footfalls are a fraction of what they used to be, lament the traders who have been facing a considerable loss of revenue. The Covid-19 pandemic only made things worse, with the market remaining closed during the lockdowns.
There have been multiple proposals under the Bangalore Smart City Limited (BSCL) project to redevelop the Russell Market complex, for smoother operations and a better shopping experience. However, with changes in local governments and BSCL administration, these plans barely moved towards action until recently. But, as they say, history repeats itself. Much like the epidemic that brought about the construction of the formal market building, it has been in the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic that Russell Market is finally seeing interventions toward refurbishment.
During The Locavore’s visit in November 2022, the main market structure was being painted white from the outside. According to Mohammad Anif, one of the contracted workers involved, this is the first time in over a decade that the external facade of the market is being painted!
Apart from repainting and installing spotlights on the main market building, the BBMP and BSCL have also invested in significant redevelopment around it to create Russell Plaza, a modern walkway with benches and lamps, public toilets, and designated parking areas for two- and four-wheelers. They have also revived a 250-year old well here, and plan to install a fountain on the plaza. While vendors in Russell Market welcome this change, they are looking forward to refurbishments within the market building as well in the near future.
Architects who have been involved in creating proposals for the market’s redevelopment maintain that superficial alterations are not enough. To transform it into the landmark destination it deserves to be, they highlight the need for a fresh perspective on the idea of a ‘bazaar’, with a focus on creating a stimulating experience for visitors, as well as recognising the needs of vendors, through architectural as well as policy interventions.
While the city has grown leaps and bounds in the last few centuries, far beyond the pete and cantonment, markets like this tell stories of its history and hold immense potential for a revival of our connection to the city’s food system. La Boqueria in Barcelona, Borough Market in London, and Pike Place Market in Seattle are great examples of how historical markets have been preserved and revived to make them relevant to the current times. One can hope that Russell Market will get the chance to enjoy a similar resurrection someday soon.
Shivani Unakar is a researcher and writer particularly interested in the intersection of food, people and place. She has grown up in Bangalore, and as a culinary student in the mid-2010s, spent many early mornings procuring meat and vegetables at Russell Market. To see more of her work, check out her website, and follow her Instagram.
Dhiraj Chilakapaty is an architect and urban designer with a keen interest in cities, public policy, and urban governance. His interest in cuisine and culture has taken him across bustling mercados in Spain, Middle Eastern souks steeped in history, buzzing hawker centres across the far east Asia and charming American farmers markets. He believes public markets contribute to culture and local economy by encouraging community and creating a sense of place.
Sanskriti Bist is a freelance food stylist, photographer and recipe developer living in Bangalore. She loves to cook everything from scratch and take photos of markets, food and her kitchen.
Vanmayi Shetty is a multidisciplinary visual artist and art director with a lens-based background in social documentary and storytelling. The narratives in her work stem from a people and planet perspective and flow through a wide range of media. See her work here.
With the intention of seeing a market through different eyes and perspectives, a group of us met at the end of 2022 to walk through Bengaluru’s Russell Market to document it. Other writers who have worked on this project are Amiya Chaudhuri, Dhiraj Chilakapaty, Pankhuri Agrawal, and Sreepathy Paliath; also involved were Chef Thomas Zacharias, Chetana Divya, Shreshtha Chhabra, Takshama Pandit, Yamini Vijayan, and Zainab Kapadia from The Locavore.
Markets carry the pulse of the communities that they serve, and act as a window to diverse cultures. Market Archives aims to document as many markets from around India as possible—small, sprawling, vanishing, noisy, up a hill, tucked away in a corner of the city—every one of them. Join us as we speak to different sellers, see what’s in season across varied geographies, taste the familiar and unfamiliar, and soak in the sounds and scents that define each market.