Bangalore: Turned on by India's IT city
Bangalore may be a hub of hi-tech business, but there's also plenty to distract the inquisitive traveller, says Chris Leadbeater
Saturday 09 October 2010
Our driver jerks the car to a halt with a screech. The cow does not notice. "Ah, another of our local brake inspectors," laughs Narayan Singh, my guide, as this animal so revered in Hinduisim sashays through the traffic. Not that it looks too sacred here, tail flicking flies away from bony hind quarters as it plods towards a vast pile of rubbish.
Such sights – emaciated cattle, mountains of urban detritus – are, of course, far from uncommon in India; even the fresh face Delhi has endeavoured to present to the world during the Commonwealth Games has not been without its blemishes. But what is unusual in this land of 1.2 billion people is the structure next door to this nest of disenfranchised soda bottles. It is a newly built office block, a box of steel and green glass, where men in uniform loll at the front gate. As the car starts off again, the guard on the left glances at the cow, then at me – and I'm sure he smiles in mild amusement.
This is Bangalore in microcosm. South India's thrusting business city – a jumble of a metropolis where first-world finances rub against third-world poverty. A boom town where a metro system is currently being slashed across neighbourhoods of corrugated iron. A labyrinth where good times have swelled the population to eight million, but where the gridlocked streets can barely cope with a quarter of that figure.
As success stories go, this one has been swift. Bangalore's ascent began in 1831, when the British promoted it to capital of the conquered Kingdom of Mysore. In 1906 it was accorded the honour of being the first Indian city with electricity. But the real revolution came in the 1990s, when it embraced man's growing need for all things computerised. Its lifeblood is now "Electronics City", an enclave south of the centre where IT firms invent the future from within shiny architectural cones and cubes. Everywhere you turn there are totems of change.
The new airport opened two years ago (and a decade late), and is now one of the busiest in the country. Even the name over the door, "Bengalaru" – while technically an echo of pre-colonial days – was only (re-) adopted as official name of the metropolis in 2006.
But I have not travelled 5,000 miles to see a silk-and-saris Silicon Valley. I have flown hoping to espy the Bangalore beyond the screensaver, to find what it offers to tourists. This is, after all, India's third-most populous city (after Delhi and Mumbai), a place of size, weight and history. Surely it can entertain those who prefer the click of a camera to the click of a mouse?
The morning after my arrival, and an hour into a jam, this question is starting to have a hollow ring. An army of traffic – bikes, vans, a bus overwhelmed with passengers, a yellow auto rickshaw – is pressed on each side of the car. The shrieking of horns is incessant. Singh shrugs. This is normal, he says, and begins to explain the lie of the land. As he talks, it becomes clear that there is nothing in Bangalore that you would call a global landmark. No Eiffel Tower, no Great Pyramid and, more pertinently, no Taj Mahal.
And yet – as morning bleeds into lunchtime – Bangalore starts to reveal itself as a city where you can burrow into India's psyche. At the Gavigangadhareshwara Temple – also known as the Trident Temple, due to the sculpture of said emblem of the Hindu deity Shiva at its entrance – worshippers meditate in a tight space carved from rock in the ninth century. So low is the ceiling that, to do a circuit, I have to drop to a crouching position. The trapped heat paws at me – but is of no obvious concern to the faithful.
A short drive away, the Big Bull Temple pays tribute to Shiva's traditional mode of transport in less back-troubling fashion, with a 20ft statue of the beast in question. But the real hubbub is below, on (inevitably) Bull Temple Road. Here, at the adjacent Sri Dodda Ganapathi Temple, a young Bangalorean provides a neat snapshot of his city, pulling up in a hot-off-the-forecourt Toyota, its chassis draped in flowers in readiness for a blessing that, he hopes, will guarantee years of safe motoring.
Meanwhile, two doors down, a sign proclaims the marriage of "Beena and Mahesh", and I'm beckoned inside the wedding hall, one of several on this long avenue, where the couple are being serenaded via a cacophony of drums and a queue of well-wishers.
More authentic still is the KR (Krishna Rajendra) Market. Here is the Bangalore of old, a dense scrum milling around rickety stalls where red chillis radiate menace, and bright dyes – sculpted into fragile pyramids of powder – form rainbows of mustard yellow and gaudy pink.
Close by, Bangalore's history is writ large by the city's fort. Kempe Gowda, founder of the city, built it in the 16th century; two centuries later a Muslim ruler, Haider Ali, strengthened the walls – and his son, Tipu Sultan, built the teak palace that faces the remains of the fort across a busy square. This Indo-Saracenic masterpiece has survived amid the high-rises – along with its commercial heritage. After Tipu's defeat by the British in 1789 it briefly became the headquarters of the East India Company.
For all its clutter of ancient and modern, Bangalore also touts itself as India's "Garden City". Waiting in the traffic jam, I had scoffed. And yet, at intervals, triangles of green – parks lined with palm and jacaranda trees – proffer impressive foliage. Largest of these is the Lal Bagh Botanical Garden, a 240-acre expanse of lawns and walkways, where families stroll amid dark trunks of mahogany.
Bangalore, it seems, is not so much a destination for easy tourism as one for inquisitive travel – a place to absorb at a slow pace rather than rattle around, merrily ticking attractions from a list.
This comes into focus later that evening, on the main boulevard, MG (Mahatma Gandhi) Road, at the M Chinnaswamy Stadium. Bangalore's 40,000-seat cricket arena is a temple of a different kind, where the national team regularly does battle. India are not at home tonight, but there is a palpable buzz outside. The excitement rides on, into the bars – such as Nasa Pub and Guzzlers Inn – clustered around the junction with Brigade Road. Together, these watering holes supply the meat to Bangalore's alternative reputation as India's "Pub City" – another of its curious slices of charm. This is, after all, the home of Kingfisher beer.
There is extra appeal, too, in venturing beyond the city. Some 90 miles south-west, Mysore, the defunct royal seat dethroned in Bangalore's favour in 1831, plays the heritage card via a series of regal homes – of which the main Mysore Palace is the jewel. And yet, even in this Indo-Arabic Versailles – with its soft arches and intricate frescos – there is an unexpected twist. The Marriage Pavilion – an octagonal hall where an ornate stained-glass roof daubs paint-box light onto the floor – appears, to the untrained eye, to be an 18th-century relic. But, like the building as a whole, it was actually finished in 1912, a replacement for the previous palace, which was destroyed by fire in 1897. In this heady part of India, it seems, even the old can be defiantly new.
Travel essentials: Bangalore
* The writer flew to Bangalore with Qatar Airways (0870 3898090; qatarairways.com), which flies from Gatwick, Heathrow and Manchester via Doha. Returns start at £352. BA (0844 493 0787; ba.com) flies to Bangalore non-stop from Heathrow.
* Bales Worldwide (0845 0571819; balesworldwide.com) operates a 17-day "Images of South India" group tour that includes one night in Bangalore and two in Mysore. Prices from £2,450 per person.
* Ista Bangalore (00 91 8 2555 8888; istabangalore.com). Double rooms start at R9,855 (£139), including breakfast.
Red tape & more information
* British passport-holders require a visa to enter India (0905 757 0045 – calls cost 95p per minute; in.vfsglobal.co.uk).
* India Tourism: incredibleindia.org
* Bangalore Tourism: karnataka.com/tourism/bangalore
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