A Visit to Bangalore, July 13, 2010

“The population of Bangalore is seven and a half million,” said our guide, “three and a half million of which are vehicles.” Our van was edging its way through a multitude of cars, buses, motorcycles, and the ubiquitous three-wheeled auto rickshaws. Bangalore, now officially “Bengaluru,” is often called India’s Silicon Valley, but a ride through these clogged streets reminded me that it is still very much a part of India. On either side one could see broken sidewalks and shabby, faded stucco buildings decked in a riot of ads and commercial signs.

Later that day, we found ourselves in an altogether different Bangalore: at the famed Oberoi Hotel. This is a five-star property with a grand lobby and landscaped grounds. And tight security. In front of the main entrance there was an airport-type conveyor belt and x-ray machine. We had to put everything onto that belt, including any metal objects, and to submit to a quick search if the spirit so moved the guards. Once inside the lobby, I found a scented lei being looped around my head, and someone was placing a red dot on my forehead. All of this, I was told, was part of the “traditional” welcome. Staffers bowed slightly, their hands pressed together in a supplicating gesture.

After making my way through the lobby and up towards my room on the 4th floor, I stepped out into a long open-air balcony-cum-hallway. I walked down this passageway to my room, accompanied by a brisk, young female employee of the hotel, whose warmth and receptiveness seemed well rehearsed. The room itself had hardwood floors dotted with what I took to be Indian carpets, as well as whitewashed walls, a king-sized bed, a marble bathroom, and a generously sized walk-in closet. The hotel employee asked me questions in a clipped voice while filling out a form, and then showed me how to use the room: Here is the Internet connection…here is the remote control…no, that one’s not for the TV, that’s for the DVD player…here’s how to work the shower…but if you press that button, the shower becomes a sauna…was that a television set I saw next to the toilet? Then she left, mercifully, and I spent some time figuring out which of the scattered switches went with which lights.

I wandered out onto the room’s balcony, which faced the pool, and I looked at the rows of curved balconies to my right and left, above me and below. All of the balconies on every floor dripped with purple flowers, making the hotel look like a hanging garden. A short while later I headed down to the restaurant to meet my friends for dinner. I had a superb Caesar salad, a not-bad lamb biryani, and a strange raspberry-chili pepper sorbet, whose refreshing taste was complicated rather than complemented by the chili bite.

The next day, we saw yet another side of Bangalore: Electronic City, an industrial park that’s home to IT companies. We visited one of the most prominent of these companies, with over $3 billion in profits and 20,000 employees in a sprawling complex that looked like a university campus. The grounds were dotted with decorative pools and fountains and, on that unseasonably hot day, it took all our willpower not to hoist up our pants and wade in. We spent most of our visit in hyper-modern conference rooms, computer labs, and training centers, where we were treated to one PowerPoint session after another in which presenters spoke about “platforms,” “sustainable solutions across diverse domains,” “global thinking,” “technology optimization in a mature outsourcing market,” etc. We were all very impressed, but by the end of the day we still weren’t sure exactly what the company actually does.

In the early evening, I had just enough time to visit a couple of craft shops. One that had been recommended to me was Cauvery, not far from the hotel, on Mahatma Gandhi (“MG”) Road. Among the many locally made items there were silver jewelry with stones from mines in Karnataka, the state in which Bangalore is located: amethysts, aquamarines, stars of India, and star rubies. They also had brightly colored scarves made of silk or pashmina (a soft wool); bathik paintings on cotton cloth; and carvings made from sandalwood, which is a Karnataka specialty.

Our driver kept recommending another store, Suryani, at Manipal Centre, Dickenson Road. I had been to India before, and was accustomed to drivers and touts recommending stores that give them commissions for every unwary tourist they steer there. But this store was a pleasant surprise. I was overwhelmed at the sight of life-sized wood carvings of Indian gods. The lighter-toned sculptures were made of teak and white cedar; and the rich, reddish-brown ones were of rosewood. There were also sculptures made of saal wood stained with vegetable dye in green, orange, and yellow, and daubed with gold detailing; as well as small exquisite carvings of sandalwood, brightly painted marble vases and plates, bathik paintings, and antiques. The salesman, Wahab Suryani, is part of the third generation to run this family-owned store, and he expounded on the differences between woods, especially the various kinds of sandalwood. He then argued very convincingly that I could hardly visit Karnataka without buying something in sandalwood, so I settled for a small filigreed elephant. When I saw the $50 price tag, I gulped, and asked for a smaller elephant. And then for a smaller one. I finally ended up with one that looked as if it had come out of a Cracker Jack box…for about $12.

The next day began with a visit to the Lalbagh Botanical Garden, in the southern end of the city, which dates from 1740, covers 240 acres, and has lots of tropical plants and trees. I was most impressed by the Glass House, an open-air, glass-covered pavilion modeled London’s Crystal Palace. It now hosts flower shows. There are champaca trees and pencil cedars, but what most caught my eye were the purple-flowered bougainvillea bushes and the Gul Mohar trees blooming in purple, yellow, and pink. These trees are common in the region, and the season for their blossoming was just getting underway.

Then we were off to a palace that belonged to Tipu Sultan, who ruled the kingdom of Mysore in the late 18th century. Dating from around 1790, this two-leveled, mostly wooden structure served as the sultan’s summer retreat. Both levels have series of graceful, multi-curved arches and dark teak pillars that form a sharp contrast against the bright orange walls. The walls themselves were disappointingly free of any ornamentation, though some faded patterns on the walls of a small side room hint at the opulance of the palace in its heyday.

Next on our itinerary was Bangalore Palace, built between 1910 and 1912 and inspired by Windsor Castle. We could not see much of the palace, only two rooms to be exact. The first was a private audience hall, where the maharaja consulted with his advisors and dealt with the responsibilities of governance. This is not a very large room, and its low ceiling made it seem smaller than it was. But its decor is opulant, dominated by green walls with red and white touches. Far more striking was the high-ceilinged combination ballroom/dining room. This big yellow-and-white confection had bas reliefs all over the walls, as well as stained glass windows and large mirrors from Belgium and crystal chandeliers from Britain. From the outside, this downsized Windsor wannabe was not very interesting, all the less impressive for imitating a style that seemed so out of place.

Finally, it was off to lunch at an interesting Chinese restaurant called Mainland Restaurant, on Church Street. I had heard that Chinese restaurants around the world adapt their food to local tastes; that’s why their food can be bland in the West and very spicy in India. This restaurant bore out that theory. The buffet-style lunch wasn’t bad, but everything seemed to be made with lots of chili or garlic or both, like the Chili Garlic Noodles and Sliced Fish in Chili and Mustard Sauce. For dessert, I had lychee mousse, coconut wonton and, lastly, jeelabi, which seemed like a sweet version of crispy soup noodles. It consists of white flour, saffron, and melted sugar, and was pretty good.

From there we walked along Church Street to Brigade Road, which is one of the main shopping streets. If you’re looking for craft stores, this is not the place to go. It’s all unexceptional down-market stores on a cheerless avenue with lots of noisy traffic. At this point, we had had enough, and headed back to the hotel, after waiting for our van on MG Road under an elevated ramp that will soon serve as part of the city’s metro system, now under construction and due to open in 2013.

The following day it was off with a friend to another shopping area, Commerce Street, which was closer to our hotel, not far from MG Road. As we walked along this street and down some alleys off it, we thought that the area was a clone of Brigade Road, except with even more traffic, noise, and fumes. Again, most of the stores seemed unremarkable, with low-quality goods, especially cheap jewelry, though this time I spied a few western names: Benetton, Rockford, and Kentucky Fried Chicken. There were two differences, however. One was the many fabric/sari stores, with piles of brightly colored and patterned fabrics that were a pleasure to see.

And the other was the fact that we did find a few small handicraft stores offering interesting pieces in carved wood and in brass. One of these stores was extremely narrow, with all sorts of things hanging from the walls on both sides, leaving an aisle in between that was barely wide enough for one person. My friend, who had been looking for a ceramic plate for display, bought one with an intricate design after bargaining hard with the owner, paying far less than the owner had asked for but still more than he should have. We left with our booty and took an auto rickshaw back to the hotel.




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