They say a picture is worth a thousand words. By that measure, this post is going to be verbose! On my last trip to India, I visited Karkala and Mangalore. I set aside an afternoon to visit a heritage village called Hasta Shilpa at Manipal. Manipal is well known for its educational institutions and is approximately 40 miles by road from Mangalore. “Hasta” is hand in Sanskrit, “Shilpa” is craft, and this museum lives up to its name. Spread over six acres, this heritage museum contains reconstructed houses and shrines that span several centuries. And yes, these structures are characterized by intricate craftsmanship.
This village is a labor of love of Mr Vijayanath Shenoy, a native of Udupi. An employee of the museum told me that Mr. Shenoy was inspired to start his conservation efforts after he saw a magnificently carved door of an old house being sawed to make furniture. My relatives and friends who knew him remember a man whose passion for traditional art and structures found himself accumulating them at his own house which eventually turned into an informal museum for curious visitors. This passion led to the establishment of a heritage village in 1997. The Karnataka Tourism site states that the local government gifted the land and part of the funding came from the Norwegian, Finnish, and Danish governments.
I had hired a car to take me around Mangalore and Manipal. When I told the driver, a native of Mangalore that I would like to visit the heritage village, he gave me a quizzical look. He had not heard of the village. Google Maps navigated us to our destination and as we turned into the gates of the complex, he exclaimed that he had passed this way several times before but had not known of its existence. I asked him if he would like to join me, and he readily agreed. After purchasing our entry tickets, we were asked to download a PDF of our phone to serve as a virtual guide. I was told that guides were not available and we would have to rely on the PDF. I spent three hours visiting the various exhibits and could’ve spent another three but the museum shuts down at 5 pm and I was left to rue the fact that I should’ve started at 10 am when the museum opens for the day.
The heritage village is comprised of three types of exhibits. Heritage houses, a few shrines, and a couple of lanes that recreate shops and businesses. The museum itself is an eclectic collection of art and handicrafts from across India, including a museum dedicated to Bastar tribal art. Bastar is a district in Chhattisgarh state in Central India.
We were at the Kunjur Chowkimane, a house built in the Kerala architectural style when an employee of the museum came over to tell us that the museum would be shutting down shortly. I requested him to explain the features of the house and he graciously took the time to go over some of the salient features. He informed me that this house was occupied by a priest hailing from Kerala. The house was built in 1816 and at one point was occupied by 60 members of his extended family. He pointed out the the pooja room where the priest performed his rituals as well as a small hatch through which the food was passed into the room. This food was offered to the deity, thus consecrating it. The consecrated food then became the prasad (gift of god) that was distributed to the members of the family. He pointed out slats in the window that allowed sparrows to come in but not larger birds. Sparrows were considered a harbinger of good fortune. He pointed out a room where mothers recuperated and nursed their newborns and another where mothers whose children were a little older inhabited. Given the size of the family, there were always newly born children. He also drew our attention to the ingenious ways in which the builders created a draft to bring in fresh air. On the sultry afternoon, I could indeed feel the refreshing draft as I sat next to the window. He ended by pointing out the storage room above the kitchen where perishable items were stored. The smoke from the kitchen below served as natural pest control.
After listening to the description of the house, I was left regretting the fact that there were no guides at the museum. While the houses were breathtaking, I could not appreciate their architectural features as well as the thought given to the construction. Historical buildings are no doubt impressive but what brings them to life are the human stories behind them. I was told that guides used to be available but had to be let go during COVID-19 when the museum shut down. The museum is sponsored by various organizations but I suspect their ticket earnings are not substantial enough to hire more employees. This is a real shame as in my opinion the presence of guides would bring this museum to life and make it more interesting.
Earlier in the day, I had met an American tourist called John at the St Aloysius Chapel in Mangalore. I asked him if he was enjoying his trip to India. He paused for a moment and said that he was slightly disappointed. Not by the country or the people, he hastened to add. “There is so much history here,” he said, “but unfortunately, it is not marketed well.” I had to agree. “Incredible India” is the marketing tagline of the Indian Tourism Ministry. India is indeed incredible, but it would be even more so if her story was told well.
I left with a deep appreciation for the passion and generosity of Mr. Vijaynath Shenoy. India was dotted with beautiful houses in the past and while there are areas of the country where old havelis are still present, they are fast disappearing. Change is inevitable and no one can begrudge people’s desire to replace old crumbling edifices no matter how grand with modern houses. It is a shame though if we lose this link to our past. As we drove back, the driver marveled that I made the time to visit this complex while he was unaware of its existence. “I’ll be sure to recommend this to my friends as well as other tourists,” he said, “we need to remember our heritage!”