Bangalore is a city that’s cool and colourful in more ways than one, with a distinctly international vibe.
Home to the largest concentration of expatriates in any Indian city, this is indeed the “united colours of Bangalore”. Multitudes of skin colours, facial features, styles of dressing, languages – it’s all here, in this city of all play and all work.
What makes this place so appealing? For starters, its culture of acceptance and welcoming weather. Even if it’s the peak of summer, cool breeze is ensured because of its location at 919m above sea level.
It’s a place where you feel cut off from India and yet a part of it. If the central business district (MG Road and neighbouring areas) is westernised – Pizza Hut, KFC, Google, Yahoo, Standard Chartered, Citibank – the bustling local business district of KG Road stands for all things Indian – a thriving Kannada film industry called Sandalwood, a line of middle class businesses, wholesale merchants and middle class homes. It’s this feeling of attachment and detachment that keeps you company throughout your stay in Bangalore. It is no wonder that many who came as visitors have made it their home.
The city allows you to time-travel. At one end, you have thousand-year-old heritage buildings on Resthouse Road, and at the other, towering glass structures like Intel’s on Airport Road that seem to reach out to the heavens. If one is a celebration of all things British – monkey top window roofs (to prevent monkeys sitting on them), sweeping driveways, pubs, bungalows and English street names (Prince Street, Langford Town, Charles Campbell Road), the other is the Silicon face of Bangalore.
Located in the south-eastern part of the south Indian state of Karnataka, Bangalore is India’s third most populous city after Delhi and Mumbai. It is surrounded by the states of Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh.
With the boom in software, bio technology and business process outsourcing, nobody would have had any inkling that it was once called the ‘town of boiled beans’. Legend has it that when the Chola King Veera Ballalla ruled south India, he lost his way on a hunting trip in 1120 AD. In his desperate search for directions, he ran into an old lady in a forest who offered him shelter for the night and served him baked beans for dinner. To show his gratitude to the lady, the King is said to have built a town and named it Benda Kalooru which means ‘town of boiled beans’. Hundreds of years later, a local chieftain Kempe Gowda designed this town in 1537 and gave it its modern shape. From Benda Kalooru, it came to be known as Bengaluru. During the British rule, Bengaluru became Bangalore because they were more comfortable pronouncing it this way. Curiously enough, the city was sold for just Rs 3 lakh by Mughal emperor Aurangzeb in 1687. He sold it to the Wadiyars who ruled the adjacent Mysore at the time.
Today, this city of baked beans has emerged as the preferred choice of multi-national companies representing the entire gamut of industries, from pharmaceuticals, telecoms and apparel manufacture to IT, airlines and medical tourism.
Not too long ago, being sent to work in India was considered a ‘punishment’ posting, with a ‘hardship allowance’. Today, getting an India experience is becoming increasingly significant for foreign executives who recognise its tremendous growth potential. What’s more, Bangalore is now considered a veritable training ground for anyone who wants to make it in the world of outsourcing.
The word ‘Bangalored’ (which means, losing jobs to India due to outsourcing) is also assuming a new meaning. With Bangalore becoming the global back-office, it’s only a matter of time before it starts off-shoring consumer services like legal, nutrition and educational services.
Lost your job to outsourcing? Why not move to India and get it back? That seems to be a funny aside circulating among expats in Bangalore today. From a population of around 2000 in the 1990s, it is currently at 14,500, and is set to cross 21,000 in the next two years, according to the Foreigners Registration office.
Drop anchor at lounge bars like 13th Floor on MG Road or Taika on Church Street any evening of the week, and locals will find themselves a minority. Some popular expat hangouts include Nrityagram in Hessaraghatta (http://www.nrityagram.org), a school that showcases the seven classical Indian dance forms. One and a half hour away from the city, it has a village ambience – mud buildings, local materials and Indian architecture. Lush greens, leafy trees and vegetable gardens make your stroll all the more peaceful. For a small fee, you can tour the grounds on your own and observe all the different styles of classical Indian dance. The New York Times calls this concept ‘a modern devotion to a sacred Indian ritual’.
Nrityagram’s next door neighbour is Taj Kuteeram, a resort that showcases yoga and ayurveda. Those who want to stay the night and go on long hikes into the countryside love to call this their home for the weekend. The other expat hangouts include The Golden Palms Spa & Resort on Tumkur Road (spa resort that also includes Asia’s largest swimming pool), Embassy International Riding School in Devanahalli (governed by the rules set by the British Horse Society) and Eagleton Golf Club and Resort on the Bangalore-Mysore highway (rated as one of the top 5 Golf courses in India and, spread over 500 acres, the biggest of its kind in the region).
The truth is that Bangalore just lets you be. You don’t have to bother too much about the way you dress or be unduly concerned about what you eat – because you get all the world’s cuisines right under your nose. With coffee shops at every nook and cranny, you can even have your ‘alone time’ and indulge in people-watching.
Far from being just a city of today, Bangalore has ancestral beauties in which time stands still. First off the bat is the panoramic Vidhana Soudha, an architectural delight made of granite and porphyry in 1956, and home to the state’s political and bureaucratic activity. Then there is Lalbagh. Spread over 240 acres and laid out by then Mysore ruler Haider Ali in 1740 (Bangalore was then part of Mysore), it is famous for its annual flower shows in January and August that attract hundreds of thousands of people.
The lush Cubbon Park laid out in 1864 is home to a Glass House modelled on London’s Crystal Palace, while the Bangalore Palace was modelled on Windsor Castle, complete with fortified towers and turreted parapets. Built in 1880, it’s a major tourist attraction. And don’t miss 18th century Mysore ruler Tipu Sultan’s summer palace in KR Market. Made largely out of wood with embellished balconies, pillars and arches, it was built in 1790 and has a charm of its own even though it’s in a dilapidated state.
The best part of Bangalore is that you don’t have to leave the city to sample the world’s kitchens. The city boasts of cuisines from across the globe. If it’s Japanese, there is Harima on Residency Road (+91-080-51325757) whose clientele has grown to the point that they are sending packed lunches to corporate houses. If you are into al fresco dining, Sunny’s on Vittal Mallya Road (+91-080-41329366) is where you should be headed for Italian, French and American food, home-baked breads and an imported cheese selection. Samarkhand (+91-080-41113366) on Infantry Road serves the best kebabs and dum biriyani in town. And don’t forget to visit the only Vietnamese restaurant in town: Blue Ginger at the Taj West End on Race Course Road (+91-080-66605660). All of these have won awards, and hold out the promise of retaining their taste and trends for a long time to come.
As far as traditional cuisine goes, stop by Koshy’s on St Mark’s Road (+91-080-22213793) not only for the smileys (fried potato dish eaten with mayonnaise), appams (light rice-flour pancakes) and stimulating conversation. After all, it’s the hub of the literati and the Bangalore equivalent of The Algonquin in New York. You can expect to run into filmmakers, models, theatre persons, writers and intellectuals.
At MTR (+91-080-22220022) on Lalbagh Road, people don’t mind waiting their turn to eat a sumptuous south Indian meal for Rs 75. For a dose of old-world charm on MG Road, a good cup of coffee and scrambled eggs on toast, there’s India Coffee House on MG Road +91-080- 25587088). Not to mention Vidhyarthi Bhavan (+91-080-26677588) in Gandhi Bazaar for the best idlis (steamed rice flour cakes) and masala dosas (rice-and-grain flour pancakes) in town.
It’s this blend of the east and west that makes Bangalore so liveable, so cosmopolitan. Take pub-hopping. The city is known as a pub capital and rightly so – there are literally hundreds of pubs and bars in the city. Check out Fuga on Castle Street (+91-080-41511880) for its two-storey dance floor, Hint at Bangalore Central on Residency Road (+91-080-41123557) for its cool lounge and spacious terrace, The Polo Club in The Oberoi on MG Road (+91-080-25585858) for its alfresco bar, and i-Bar in The Park on MG Road (+91-080-25594666) for its eclectic playful music and exotic cocktails.
Bangalore is known for its silk and sarees, sandalwood, antique pieces and jewellery shops. To get your hands on these, the places to visit are MG Road, Brigade Road and Commercial Street. The Mysore Saree Udyog on Kamaraj Road (+91-080-25583255) is a popular haven besides Deepam Silk International (+91-080-25586191), Vijayalakshmi Silks & Sarees (+91-080-25587937) and Nalli Silks Arcade on MG Road (+91-080-25583178). All these stores have stuff to suit all pockets. For jewellery, nothing to beat the stores on Commercial Street which have a long history in the trade. Some of the older and more famous ones include Ganjam Nagappa & Sons on Infantry Road (+91-080- 22286137) and C Krishnaiah Chetty & Sons (+91-080-25588731) on Commercial Street. For readymade clothes and customisation, nothing to beat M Fazal & Sons (+91-080-25597986) and the narrow bylanes of Russel Market in Shivajinagar. For handicrafts, don’t miss Central Cottage Industries Emporium on MG Road (+91-080-25584083).
Comforting lounge bars, theme-based pubs, international schools, designer retail brands, eclectic coffee shops and a variety of new-age spiritual centres have transformed Bangalore into a truly global metropolis. And it is also a great launching pad for other discoveries in the neighbourhood – like the erstwhile French territory and beach town of Pondicherry or the coffee lands of Coorg, the hill station of Ooty or the land of beaches – Goa. They make for great weekend getaways as they are only an overnight journey away. If you have a week’s time to explore Bangalore’s salubrious neighbours, nothing better than hopping on to the Golden Chariot (http://www.thegoldenchariot.co.in). It’s a luxury train that takes you to heritage, wildlife and beach places around Bangalore – Mysore, Belur, Halebid, Hampi and Goa to name a few.
If you don’t have so much time, you could drive an hour and a half away from Bangalore to reach Bannerghatta National Park. Here, you can see butterflies from around the world and watch tigers and lions in their natural surroundings. At about the same distance from the city, find the picturesque waterfalls – the Gaganachukki and the Barachukki – cascading 90m down in the island town of Shivanasamudram. Some two hours from the city are the hill stations of Devarayanadurga, standing at almost 4000 feet (1,219m), and Ramohalli where you run into a 400-year-old banyan tree that’s spread over four acres.
That’s the city of the future… with many companions from the past and the immediate present to keep you company for a long time to come.
(Published in Silverkris, the inflight magazine of Singapore Airlines, 2008)