IN­DIA: SULTANS OF BLING

Ben­galuru is a city of great con­trasts be­tween joy and de­spair, rich and poor, beauty and ug­li­ness cre­at­ing a rich ta­pes­try for the trav­eller to ex­plore.

Vacations & Travel - - Contents - BY KERRY HEANEY

Ben­galuru is a city of great con­trasts, cre­at­ing a rich ta­pes­try for the trav­eller to ex­plore.

If I was a Sul­tan’s wife, an 18th-cen­tury teak Sum­mer Palace or a 19th-cen­tury palace mod­elled after Eng­land’s Wind­sor Cas­tle in Ben­galuru would do just fine. Grand doesn’t be­gin to de­scribe these two res­i­dences that hint at Ben­galuru’s im­pres­sive his­tory of hos­pi­tal­ity. Nei­ther does a glimpse of a star-span­gled wed­ding re­cep­tion venue caught from the car window as I drove from Kem­pe­gowda In­ter­na­tional Air­port to my ac­com­mo­da­tion at the equally op­u­lent The Leela Palace Ben­galuru.

It all started here back in the 12th cen­tury when a local king lost his way while on a hunt­ing ex­pe­di­tion. Tired and very hun­gry, he was grate­ful for a meal of boiled beans and a bed for the night of­fered by a poor old wo­man. He named her vil­lage Benda-kaal-uru mean­ing ‘town of boiled beans’, which even­tu­ally be­came Ben­galuru.

When the Bri­tish came in the early 1800s, they an­gli­cised the name to Ban­ga­lore. The In­dian gov­ern­ment changed it back to Ben­galuru in 2014, which is why the city is fre­quently re­ferred to by ei­ther name.

The high­est of In­dia’s cities and much loved as a hol­i­day des­ti­na­tion for its cooler weather, Ben­galuru was the sum­mer city of a mighty em­peror, Mysore Tipu Sul­tan who fought long and hard against the Bri­tish. Built in 1784, his Sum­mer Palace was known as the ‘Abode of Hap­pi­ness’. It is ma­jes­tic, framed by man­i­cured lawns with sweep­ing stair­cases and fresco-cov­ered walls. The de­tailed carv­ing on the two-storey teak pil­lars and the ground floor mu­seum filled with arte­facts from the era, in­clud­ing Tipu’s crown, hint at the lux­u­ri­ous life of the roy­als.

Close by, and next to the buzzing Kr­ishna Ra­jen­dra city mar­ket, are the re­mains of Tipu’s Fort. Its tall stone walls are gen­tly curved so those on the top can­not eas­ily be seen un­til they at­tack, but that didn’t de­feat the Bri­tish East In­dia Com­pany’s army. They emerged vic­to­ri­ous from a 1791 bat­tle that killed about 2,000 peo­ple.

From here it’s just a short walk along a side­walk crowded with peo­ple sell­ing hu­man hair to the K.R. Mar­ket, as the Kr­ishna Ra­jen­dra Mar­ket is com­monly called. This is Ben­galuru’s largest whole­sale mar­ket, which houses one of the big­gest flower mar­kets in Asia.

Sprawl­ing over three lev­els linked by nar­row, crowded al­ley­ways over­flow­ing with goods for sale, it is an eye-open­ing in­sight into local life. The first floor is for tools and ma­chine tools, the top floor for dry goods, and the base­ment is where you’ll find flow­ers and veg­eta­bles. Walk up the stairs to the top floor for a view of the trad­ing floor, a riot of colour as work­ers make flower gar­land ropes and barter their wares.

For an­other in­sight into Ben­galuru’s past, take a tour through the shad­owy hall­ways, sunny court­yard and over­sized ball­room of the very grand Ben­galuru Palace. Built in Tu­dor style, this is a stone build­ing with for­ti­fied tow­ers, bat­tle­ments and tur­rets. In­side there are el­e­gant wood carv­ings, ele­phant foot foot­stools and fluted glass chan­de­liers as be­fits the home of a prince.

In re­cent years, it also has hosted rock roy­alty with Aero­smith, Back­street Boys, El­ton John and The Rolling

Stones among the many bands to play in the grounds.

Ex­plor­ing local cui­sine is best done with cau­tion in de­vel­op­ing coun­tries such as In­dia where hy­giene stan­dards vary greatly, but lo­cals trust Mavalli Tif­fin Rooms’ 93-year-old rep­u­ta­tion. A din­ing in­sti­tu­tion in Ben­galuru since 1924,

Mavalli Tif­fin Rooms is re­garded as the place to try dishes such as the thick, sweet por­ridge made from semolina, ver­mi­celli, ghee, cashews, raisins and sprin­kled with saf­fron known as Ke­sari bhath or Chan­dra­hara dessert pan­cakes topped with sweet khoa.

Owned and run by the Maiya fam­ily, this res­tau­rant has been a leader in food hy­giene since the 1950s when Ya­j­na­narayana Maiya came back from Europe with new stan­dards of res­tau­rant clean­li­ness, hy­giene, and dis­ci­pline. Now with the third gen­er­a­tion in charge, the res­tau­rant’s most pop­u­lar dish is still rava idli, steamed semolina cakes made from a mix of yo­ghurt, co­rian­der, cashew nuts, curry leaves and mus­tard seeds, which were in­vented by Mavalli Tif­fin Rooms dur­ing World War II when rice was in short sup­ply.

Their kitchen is open to vis­i­tors, and it’s pos­si­ble to or­gan­ise a walk-through if you are pre­pared to dodge wait­ers car­ry­ing plates piled high with food in the nar­row spa­ces.

While Ben­galuru is deeply rooted in the tra­di­tions of the south, there are flashes of fu­sion and a mix of mod­ern styles on res­tau­rant menus.

Mir Za­far Ali, ex­ec­u­tive chef of The Leela Palace Ben­galuru, says that de­spite more than 17 years of hos­pi­tal­ity ex­pe­ri­ence, he is still learn­ing new things about In­dian cui­sine be­cause it is so vast and di­verse.

“With over 60 per cent of the pop­u­la­tion from dif­fer­ent parts of In­dia and the world, Ben­galuru is one of the most eth­ni­cally di­verse cities in the country,” says Ali. “This has had a ma­jor im­pact on the cul­ture and cui­sine of the city and glimpses of cuisines from around the na­tion that can be experienced. Un­like most other places in In­dia which high­light region-spe­cific cuisines, Ben­galuru is one of the best des­ti­na­tions to sam­ple foods from across In­dia.”

Al­though traditional dishes are pop­u­lar, Ali says health­con­scious din­ers are driv­ing the in­creased promi­nence of grains such as sorghum, fox­tail, kodo mil­let, pearl mil­let and barn­yard mil­let in res­tau­rant meals.

“Prepa­ra­tions like the ragi mudde [fin­ger mil­let balls], akki roti [un­leav­ened rice bread], jowar roti [sorghum bread], and ba­jra ki roti [pearl mil­let bread], all tra­di­tion­ally from the north, are in de­mand be­cause of their well­be­ing ben­e­fits.”

There’s no bet­ter ev­i­dence of this than a Bas­mati Blond

Ale straight from the brick-walled mi­cro­brew­ery at Toit Brew­pub on the busy 100 Feet Road. Here, they make beer us­ing local fruit, rice wheat and spices, and sit­ting at one of the wood-lined booths feels just like my local.

Con­di­tions around the mar­ket and through the city are a long way from the im­age of Ben­galuru as In­dia’s Sil­i­con Val­ley. However, as any­one who has been Ban­ga­lored (lost their job be­cause their com­pany de­cided to move its op­er­a­tions to an In­dian lo­ca­tion) knows, a lack of phys­i­cal in­fra­struc­ture is not hold­ing this city back when it comes to the world of high-tech with more than a 1,000 IT com­pa­nies based here.

This fast-chang­ing city buzzes with en­ergy and change, but also has an eye firmly on its past her­itage. It’s an in­ter­est­ing time to visit. •

Open­ing im­age: Flower sell­ers in the Kr­ishna Ra­jen­dra Mar­ket.

From left, clock­wise to bot­tom right: A flower stall in the Kr­ishna Ra­jen­dra Mar­ket; A peace­ful court­yard in the mid­dle of Ben­galuru Palace; Wide cor­ri­dor ve­ran­dahs at Ben­galuru Palace work well in the warm cli­mate.

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