Bengaluru Calling

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A word of advice if you’re planning to spend time in Bengaluru (formerly Bangalore): don’t leave home without a good book. For a city that seems intent on putting every hour God sends to profitable use, it sure provides a lot of downtime.

Especially if you’re trying to negotiate Mahatma Gandhi Road by car anywhere near rush hour. Caught in one of the city’s notorious traffic jams on the way to our hotel, the taxi windows treat us to an extended performance of the transnational-branded shadow play that is 21st-century urban India: businessmen in chauffeured cars pecking out emails on their Blackberries; preening cowboys seated laconically astride high-powered Honda motorcycles; and cashed-up call centre ladies, whose lives nowadays revolve more around Gucci than Gandhi, flitting through the sliding doors of air-conditioned shopping malls.

High above, striding across the intersection and casting its long shadow over the revving scooters, is another, altogether more encouraging symbol of Bengaluru’s future: a colonnade of concrete pillars that will, someday soon, carry the city’s first Metro train. When complete, the Metro will fill a gaping hole in the city’s transport infrastructure, whisking 40,000 people an hour to home or office without a single traffic light to slow their journey. That it seems so long overdue, in a city that by most measures is leading India’s headlong charge toward the future, is a testament to the express-paced, often haphazard growth that has swept Bengaluru over the last three decades.

Not long after India gained independence in 1947, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru identified Bengaluru’s potential to be the “template of a modern India”. A relatively youthful city by Indian standards – it was founded around a mud-brick fort in 1537 by tribal chieftain Kempe Gowda, and grew in the shadow of neighbouring Mysore until well into the 19th century – Bengaluru had already established a reputation as a centre for education and research even before 1911, when the opening of the venerable Indian Institute of Science put it well and truly on the map. The city has since emerged as a pioneering presence in fields ranging from medical science to space exploration.

Yet above all it’s the IT (information technology) and communications industry, hand-in-hand with the worldwide boom in outsourcing, that has swollen Bengaluru’s coffers, generating fortunes for the city’s 10,000 millionaires and creating one of South Asia’s most forward-thinking, multicultural, and style-conscious cities. Restaurants and nightclubs have opened in droves in the entertainment district around Residency and Brigade Roads, serving world-class food and fine wines tailored to the diverse tastes of expat workers, business travellers, and Indian-born, Western-educated entrepreneurs.

It is often said that Bengaluru has more in common with San Francisco than the red-baked agricultural plains of Karnataka, the state of which it is capital. A stroll down fashionable Lavelle Road – the ‘style mile’ that begins outside the exclusive enclave of the Bengaluru Club and weaves past some of India’s most chic boutiques – underlines the point: this is a city as closely attuned to the currents of international style as to its own sense of tradition. Here you’ll find Abhishek Poddar’s art gallery Tasveer, the first private gallery in the country to focus exclusively on contemporary photography, nestled among carefully curated small shops where you can pick up bespoke bridal jewellery, high-fashion accessories in Bengaluru silk, or the latest season’s outfits by Rajesh Pratap Singh. While you’re here, check out the showrooms of REVA, makers of the world’s dinkiest and most economical electric cars; built in Bengaluru on an assembly line that operates to strict LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) principles, the vehicles sold here are among the greenest – and cheapest to run – in the world.

When your feet need a break, hop across the road to Cubbon Park, a 1,200-hectare wedge of leafy glades and bandstands that harks back to the pre-Silicon Valley days, when Bengaluru was still known as the ‘Garden City’. Within and around the park stand some of Bengaluru’s finest buildings, most notably the magnificent Vidhana Soudha, a masterpiece of neo-Dravidian architecture behind whose soaring columns lurk the offices of the state’s Legislature and Secretariat; try to visit on a Sunday night when the sweeping fa?ade is daubed in coloured lights.

More beautiful still is Lal Bagh, a botanical garden laid out in 1760 by the Muslim ruler of Mysore, Haidar Ali. The 240-acre gardens are planted with hundreds of native and exotic species, in the midst of which floats an elegant glass house said to be modelled on London’s Crystal Palace. From here you can, and should, plunge westward into the heart of old Bengaluru, stopping along the way for a masala dosa and rich South Indian coffee at the revered Mavalli Tiffin Rooms, an unreconstructed throwback to the city as it was in the 1920s – complete with one or two of the original characters.

The suburb of Basavanagudi is home to some of Bengaluru’s oldest and most revered temples. For views and atmosphere it’s hard to match the Nandi temple, dedicated to the bull on whose back the Lord Shiva is said to ride, which was carved from grey granite and set atop Bugle Hill at the behest of Kempe Gowda himself. According to legend, the monolithic Nandi could not be persuaded to stop growing until a trident was slammed into its forehead; the bull’s jasmine-garlanded form towers five metres over the heads of worshippers.

As thoroughly hi-tech as Bengaluru might like to present itself as being, its modernity is far from a one-way street. Indeed, Bengaluru’s civic psyche might look very similar to one of those crowded intersections at rush hour: the fortune-generating machine that is New India jostling with the India of tradition and antiquity over who gives way to who in the nation’s relentless march forward. What happens in the future is anybody’s guess, but one thing is certain: standing still is not an option.

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