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Bangalore: Garden City No More

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August 2009
Bangalore: Garden City No More

The aroma of South Indian filter coffee, idli, vada and khara bhat fill the marketplace of the busy metropolitan city of Bangalore. Gandhi bazaar has opened its doors to the early morning shoppers haggling over the price of fresh vegetables, fruits and flowers of all kinds.

Welcome to Bangalore city, an eclectic mix of timeless traditions and neo-classical sophistication. A former resident of this city for over a decade, I have seen it grow, flourish and finally cramp itself more recently.

The transformation is evident at Lal Bagh, a landmark botanical garden in South Bangalore, where the chirping of mynas in the wee hours of the morning welcomes walkers, joggers and birdwatchers. I remember the joy of visiting this haven, located in a quaint neighborhood primarily known for old palatial bungalows, wide roads and plenty of green space. “Not any more,” sighs Srinivasan, a long-term resident of the area. “Real estate greed has wiped out all the beautiful buildings and Lal Bagh is the last remaining green space in Bangalore.”

With four entrances to over 240 acres of greenery, Lal Bagh is one of the remaining reasons for Bangalore’s increasingly obscure nickname “The Garden City.”

“We have recorded over 125 species of birds and over 50 species of butterflies, not to mention the mammals and reptiles, right in the heart of Bangalore,” says Krishna, an avid bird watcher and member of a nature club inside the park.

Designed by Hyder Ali in 1760, with an intricate watering system for irrigation, Lal Bagh is aesthetically planned, with lawns, flower beds, lotus pools and fountains. The Glass House, a cross-shaped pavilion built in 1889, sits in the center surrounded by the Kempegowda tower, bandstand and a beautiful rose garden.

“After jogging, you should have coffee in MTR,” says Satya, a friend of mine who visits the garden for yoga practice in the mornings. It is a tradition among the young and old to visit the adjacent Mavalli Tiffin Room (MTR), a Bangalore institution since 1928 that serves hot coffee and delicious South Indian breakfast. The newspaper and flower vendors get their daily business as the joggers wait their turn to be served.

Eating out in restaurants and kiosks is a way of life for Bangaloreans. As a matter of fact, it is Bangalore culture to just hang out in restaurants after a morning walk and split coffee among friends 2 by 3, or 1 by 2 or whatever fraction you fancy. No restaurant manager minds these kinds of orders.

Traveling through Bangalore, like most cities in India, is like going through a maze. Cell phones, horns, radio, conversations and even eating – they’re all part of the trip. The buses of Bangalore give serious competition to the trains of Mumbai. It certainly is might over convenience, a trait that has remained unchanged in the city.

Call it pampering or my expatriate attitude, even having lived a major part of my life in Bangalore, I find drastic changes in my perception of the city every time I visit. Yet when I stand in front of the majestic Vidhana Soudha, everything else in Bangalore seems less significant. There stands the epicenter of the city’s political affairs. This enormous building is a massive example of neo-Dravidian architecture, with four domes on its four corners.

The stretch of road from Mysore Bank circle to Cunningham Road, which serves Bangalore University, banks and major media offices, has remained the important corridor of education, economics, justice and politics. I slowly pace toward Kastruba Gandhi Road via Cubbon Park, sprinkled with statues and government buildings. I particularly admire the beautiful rose gardens adjacent to the public library.

Coming out of the green zone, it feels like “Carbon Park,” with the level of emission emitted at the traffic signal. I head toward Queen Victoria’s statue, close to the Cricket Stadium, where archaeology, art and science museums sit near each other. Venkatappa art gallery, named after the famous painter from the late 18th century, houses more than 600 historic and modern paintings from the likes of M.F. Hussain, Yusuf Arakal, K.K. Hebar and Venkatappa himself.

Bangalore’s music scene is rich too, allowing residents to enjoy Jesudas, Alah Rakha, Mallika Sarabhai and Anoushka Shankar, as well as emerging artists. “Bangalore has a great tradition of encouraging performing arts and classical music,” says Nagaraja Rao, well-known Bangalorean and a member of the violin-shaped Chowdiah Memorial Hall. Of course, the city also goes gaga over Guns and Roses and western bands that perform regularly in Bangalore; yet another intriguing facet of the city.

Instead of napping after lunch, I head to explore the glass-paneled shops and street vendors of the city. Whether it’s Ray-Ban sunglasses or Rolex watches, someone is selling them on the streets of Bangalore. After a quiet ambling around Commercial Street, Brigade Road, Cauvery Emporium and Residency Road, I begin to see how quickly Bangalore is changing.

While Metro rail is waiting to start chugging along, luxury Volvo buses with air-conditioning offer public transportation. Shopping malls have sprouted in every corner. Teen-aged girls in skimpy tops and designer shoes contrast with their sari-clad grandmothers trying to catch up with a fizzy drink and English-only conversation. The once-famous Rasna soft drink has given way to ten other beverages. Ethnic joints and restaurants abound – Chinese, Italian, Mexican, you name it and you will be served in a localized version of the cuisine.

Cell phones of every kind are in the hands of Bangaloreans, from the cleaners to the banana sellers to the bureaucrats. Do I hear someone speaking the local language, Kannada? Well, all I hear is English and every other language except Kannada!

Bangalore also has another title – the pub city. India’s Silicon Valley has an abundance of bars and clubs that cater to its pub-going population. “The BJP government has imposed a lot of restrictions and bars can’t be open beyond 11 p.m.,” says Aradhya, a high-profile government officer, as we sit under the dazzling blue-green lights and loud jazz music in a pub in the commercial area of M.G. Road. It’s quite a revelation to see 20-year-olds of diverse backgrounds gulping the popular Kingfisher beer, reaffirming the cosmopolitan and effervescently energetic facet of the city.

The next morning, I join a group of history enthusiasts and visit the 19th Century churches, public buildings and stately homes, tracing the growth of the cantonment area of the city. I learn that the Victorian era, which began in the late 1700s, sowed the seeds for Bangalore’s leadership in research, technology, industry, aerospace, culture and, of course, cosmopolitanism.

I later take a rickshaw to the Majestic area to experience the pete’s (market in local language) area. Each of these pete’s -- chickpete, doddapete, balepete, akkipete, etc. – is known for a particular kind of goods, such as clothes, bangles, jewelry, grocery, home appliances or vegetables and fruits. Though the city has now transformed into a hub of supermarkets that co-exist with the pete’s, only a visit to the pete’s can make you understand the dynamics of retail and wholesale selling in India.

There’s more to Bangalore than my perceptions and candid observations. A truly cosmopolitan city, Bangalore is a melting pot of the old and the new, of tradition and technology, of pete’s and malls, and of Bangaloreans and the rest of the world.

Where to eat:

Bangalore abounds with several restaurants and darshinis serving everything from Indian delicacies to pizzas. For those who take pleasure in fine dining, the choices are unlimited. Le Meridian, Leela Palace, Tandoor, Rice Bowl, Kamath Yatri Nivas and Woody’s are some of the time-tested restaurants in the city.

Where to stay:

Staying in the center of the city is rewarding. Among the elite hotels, I found the newly developed The Paul hotel good value for money. For $120 on twin-sharing basis, it offers luxury, convenience and airport transfer too.

Text and Photos by D. K. Bhaskar


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