Relics of the old in the city of the new

Bangalore might be India's Silicon Valley, but it isn't in denial about its colonial past

Sophie James
Saturday 05 April 1997 23:02 BST

At Bangalore airport a tall Indian woman in an immaculate sari greets me with a gladioli, hygienically wrap-ped in stiff cellophane: "Welcome to Bangalore," she begins. "Welcome to shopping," and, strangely like a priest administering communion, presses into my other hand a glossy promotional brochure about the Ramana-shree Arcade - an exclusive shopping mall on the smart Mahatma Gandhi Road. I'm invited, with my fellow travellers, to be a guest of the world's largest sari store: free cocktails and mocktails; luxury shopping in cool air-conditioned interiors. Ever-willing tourists, we promise to visit.

This, as any old India hand will tell you, is the new India in Bangalore. Gone is the traditional visitors' welcome of garlands of fresh jasmine and the friendly red tika on the westerner's forehead. Bangalore is modern, sophisticated and elegant. Certainly among Indian cities, it represents an urban surprise. Ever since the British stationed their military headquarters here in 1809, it has enjoyed controlled urban development and maintenance, and with it a sense of space - a sensation unfamiliar in a country where space in the cities is at a premium.

The signs of affluence are everywhere. They begin on the streets, whose breadth of Tarmac and pavement surely qualifies them as the first Indian boulevards. They are lined with tropical trees - ashoks, palms, banyans and mangoes whose leaves are slightly dusty from pollution and whose roots occasionally push up the otherwise immaculate surface. The traffic trundles by beneath their green canopy in an orderly Indian fashion.

The roads are lacking one very traditional Indian beast. By tacit agreement between the traffic police and the townsfolk, sacred cows in Bangalore have been banned: they clog up the traffic, our driver tells us, and are generally bad for the image.

This is said to be the fastest growing city in Asia. It is also, as my charming guide, Mr Mittal, points out - facts and cliches streaming fast - India's Silicon Valley; an air-conditioned city 1,000 metres above sea level; a beloved pensioners' paradise ("But sorry to say, pensioners cannot afford to live here anymore..."); and, increasingly, yuppy heaven. Mr Mittal attributes the last to the fact that the city has a unique pub culture, which invites people to spend their money enjoying draught beer, British- style, in one of 200 taverns with names like The Underground NASA and Black Cadillac.

Hiring an old-fashioned Ambassador car to tour this city which so loves the new ("But why hire old, madam, please hire new, hire a Maruti, hire air-conditioned with radio!"), we gaily go about the town, noting together in a catchy game of tourist "I Spy", those small illustrations of wealth and leisure which have replaced traditional images of Indian life: large billboards advertising in bright colours the benefits of aerobics and denim ("It's not who you are, it's how you dress!"); massive corporate buildings; satellite and aircraft industries; landscaped parks; and, to the keener eye, smaller details still like joggers, golfers, pot plants and pet dogs.

A man of the world, Mr Mittal tells me that the real measure of a town's modernity in India is the appearance of its women. Sure enough, as I wind down the window of my solid old car, local ladies confidently speed by on scooters and in Marutis - women driving themselves, women driving men (truly an unusual sight), their clothes a mix of East and West, the salwaar kameez topped with a baseball cap.

This is the town that recently played host to the world's most beautiful women. Eighty-eight contestants for Miss World converged here and were put up at the exclusive Windsor Manor Hotel, where the waiters are still smiling. "How were they?" I naively asked one waiter who, serving me breakfast, still looked particularly happy: "They were all too nice," he replied, not, I noticed, giving me a second glance.

Oddly, he was unable to remember the event's accompanying controversy, when militant Hindu groups picketed the luxury hotel and threatened to burn themselves at its gate. Mr Mittal is also quick to stamp out allegations of sexism. Bangalore, he reasons, is the most equal city in India, already preparing to hold the regional round of India's own national male beauty event, "Adonis, Man of the Year". We appreciate beauty, he declares, and I believe him.

The new aesthetic in Bangalore is to imitate the past. Recent civic buildings and residential estates are mock- colonial - pillared, terraced, whitewashed and, at first, fool visitors into believing that they date from the raj. The neo-Regency Windsor Manor is a perfect example, its "Cumberland" wing decorated with oil paintings of British scenes and faces, military battles, hunts, and winter views of Whitehall and Hyde Park.

It was not always like this. The first Chief Minister after Independence built Vidhana Soudha, an enormous Indo-Dravidian edifice in the city centre, which is the new Legislature-cum-Secretariat. In gleaming white granite, it faces the former British High Court across a wide esplanade. The two facades confront each other like enemies, the new Indian building giving an architectural yah-boo sucks to the old British one. Wisely, the Indians have left the Imperial blot in its original blood-coloured paint, an unattractive red which covers all the Imperial buildings in Bangalore and marks them as distinctly oppressive.

The truth is that Bangalore has tended its Imperial legacy and this remains part of its physical charm. In Skumla and Madras, historic buildings are in a poor state of repair or falling down completely. In Bangalore, old institutions still stand, though largely unvisited by the passing tourists, who've probably been picked off at the airport by the apostles from the Ramanashree Arcade.

The Bangalore Club is still popular. It stands solidly in its own grounds, a verandahed bungalow in swimming-pool blue, where Indian gents play tennis in whites, and their turbanned servants serve mutton stroganoff as punkahs whir rhythmically on the ceiling. Winston Churchill, stationed here with the Fourth hussars in the 1890s, left owing Rs13 - a debt written off by the club in 1989 as an "irrecoverable sum". Next door in Bishop Cotton School, founded by a British bishop in 1865, a wider Western legacy is demonstrated. In the playgrounds, large plaques in vibrant yellow admonish students with moral soundbites from, strangely, J F Kennedy and, more stranger still, Franz Kafka.

There are Gothic Anglican churches left in Bangalore, where Christian women in contrasting saris form a surreal queue for the confessional, and in the south of the city, there is the Lal Bagh Botanical Garden - 240 acres of brilliant floral display, away from the traffic, and the only place in town where you can smell the eucalyptus trees. The British imported gardeners here from Kew and their efforts live on in an imitation Crystal Palace glasshouse and an ornate bandstand where beggars lie, cooling off.

Twice a year, the Indian Kennel Club uses the gardens for its show of canine talent, a cause of chagrin to the local monkeys and curiosity to the garden's resident pariah dogs.

A very varied place, then, I say to my Mr Mittal. Yes, he replies and then asks me, somewhat wearily I notice, whether I am a romantic tourist. I say I think I am - and thank you Mr Mittal - as a result I have heartening news and a secret to impart. In the centre of Bangalore - not even in the suburbs - is an old quarter full of traditional Indian colour, chaos and claustrophobic charm. Off the tourist track, in a square built by the British, Russel Market is a covered bazaar of bright cloth, where stalls festooned in tinsel offer a staple Indian mix of fruit, vegetables, flowers, toys, balloons and sweets. Inside, the smells are those that only India can produce: sugar and sweat, rubber and spice, incense, cheroots, urine, dust and heat.

The chaos is addictive. There is no space to oneself, bodies rub against the stalls, against one another; there is noise and hubbub. And there is a power cut - that famous Indian tradition. "Does this happen often?" I ask the vendors. "Daily," they reply, sticking wax candles in the middle of their produce, the wax dripping on to the fruit. Others re-light their stalls by gaslight - turning it up as high as they can in curiosity as I, the only white face in the crowd, pass by.

Of course, I have the bright and glossy Ramanashree brochure in my bag and with it an invitation to cocktails and mocktails, and the promise of luxury shopping in cool, marble, air-conditioned interiors. But I am a confessed romantic and shall wait just a few more minutes before entering that shining newness of Bangalore and her up-to-date consumer treats.

East meets West: the modern-living women of Bangalore cruise the city centre in traditional costume and American baseball caps


FLIGHTS: Air India flies direct from London to Bangalore, with a stop in Bombay, from around pounds 440 return. Gulf Air, Kuwait Air and British Airways fly direct to Bombay from around pounds 400 return, but require connecting flights on a domestic airline, which costs pounds 70 return.

VISAS AND INFORMATION: British citizens require an entry visa to visit India. This can be obtained at either the Indian Embassy in London (0171 836 8484) or the Indian Consulate in Birmingham (0121 643 0366). For further information on Bangalore and India, contact the Indian Tourist Board on 0171 437 3677.

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