Summary: Here’s notes from my trip to India: the food, the people, the language, the traffic, animals and landscape, palaces and temples, clothes and fashion, and what’s up with all the high tech in India. It’s an FAQ about traveling to Bangalore.
Why We Were in Bangalore
In January 2006, Stephanie Cota and I cofounded a company which was funded by investors in both Silicon Valley and India. A company in Bangalore also became part of this.
In May 2006, we went to Bangalore for two weeks of meetings and training. I didn’t really know what to expect in India, so I kept notes and took several hundred photos. Here’s the result. There is no particular order, asides from a few general categories.
Keep in mind, this isn’t a description of India; it’s only my experiences in Bangalore. It would be like someone coming to the USA and visiting just Palo Alto. Of Bangalore, I only dealt with others who work in the computer industry.
So, remembering that, here are my notes about Bangalore, the Silicon Valley of India.
Bangalore / Bengaluru
Bangalore is in the south center of India. Along the east and western side of India, there are two mountain ranges, called the Eastern and Western Ghats. Between the two, there is a high plateau (about 1000m). You may have noticed: Indians are changing the names of cities, for no particularly good reason. Bombay is now Mumbai. Madras is now Chennai. Calcutta is Kolkata. And Bangalore will soon be Bengalooru. Whatever.
Bangalore used to be known as the Garden City of India, due to the many city parks, including the large 300-acre Cubbon Park in the center of city, similar to NYC’s Central Park or San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. But that was 20 years ago, before Bangalore doubled, tripled, and quadrupled in population to seven million. I walked around Cubbon Park. The park is filled with families. At many corners, there are street vendors with juice, fruits, grilled corn, and so on. The effects of too many people are visible; the grass is thin, the sidewalks and paths are broken.
MG Road (Mahatma Gandhi Road, but everyone calls it MG Road) is the center of town. If there are lots of shops everywhere, there is an intense crush of shops on MG Road, along with many people.
From Cubbon Park, I walked to the market. This is a large multi-level hall with hundreds of vendors. Each aisle is specialized: the aisle for jasmine garlands, marigolds, incense, vegetables, fruits, onions, and so on. You can go down into the market, where it’s dark and cool. I talked with people, sampled different things, and took a number of photos. People were very friendly.
Most Americans don’t realize there are malls in India. Not just a few. There are more than a dozen malls in Bangalore. The Leela Palace was a few blocks away, so we walked to it. It’s a spectacular three story mall, which is part of the Leela Palace Hotel. There’s a great cafÈ, a beautiful courtyard garden, a bookstore with a tea cafe, and shops with all the expensive global brands. There were quite a few people there, although the photo shows nobody. In the typical hodgepodge of city planning, the same block also has people living in hand-built huts. I expect Robert Venturi, the Pritzker Architecture Prize winner, would be quite happy with Bangalore’s city planning; the architecture is vernacular and you see everything jammed together in a chaos of styles, traditions, and materials.
There’s not much to see in Bangalore. Most of it looks the same: long streets filled with small shops, street vendors, heavy traffic, and lots of people. Paris, London, Berlin, and Rome were designed to have large public spaces and monuments, which makes those cities photographable. You stand at a point in Paris and can see down long boulevards to grand monuments. But there’s not much to photograph in Bangalore. There’s very little public art; maybe an occasional sculpture, but not like in Europe or North America. Major public areas are devoid of decoration. The central bus area is a vast dusty surface, with buses and people milling around. In places, you walk through or over huge piles of rubble.
One night, we went to the movies. In the USA, you sit wherever you like, but in India, similar to Denmark and other European countries, you buy the seat, just like in a theater. The best seats cost more. Indians complain about prices, but it’s $2 for the best seats. At the concession stands, you can load up on all the bad stuff: candy, popcorn, cotton candy, Coke, and so on. The main difference is the sound; they crank up the volume. It’s digital, so it’s extremely loud. We watched an action movie, and when the explosions came, I nearly leaped out of my seat. Seats are very comfortable because Bollywood movies are three hours long. There’s always an intermission so you can load up on more popcorn and candy.
One morning, I went to the Iskcon Temple, the largest and wealthiest Hindu temple in Bangalore. It’s quite worthwhile to visit. Occupying the top of a hill, the temple rivals the cathedrals of Europe in size and opulence. You leave your shoes and camera at the check-in counter and walk barefoot up endless stairs into the temple. At various levels, visitors prostate themselves before the temple’s gods. Attendants wash the floors continuously to keep them clean. The gods are decorated with gold, silver, jewels, and jasmine garlands.
After visiting the main temple, you pass downwards through a series of floors, where there are shops with figurines of gods, posters, T-shirts, incense, books, postcards, and so on. The temple is a holy site: all major credit cards accepted. There are also four or five food stands, along with a grocery store. One food stand had 42 types of sweets, pastries, and rice dishes, all served on fresh banana leaves, for 10 cents or so. Nearly all of those were cooked rice or baked pastries, so you can eat them. I tried a variety of foods. Whatever looked interesting or delicious. Along the walls, there are carpets where you sit to eat. Quite a few families were picnicking. There is endless chanting by monks, which you can hear at their website IskconBangalore.org.
The website has a great collection of recipes by Lakshmi Priya Devi Dasi for drinks, vegetarian dishes, and so on.
It’s a common rule: no shoes or cameras in museums, temples, or palaces. This is a pity; the photos in the postcards tend to be 10-20 years old. If you’re not used to walking barefoot, it’ll hurt.
One day, I hired a driver and went to Mysore, 130 kilometers southwest of Bangalore (about 80 miles). That doesn’t sound very far, but with the slow, heavy traffic, it takes 3-5 hrs. It’s inexpensive to hire a driver, about $75 for a whole day.
The landscape is mostly flat, with slight rolling terrain, and occasional granite outcroppings. There are plantations of palm trees, sugar cane fields, and rice fields along the way.
I started at the government-owned Sandalwood Oil Factory. It’s a sleepy factory, with hardly any activity, yet it produces about half of the sandalwood oil in India. Opened in 1917 and unchanged since, they prepare sandalwood oil by hand. After trees have matured to 30 years, the logs are brought to the factory, where it is first split into smaller logs and then fed into a chipper. The noise is spectacular. None of the workers wear hearing protection. The chips are milled down into a powder, which is then baked in a row of vertical stills, which gives off a rich aroma, somewhat like sandalwood on toast. Water is injected into the stills and heated; the vapor is distilled to produce the oil. All of this is done by hand, using little more than what you can find in your kitchen. The machines were at least 30-50 years old. If you ask, the manager opens a tiny shop, where you can buy a 5 gram bottle of pure sandalwood oil for 650 rupees (about $15). For whatever reason, you can’t take photos in the factory.
I went to the Palace in Mysore. Like Versailles near Paris, this palace celebrates unlimited wealth. The halls are spectacular. If you’re familiar with European interior architecture, the Indian palaces are a fascinating contrast in colors, shapes, and materials, including gold, mahogany, teak, and so on. For example, the door to the smaller royal hall is made of 300 kilos of silver. The side doors are teak with hunting scenes inlaid with silver and ivory. The pillars are gilded with pure gold. As with temples, you leave your shoes at the front gate and walk barefoot. This isn’t a bad idea; it protects the floors. The floor at Versailles and many European cathedrals and palaces has been ruined by shoes. Visit MysorePalace.org See photos of palace halls, incl. 360° views of halls.
However, I don’t know how much of this architecture is actually Indian. The Mysore palace was designed by the architect Henry Irwin, an Englishman, in the early 1900s. Although it looks Indian, it was actually built in Europe. The pillars were made by craftsmen in Scotland, the glass is from Belgian glassworks, and so on.
Above the city, there is the Sri Chamundeswari Temple. It sits atop a 1062m bluff, with a good view of Mysore and the countryside. The temple is a very popular destination for Indians.
I walked around Mysore’s Sri Jayachamarajendra Zoo, which has Bengal tigers, elephants, crocodiles, and so on. It’s popular with Indians and somewhat crowded, but very shady. The tigers and elephants have large open spaces to wander around.
In the evening, I went to Brindavan Gardens, which is next to the Krishna Raja Sagara Dam. This is a set of water fountains in a 150-acre garden. At night, there is a water show, with colored lights and jets of water in motion to Bollywood music. This is very popular and festive; every evening, some 10-20,000 people show up. You’re probably seen this if you watch Bollywood movies; many scenes have been set in the gardens. There’s lots of food and drinks. You probably have the picture by now; wherever you go, there’s lots of food and drinks.
On Sunday morning, a pair of vans took everyone in the company to a national park about 100 km from Bangalore, where we spent several days at a campground on the Cauvery River, a few miles below the Krishna Raja Sagara Dam.
The landscape is beautiful, like the Sierras of California, with steep ravines that lead down to a beautiful river with cool water. We couldn’t swim in the river because there are crocodiles, which are about 8-10 feet long. Stephanie saw a crocodile, and a week later, at another point on the river, I saw two crocodiles.
The campground was a contrast to Bangalore, nobody within sight, silent, and peaceful. No electricity or running water. There were monkeys in the trees.
Did we rough it at the campground? Hardly. A team of cooks prepared Indian food for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. They also included tea and toast at 7 am, tea at 4pm, and snacks at night.
Animals and Flowers
Everyone knows there are cows in the streets in India. Yes, I saw quite a few cows wandering around. They graze, they stand there, they lie on the ground and chew their cud. It’s rather remarkable to see cows quietly standing next to busy roads, ignoring the traffic. It just doesn’t seem possible that tens of thousands of cattle can walk about freely and peacefully in a large city, but, well, they do in Bangalore. Nobody takes care of them, nobody does anything about them. The cows appeared perfectly healthy and happy to me.
But I didn’t expect the dogs. There are thousands of dogs in the streets. Nobody owns them, they just live on the streets. In every block, there were maybe two or three dogs, sometimes five. I’d guess there are several hundred thousand street dogs in Bangalore.
They live totally free, doing whatever they please, walking around in traffic, sleeping on the sidewalk, whatever, in Dog Heaven.
They’re the same breed: mid-sized, short hair, and slim. The dogs are very docile. I went up to a few. They let themselves be petted. Sometimes, they watch you without curiosity. The dogs didn’t howl at night. They mostly just slept. Laziest things I ever saw.
At dusk, you see plenty of fruit bats. American bats are small, the size of mice. The Indian fruit bats are the size of cats, with a three to five foot wingspan. They fly around at dusk and eat fruit, such as mango and banana.
During the day, several hundred fruit bats hang from trees and giant bamboo. Since they eat fruit, not insect, they don’t have bat sonar, and, since they’re bats, they don’t see very well. When they arrive at their tree, they basically crash land.
You also see wild monkeys crashing around in the trees. There’s lots of chipmunks, which the Indians call squirrels. There are also mango trees, which are very large. On the highway to Mysore, we passed lakes filled with water lilies.
As for birds, there’s a wide variety. At the Ranganathittu Bird Sanctuary, I saw Open-billed Storks, Spoonbill, great Comorants, bright blue Kingfishers, lots of Myna birds, Egrets (the same as California egrets), Ibis (familiar from Egyptian tombs), and crows. Dozens of species and tens of thousands of birds stop here in their migration from Africa to Siberia and Northern Europe. The bird calls are very nice. You can hire a boat and guide for a few dollars. In the city, there are many eagles and kites (a type of raptor bird) soaring around.
Storks on the Cauvery River.
There are quite a few crocodiles in the river. With the boat, you can get rather close to them. They’re shy and move away.
Okay, I’ll admit this topic is something that I’ve never really been clear about. We know English is spoken in India, but we don’t realize that English is one of the languages of India. There are several dozen major languages and some 1,600 dialects, so English is their common language. The educated and the elite speak English as their first language, both at home and among themselves.
Practically everyone else also speaks English. In small restaurants, I talked with laborers. I also talked with people in small towns. One afternoon in Bangalore, I met a farmer who was unemployed and looking for work. We started chatting and ended up walking around for three hours. He spoke quite good English.
Indians speak quickly, and at first, I had to pay close attention, but after a week or so, I got used to Indian English. It’s a version of English, just like Australian or British English. Some 150 million Indians speak English, so it’s the world’s second largest group of English speakers, not that much far behind the USA.
The Bhagavad-Gita is in Sanskrit, but that’s a classical language like Latin or Greek to us, so most Indians read it in English. There are national newspapers, such as The Hindu, The Deccan Herald, and The Times, all in English. If you still think English isn’t a native language of India, read The Hindu.
In the bus and in cars, we often listened to the radio. Pop stations were in English, with a mix of Madonna, Bollywood songs, Gwen Stefani, and so on. One night in the hotel, I scrolled through the 100 or so channels. A mix of Bollywood movies, TV game shows, soap operas, sports, and so on. On both radio and TV, the speakers often mix Hindi and English, which is jokingly called Hinglish.
Even the rickshaw wallah speak a bit of English, enough for directions. I found it a bit odd that generally, Indians don’t speak other world languages, such as German, French, Chinese, Japanese, and so on.
Traffic and Infrastructure
If you think traffic is bad in LA or Silicon Valley, you’ve seen nothing. The traffic jams in Bangalore are a spectacular anarchy of cars, motorcycles, bicycles, and three-wheel taxis all jostling for position, squeezing into any available space, often only an inch or two apart, everyone honking at the same time, and the air thick with exhaust fumes. You can barely see ahead two blocks due to the fumes. There may well be traffic laws, but it seems as if there aren’t. Nobody stays in their lane. Cars wander back and forth, from lane to lane, often just driving astride two lanes. If someone is peacefully driving along in their lane, another driver simply comes up from behind, blows his horn, and squeezes in. They then share the lane. Americans would pull out handguns in road rage, but Indians don’t mind.
You should not drive in India. It’s too chaotic. In fact, car rental companies won’t let you drive. They include a driver for two or three dollars per day. Cars are very inexpensive to rent at only 3 cents per kilometer; I hired a car and driver to go to Mysore. The three-wheel rickshaw taxi are five cents per kilometer in the city, which means you rarely pay more than 20 cents. (Unless, of course, it’s your first few days in Bangalore. If you don’t pay attention, the rickshaw wallah overcharges you by ten times.)
In Maximum City, Mehta talks about how Indians “adjust.” This is the real rule of the traffic system. They adjust. Everyone has a right to the road. They scoot over and share the road with trucks, buses, vans, jeeps, cars, rickshaws, motorcycles, scooters, bicycles, pushcarts, tractors, ox carts, cows, horses, camels, dogs, and people, both jaywalking across the road, and also walking along the road.
Going the wrong way on the highway? So? Several times I saw people driving on the wrong side of the highway. Oncoming traffic simply moved over. I was in a taxi when the driver took the wrong onramp and drove onto the highway in the wrong direction. He didn’t notice at all. We drove along for several miles until there was an intersection that let him get back onto the correct side of the road.
Just sit in your seat and remind yourself; they’re used to this. If that doesn’t help, then remember there is reincarnation in India, so you’ll eventually come back.
In North America and Europe, when you go from a side road onto a main road, you stop and look. Not in India. They simply honk their horn and swerve onto the road (it doesn’t really matter much in which direction). Traffic just flows around them.
The main roads in the city and highways between cities are paved, but side roads and streets between houses are sometimes unpaved. Small roads in the countryside are also often unpaved and due to the very heavy traffic, the roads are actually a long series of deep potholes. You must drive slowly. Even on the highway, you drive slowly, 30-40 mph, due to the chaotic traffic. Although it’s a highway, there are cows, ox-carts, and horses on the road, either going with the traffic, or often cutting across traffic.
A solution to the traffic jams are “flyovers” (elevated roadways). The city is building more of these. But construction is slow and takes years. The only form of traffic control are speed bumps. These are very popular. They are placed everywhere.
It’s difficult to find anything; they rarely put up signs with street names. House numbers are seldom. If you don’t know where something is, you won’t find it. In India, you must have friends or hire local guides to see the best places. I had the Lonely Planet guide for South India, and I saw a few of the restaurants they recommended. These were nothing compared to the ones that friends showed me.
There are thousands of motorcycles. These are light city bikes, mostly 150cc. Traffic is so heavy and slow that it doesn’t make sense to have bigger motorcycles. Women ride on the back and sit sidesaddle. Motorcycles are often overloaded; dad, mom, and a kid on a motorcycle. Several times, I saw parents with two children on a motorcycle. Sometimes, dad wears a helmet, but nobody else. I saw perhaps only two women driving a motorcycle.
You often see bus or trucks heavily overloaded. A bus is jammed with people, and more are hanging from the door. Trucks are loaded with bags of produce, and on top, five or six people.
At night, they drive with low beams. When there’s oncoming traffic, everyone switches to high beams. This means you can’t see at all. Yet that’s what everyone does. Of course, you should be glad that trucks use any lights. I saw many trucks driving in total darkness with no lights at all.
Sidewalks aren’t meant for walking. Even in front of beautiful office buildings, sidewalks are sometimes broken. Sections are missing, pipes and metal rods stick out of the ground. If you don’t pay attention, you can get hurt. Because of the condition of the sidewalks, people often step off the sidewalks onto very busy streets. Between my hotel and the company office, there was a major road construction site. Traffic flowed through the construction site. You walk over rubble, while large tractors back up around you. You walk past within inches of a welder (wearing no safety equipment at all). Indians don’t notice this. For us, we have to be very careful.
The easiest way to get around in the city is rickshaws. These are motorized three-wheel carts, somewhat like a golf cart, with a 2-stroke engine that runs on propane. The rickshaw wallah (taxi guys) are like New York taxi drivers: they speak in one-syllable sentences, often refuse to take you where you want to go, try every way possible to overcharge you, and blow their horn at every passing car, rickshaw, cow, and bird. One night, we were driving along and there wasn’t any traffic on the street. The driver honked anyway. Maybe it was too quiet. The taxi wallah are often harassed by the police for traffic violations, tho’ with literally every vehicle and mammal violating the entire rulebook, it’s hard to see why the police picks any particular driver. The driver offers a 100 rupee note (about $2) and the policeman forgets about the violation. This minor bribery is very common and although the traffic police earn very low salaries, they make up with the extra income.
Another odd thing is the assumption that the largest vehicle has the right of way. Cars are pushed aside by trucks and buses. Cars push 3-wheel carts and motorcyles aside. Everyone pushes pedestrians aside. Men in cars will honk at women with children and force them out of the way.
People drive fairly slow, so most accidents aren’t dangerous. Hardly anyone wears seatbelts. There no seatbelts in the rickshaws (and no doors either). I doubt there are many airbags. The problem isn’t the chaos; it’s the lack of emergency care. If you’re critically injured in Silicon Valley, emergency medical technicians (EMTs) arrive within 180 seconds. But in India, forget it. And if you are in an accident outside of a large city, well… The mortality rate per 100,000 is 15 in the USA and 24 in India (substantially higher), although not at bad as Central America, where macho drivers score a mortality rate of 46.
The airport is another traffic item. Bangalore has seven million people, San Jose has one million, yet Bangalore’s airport is tiny. The lobby for international flights resembles a small and shabby Greyhound bus station in West Texas. A wall is missing. Airline signs are held up with pieces of tape. The departure process is haphazard. My flight was scheduled to depart at 11:50 pm, but they decided to leave at 10:15 pm. You’re advised to arrive three hours before a flight and this is good advice; you’ll get a seat in the waiting hall. Several hundred late arrivals stand for two hours or more. You leave this airport and go to Singapore, Hong Kong, and Seoul’s airports, which are gleaming modern buildings with ultramodern malls. It’s not that India is a developing country; they simply don’t put much effort into fixing infrastructure, such as roads and airports. If they wanted to, they’d have modern roads and airports. They just don’t put effort into roads.
And there’s the electricity. The power often fails. Computer companies generally have power backup systems, so they just keep working.
The infrastructure is a mess. The CEO of Wipro threatened to pull out of Bangalore because the city doesn’t have the political will to fix the problems. Many companies have set up operations in other cities, such as Hyderabad, Chennai, and so on. Nevertheless, Bangalore continues to grow rapidly.
Part 2: Food, People, Religion, Technology
But who cares about dusty roads anyway? Let’s talk about food. Continue to Part 2: Food, People, Religion, Technology in Bangalore