Many times i have traveled next to the Ulsoor lake often noticing something written on its surrounding walls referring to Madras Sappers. Once while discussing the history of Bangalore with Srini, he asked me casually, “Where is Bangalore Cantonment?”. As a reply, I pointed towards the glass windows and told, “its beyond Ulsoor”. Since, I was not sure myself of the answer I had just given, so I decided to verify it out once I came out of office. It was around 3 pm on a Sunday. I rode my bike across the Domlur flyover towards the old madras road.
In a city, having a transport of your own is a great advantage as you don’t have to wait for the buses and can choose your own routes. It had just rained a while back and the sky was clearing up. But, the roads were still wet and the trees looked fresh and green. The air you breathe at such time is like breathing pure oxygen, absolutely dust free!
On the way to Ulsoor I again encountered the walls with ‘Madras Sappers’ written on it. I decided – “Man.. once I return home, I have to check out the significance of Madras Sappers in Bangalore. This is very puzzling!! What are these Madras Sappers doing in Bangalore? Do they have to do something with the Old Madras Road?”. My brain wanted to seek a link. On accomplishing my mission of reaching Bangalore Cantonment Railway station, I returned back to office to wiki on these Sappers. And lo! opened a wealth of information adding to my confusion. It seems:
Britishers as part of army needed Engineers. One type of engineers are combat engineers who come in handy during war-times for building bridges, trenches, bunkers etc. These combat engineers were named sappers. This is because they are basically involved in mining activities – that is ‘sapping’.
We now understand what sappers means. Coming back to the question on Madras Sappers, what are they doing at Bangalore..? As per Wikipedia:
“The Madras Sappers moved into Bangalore in 1834, when they were involved in a major part of the construction activities of the Civilian and Military buildings in Bangalore. Their association with Bangalore, where the Center is located, continues to this day.”
Similarly, British has two more groups of combat engineers:
– Bombay Sappers
– Bengal Sappers
Interestingly, like madras sappers they too are headquarted out of Bombay and Bengal. Bombay Sappers are headquartered at Pune and the headquarters of Bengal Sappers is located at Roorkee.
Basically, these group of combat engineers were named after their respective presidencies. With Bombay Sappers representing Bombay Presidency with their Headquarters at Pune a city near Bombay, Madras Sappers named after the presidency they represented. Although Roorkee appears to be far away from the present day Bengal, during the British rule in India, Bengal Presidency was the largest in the county extending from Uttarakhand to Bangladesh. Roorkee, the headquarters of ‘Bengal Sappers’ falls in the same presidency.
In past, when I had attended the Victorian Bangalore Walk by Arun Pai, he had mentioned a invention of Madras Sappers in Bangalore. At that time I did not pay much attention. But, now it is all making sense. By the way, the invention is mine clearing Torpedo called – Bangalore Torpedo. It was used in the World War 2 and is still being used by the US Army.
You can notice Steven Spielberg’s attention to detail in his film “Saving Private Ryan”. Here is a scene in which Tom Hanks is holding a ‘Bangalore Torpedo’:
Tom Hanks holding the Bangalore Torpedo.