If you thought Freedom Park in Bengaluru was just a place for demonstrations and exhibitions, think again. This famous landmark in the city of Gandhi Nagar once served as a prison, forging a connection to India’s struggle for independence, and still holds great historical and cultural significance today.
The park was inaugurated on February 28, 2009 by top BJP leader LK Advani. “The spot was redesigned some time ago by Mathew and Ghosh Architects and transformed into Freedom Park, where it was opened as a gathering space for interaction. Today it has become a famous site for protests, but various exhibitions and meetings are also held there, so it’s quite a dynamic space at the moment,” says historian and architect Yashaswini Sharma.
Currently maintained by Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP), 16 acres of the former prison have been converted into a recreational area open to the public, while 5 acres have been allocated for democratic demonstrations and rallies. “Initially these protests were taking place in Lalbagh, Cubbon Park and other places but they were blocking traffic so they decided to allocate a wider space here specifically for the protests while the other side has kept as they did not want to lose the heritage aspect of the central prison,” says Suresh Moona, a well-known historian based in Bengaluru.
Located on Sheshadri Road, Bangalore’s Freedom Park was home to the former Bengaluru Central Jail built by the British in 1867. Built on 21 acres of land, it was built to house the growing number of freedom fighters during the struggle for freedom. In 1942, during the Quit India movement, several members of the Congress working committee including former Chief Minister of Karnataka K Hanumanthayya, former Home Minister MV Rama Rao and leaders like HV Dasappa, P Subramanya and H Siddaiah, were imprisoned in this building. The prison also housed the state’s first gallows. “The most important were the stems, which were kept with a small modification. These were the gallows where freedom fighters, mostly from Mysuru, marched to Bengaluru and were hanged, at the rate of two a day,” Moona said. The last hanging dates back to 1968; since then, hangings have taken place at Hindalga central prison in Belagavi district.
Apart from being a symbol of colonial rule, the prison also housed prisoners during the 1975 state of emergency where political leaders like the late Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Ramakrishna Hegde and Advani were arrested and imprisoned here. In 2000, when the number of prisoners exceeded its capacity, the prison was transferred to Parappana Agrahara.
Despite its value, the government originally planned to demolish the old structure. However, due to pressure from heritage campaigners, it was decided that it would be converted into a memorial where the gallows still stand. Therefore, in November 2008, the BBMP renamed this structure Freedom Park.
Although the venue has had a facelift, several buildings from the past, such as the watchtower, barracks, and entrance block, are still intact. “The design of the prison complex was based on British philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s theory of a centralized penitentiary around a ‘panoptic’ or all-seeing tower. The structure built was placed around a central watchtower which allowed the jailers to watch over the prisoners. The building has colonial architectural style features such as arched openings, an entablature, a colonnaded balcony, and a pitched roof, in addition to angle chains at the corners of the walls. And some of the buildings that existed at the central prison have been redesigned so that people can see how it worked when it was a prison,” Sharma said.
The barracks and the office of the chief warden are some of the aspects that have been preserved, immortalizing the historical value of the place. “Many heritage aspects have been preserved, such as the two great walls, the tower, and even the cells in their original form are there. Of course, several things have disappeared, but they have kept the essentials. Even the criminal cells are still there, which are very small with iron gates. So you can imagine the person who has been living there for months and years, and their condition,” Moona said.
Although many elements of the cultural monument have been kept intact, the high walls have been painted to incorporate the most recent changes. Besides the 300-seat amphitheater, new additions are a smaller theater and a book museum with a café.
While a stroll along the barracks is recommended, the park itself is a sight to behold.