Thursday, February 16, 2012

Bangalore: the Garden City

After my week in Kerala drew to a close, I boarded a train bound for Bangalore.  My class was “2s” a class that I had never traveled before.  No one I asked was able to give me an accurate description of what it would be like.  Some said that 2s was the same as “general class,” in which there are no assigned seats, and passengers are packed in like sardines.  Most had no idea. 

The reality actually turned out to be quite a bit nicer than I had been warned to expect.  I had an assigned seat, and the car seemed quite organized and peaceful, with many families on board.  The only difference between this and the “AC chair class” that I had traveled before was the lack of AC.  But, due to the pleasant breeze drifting in through the windows, I really did not miss it.  The train ride was beautiful, and I watched in awe as the lush rice paddies and banana groves of Kerala slowly turned into the hilly Western Ghats, which in turn transformed into the arid rock strewn vistas of the Deccan plateau.

The train itself created an entertaining environment as well, with all sorts of hawkers strolling up and down the aisles.  The cries of “vada vada masala vada,” “chai coffee, coffee chai,” and “games puzzles, kiddie timepass!” quickly became familiar.  My fellow passengers and I were even graced by the presence of a clapping hijra (eunach).

I reached Bangalore after dark, and, after some rather frustrating interactions with various rickshaw drivers, I booked a prepaid auto to my hotel where I slept off the day of travel.

I woke up bright and early the next morning, and enjoyed a breakfast of idli sambar in the hotel restaurant.  My plan for the day was to go to an internet café, finalize my plans for the next day with some friends of my Aunt Maureen, and then go on to the Botanical Gardens.  The hotel receptionist gave me some vague directions to an internet café nearby, and I set off.  Of course, I was not able to find it.  Lonely Planet  also turned out to be useless, as it stated erroneously that Bangalore, as an IT city, was bursting with internet cafes.  Obviously, this edition had come out before the advent of smart phones, for it seems that internet cafes are becoming obsolete.  Fortunately however, I eventually found the café that the hotel manager had been talking about, only to discover that it would remain closed for one more hour.  So I did what many travelers in India do when their plans have been foiled, and they need somewhere, anywhere, to pass the time.  I went to Café Coffee Day.  There, I hunkered down with a cup of tea that cost twice as much as my breakfast had cost, and read until the internet café opened.

After I had completed my internet errands, I hopped into a rickshaw and made my way towards Bangalore’s famed Lalbagh Botanical Gardens.   I had read that the gardens had been established in the Mughal style by Hyder Ali in the 18th century, but had subsequently been taken over by the British, who had adjusted it to resemble London’s Kew Gardens.  Though I generally prefer untamed nature over manicured flowerbeds, I was eager to escape Bangalore’s very urban hustle and bustle, which had been a shock after small-town Kerala.  Almost immediately after entering Lalbagh’s gates, I felt the stress and craziness of the city begin to melt away.  The sounds of cars honking, engines revving, and people shouting all faded away.  The smells of exhaust, sewage, and urine changed to those of the many flowers within the garden, and I was able to relax and stroll by beds of roses, through groves of trees, and around a large lake at the edge of the grounds.  There was even a peninsular gneiss formation—an outcropping of rock also known as Lalbagh Hill—from which one could have a spectacular view of Bangalore city on one side, and the gardens on the other.  

Typical garden scene

The famous glass house

I don't know that I've ever worshipped a Christmas tree, but it's an interesting idea...

Certainly, the trees, flowers, geological formations, lakes, and ponds were beautiful.  Equally interesting, however, were the people promenading through the garden.  I passed by school groups full of fidgety children, families, pale foreign tourists, small children pointing and snickering at the pale foreign tourists, and groups of nuns on outings.  Perhaps the most commonly recurring theme in my people-watching session though, were the many many couples.  There were elderly couples—aunties and uncles out for a bracing morning walk, as well as middle-aged couples in their tracksuits. 

Most ubiquitous though, were the young couples, desperately searching for a quiet place to canoodle.  They were everywhere; I could not escape them.  Being a person who loves to explore nooks and crannies, I found myself apologizing again and again as I awkwardly blundered into a series of tender moments.  Eventually, I resigned myself to the established paths.  I had had similar experiences in Delhi’s Lodhi Gardens, as well as in the gardens surrounding the Victoria Memorial in Kolkata, and am now realizing that this phenomenon is an interesting product of Indian culture’s struggle to reconcile its old traditions with “modern” dating practices. 

As the majority of young people live with their parents under very close surveillance until marriage, there are few acceptable places to meet members of the opposite sex.   Malls and movie theaters are too public.  Home is out of the question, as those moments of “my parents are out” or, “mom and dad are here, but they won’t bother us”—moments which happen fairly frequently in America—are extremely rare in India.  Parks and gardens seem to be some of the acceptable places for young couples to meet.  Walking down a street holding hands might be frowned upon, but the rules somehow relax when a couple enters a garden, particularly if they can find a nice tree to sit under, or hide behind.  Perhaps it is the fact that it is easier to conceal oneself (or oneself and ones partner) in a garden than in a street.  Or perhaps the idyllic setting just lends itself to romance.  I have drawn no conclusions, only theories.  As annoyed as I was at having to cramp my wandering style, I was glad for the inspiration for some cultural musings.

When I was ready for lunch, I left the gardens and made my way to the Mavalli Tiffin Rooms, a renowned Bangalore institution.  I had made the decision to lunch there after hearing Joanna and Stephanie’s glowing recommendations, as well as their warnings to “make sure you’re hungry.”  I do have bottomless pit tendencies, particularly when faced with Indian food, so I was quite excited to say the least. 

I arrived at the Tiffin Rooms, paid my 140 rupees that would entitle me to a fourteen dish thali, and made my way to the dining area.  As the restaurant fills up quickly and every available seat is needed, single diners are generally frowned upon.  For this reason, I was seated with another single diner, a woman from Switzerland.  She was quite pleasant, and I soon learned that she came to India every year for several months at a time, just to travel around and meet up with friends.  I am still not sure how she could afford this, but it sounds like a nice life to me!  This was, however, her first time in Bangalore, and also her first time to Mavalli Tiffin Rooms.  Very soon, the food started coming…and coming…and coming.  Joanna and Stephanie had been right to warn me about the quantity.  It was delicious though, and I thoroughly enjoyed every dish.  There was uttapam, and khichdee, and curd rice, and halwa, and all different delicious dishes.  My dining partner and I exclaimed over how much there was.  When the paan came out, she firmly stated: “this is like paradise!”  After we had both eaten more than our fill, we said our goodbyes, and I headed off to Tipu Sultan’s Palace.     

Tipu Sultan was the ruler of the Kingdom of Mysore (which at that point included Bangalore) during the latter part of the 18th century.  He was very much against the British, and his mechanical toy tiger attacking a British soldier is a popular attraction in the Victoria and Albert Museum even today.  Obviously I was not able to view the original toy while in Bangalore (though I have found a picture of it for you!), but I did see a replica.  The palace itself was modest, and quite small, but beautiful in its own way.  It also housed an interesting photo gallery exhibiting pictures of Karnataka’s world heritage sites.  


It was a little bit impossible to get a picture free of people...

Addressing her subjects?

After admiring the palace, I set off for Krishna Rajendra Market, also known as City Market.  I had read that this market was the “quintessential Indian bazaar experience.”  Naturally, I have experienced enough Indian bazaars now for some of the excitement to have worn off, but I am happy to say that I am not completely jaded.  And the Krishna Rajendra Market really was something special.  The highlight for me was the underground flower market.  The underground flower market is exactly what its name suggests, but its boringly descriptive name truly does not do justice to the market itself.  As soon as I descended the steps into the market, I was assaulted by the scents of a thousand different flowers: roses, marigolds, jasmine flowers, and plenty of flora that I had never seen or heard of before.  Once inside the cavernous hall of the flower market, I could barely move due to the crowds, and several times had to leap out of the way before a blossom-bearing wheelbarrow crushed my toes.  I had been in overcrowded markets before, but for some reason, this one was special.  Perhaps because it was entirely devoted to flowers.  Perhaps because it was underground, down a dark and dirty staircase, and its magnitude and vibrancy were therefore unexpected.  Whatever the reason was, I am glad that I found it.  I took a few hurried pictures, but they, like my description, really do not do justice to this beautiful, crazy place.

Flower market

Bangalore's Jama Masjid

The next day, I visited my some friends of my Aunt Maureen’s.  This was a truly special experience, which demands its own post, so I will save that for later.  My time in Bangalore after that visit, however, was a little less exciting.  It was at this point that the loneliness of travelling by myself was really beginning to hit me.  Plans of meeting up with some friends of friends fell through, and I felt very much alone.  With almost a sense of duty, I methodically went through my guidebook’s recommendations for things to do in Bangalore.  I went to the state museum, and looked at some beautiful sculptures, paintings, and artifacts housed in extremely drab surroundings, and given very uninformative labels which did little more than describe the artifact, leaving out any mention of its history or origin (“A dancing woman with a serious expression on her face and a peculiar headdress”…etc).  In addition to my afore-mentioned woes, my camera developed some problems, adding to my stress, and, unfortunately, taking away from the quality of this blog post. 

Next door to the State Museum was the Science Museum, which was actually quite interesting to me, despite the fact that I am not what you would call a “science person.”  The museum had all the usual science museum attractions, including steam engines, hands on activities, enormous, roaring dinosaur models, space exhibits, and also some less common attractions, like a life-size replica of the Wright brothers’ plane.

Slightly macabre hands-on operating table exhibit



Most interesting to me were the exhibits on nuclear power and genetic engineering.  Not because I am a great proponent of either of these things—for almost the opposite reason, actually.  Having grown up in the liberal Washington DC metropolitan area, going to Waldorf school, and then going to Haverford College, I was exposed to only a very narrow view of such things as nuclear power and genetic engineering.  As I have never really had to worry about energy or food shortages, at least in the short term, I had always believed in a more “back to nature” approach to life.  In India however, such shortages are a part of daily life, and any technology that can do more to feed and provide power to the poor and hungry is massively appealing.  The exhibits therefore, spoke of these often demonized technologies in a very favorable light.  The museum certainly did not turn me into a proponent of genetic engineering, and I still believe very strongly that India should wake up to the environmental problems that its development is causing, but the exhibits did serve as a healthy reminder to look at both sides of all issues.

When I felt that I had exhausted all the “things to do” in Bangalore, had missed a bus bound for a nature reserve, had seen a truly terrible movie (it’s called Players—do not see it under any circumstances!!!) just to pass the time, had made multiple visits to the Botanical Gardens and Cubbon Park, and spent far too much time in Café Coffee Day with my books, I decided to take some group tours.  This way, I reasoned, I would at least have some company.  The first tour I took, a Karnataka State Roads and Tourism Department bus tour of the city, was okay.  Not great, just okay.  It turned out that the almost 2500 rupee fee only covered the bus transportation, and we had to pay all entrance fees to the places we visited.  The tour was very rushed.  Additionally, I had already seen most of the sites that it covered.  Also, my camera batteries died less than an hour into the five hour tour.  Still though, there was something very comforting about being herded around like a sheep, absolved of all responsibilities.  The tour brought me once again to the Botanical Gardens, the Science Museum, Cubbon Park, and Tipu Sultan’s Palace.  Still, it also took me to some places that I may not have been able to reach myself, including several temples.  The Bull Temple, named for the enormous monolithic stone bull (Shiva’s mount) was quite beautiful, as was the Dodda Ganesha Temple, which housed an equally enormous stone idol of the elephant-headed God, Ganesh.

The reason that bus tours are not ideal

High Court

Vidhana Soudha, seat of the Karnataka State Legislature

A Church

The most amazing temple of all though, was the Gavi Gangadhareshwara Temple.  This temple, dedicated to Shiva, is one of the oldest temples in Bangalore, and possesses some of the most interesting architecture.  Most significant is the fact that it is a cave temple; rather than being built up, it was carved out of a rock face.  Touring its interior was certainly an interesting experience, as I had to duck under low ceilings and find my way through winding passages.  In all the literature I had read on Bangalore, I had never heard of this temple.  I found this strange, as it was far more interesting and beautiful than many of the other better-known sights of the city.  Knowing that I would have had no idea of its existence had it not been for my otherwise mediocre bus tour, I found myself once again returning to my (for the most part) positive self.

If the KSRTC tour was mediocre, the second tour I took, run by a private company called Bangalore Walks, was phenomenal.  The company runs a variety of history and nature walks throughout the city; mine was a historical walk entitled “Victorian Bangalore.”  At first, I was a little skeptical.  The tour’s description stated that we would walk “along MG Road.”  Well, my hotel was on MG Road, so I knew it well, and there seemed to be very little history there.  The road was filled with banks, office buildings, Café Coffee Day outlets, fast food restaurants, and various other unattractive concrete blocks.  Not to mention construction debris from the brand new Bangalore metro.  Still though, I had heard only good things about this tour company, and was eager to see what history might be hidden along MG road.

The members of the tour all met bright and early (6:45 am) at the old Trinity Church, at the far end of Mahatma Gandhi Road.  After we had all assembled on the church steps, the tour guide had each member of the group introduce him or herself by stating name, country of origin (state and city if from India) and connection to Bangalore.  The group was large, so this took a long time, but the guide insisted that he asked because he was genuinely interested.  Bangalore had attracted outsiders for years, he said, many from the countries we had mentioned, and these outsiders had shaped the city’s history.  Even now, as evidenced by the diversity of our group, people were flocking from far and wide to Bangalore.  Our guide explained that he himself was a Bangalorean who had spent much of his young life traveling outside of his home city.  After returning however, he decided to make it his business to uncover his hometown’s rich history.  He wished to ensure that locals, tourists, and expats alike would understand that Bangalore’s history did not start with the IT boom.

We began our tour at the Trinity Church at the East End of MG Road.  There, our guide explained to us that the church had been built in the mid-1800s, and had been an important place of community for English military men in Bangalore.  We climbed up into the church’s tower and admired the view, and read the various plaques adorning its walls. 

Throughout the course of the tour, I learned that Bangalore had always looked to future, seizing upon every opportunity that it could.  Before the IT boom there had been a short-lived gold rush.  Additionally, the city had been the first in South India to have electricity.  The city had experienced a number of battles, between the Indians and the British, and also the British and the French.  It had been home to a great number of ambitious high achievers, including Winston Churchill and a number of cricketers and footballers.  While on the tour, I discovered that one particularly boring looking structure that I had overlooked before was not an office building, but the headquarters of the Bible Society.  I was entreated to take a closer look at the nondescript statue in the middle of MG Road, and discovered that the statue was of Ferdinand Kittel, a German missionary who had worked hard to ensure that the Bible was translated into Kannada.  We explored various churches, and stared at the unattractive cement structures standing on the site of Winston Churchill’s residence.  The entire group was led into back alleys, behind concrete office buildings, where gorgeous colonial buildings seemed to just spring up out of nowhere, carefully concealed from the hustle and bustle of MG Road.  We also had the opportunity to watch the end of cricket practice, for some students of one of Bangalore’s elite boys’ schools—a school established in the days of the British.

I was astounded by how much history could be found on MG Road, which had seemed before to be nothing but a car filled highway lined by concrete towers.  Our guide reminded us that the city was constantly changing and developing—every year he had to modify his tour because another colonial mansion or Victorian structure had been demolished.  At one point, he said “It may sound as though I am sad or bitter about these developments, but I am not.”  He went on to explain that Bangalore has always been a city that looked towards the future, never caring much about its past.  Wryly, he quoted some Bangaloreans who liked to say that “the greatness of other cities lies in their pasts, Bangalore’s greatness lies in its future!”  It is therefore Bangalore’s personality to hurtle forward with little regard to past times.  Our guide said he did not wish to change his city, or freeze it into a past era, only to ensure that its history was not forgotten.

After the tour, the entire group was treated to a delicious South Indian breakfast at Ebony, one of Bangalore’s most stylish restaurants.  The entire rooftop was reserved for the tour group, so we could enjoy gazing out upon the city we had just learned so much about.  I ended up sitting next to an elderly couple from Manchester, England, who were very friendly.  It turns out that they had traveled all over the world, and were such globetrotters that their Manchester neighbors had told them “Just tell us when you’ll be home, not when you’re leaving.”  It also seemed as though they were rather adventurous “We’ve done it all—from five star hotels, right on down to camping.”  I only hope I can be like that when I’m their age…

After a far too short trip to Blossom, a three-storey second hand bookstore which the Fulbright Program Manager Maansi had recommended to me, I headed off to the train station, where I would once again board a train, this time headed to Hyderabad.  As most of you know, Hyderabad was where I did my semester abroad junior year, so I was especially excited to visit again.  The visit did not disappoint!  More on that later…


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  3. Bangalore is the hub for IT and Fashion in these days..And there is everything that is present in Bangalore for a common man to lead his life here..Lot of schools,colleges,hospitals,bus facilities and restaurants..everything!!

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