Bangalore and surrounds – Wednesday 10 – Saturday 20 June 2009
On the way into Bangalore we got a quick look at how things here are very different - our first McDonalds in India!! We were running out of time and light so we stopped and had dinner - neither of us regularly eat McDonalds at home - but we still felt quite nostalgic!! It was "same same but different" as they say in Thailand - no sacred cow beef burgers of course - but Andrew had a Chicken Maharaja Burger (bit like a Big Mac) and I had a McVeggie burger !!!
It was Sunday evening and we saw a) lots of people in jeans - b) couples holding hand and c) a lady smoking - all a bit rare in India - we felt we'd stepped back into the West!
The IT revolution has given a lot to Bangalore - this is an affluent city with great restaurants and top end accommodation - at the same time it has really grown too quickly for the existing infrastructure - they are building a new light rail service due to open in 2015- but we can't see how this will really be enough to cope with the demand. There is so much building going on the whole place is like a giant construction site - and it really is the hardest city I've ever navigated around! You drive somewhere and then try and retrace your steps 2 hours later - and it has suddenly become a one way system as this changes by the hour!!!
Anyway that first night we hit Bangalore turned into a bit of a nightmare as we got there in the dark just as the biggest storm in years hit them taking out most of the city's power and flooding the streets!! After driving around for hours we finally found Nandi Toyota - but due to security regulations as it was after hours they wouldn't let us drive the car into the yard - so after a heated discussion we had to go!!! We were very weary by then so we just pulled over and slept in a lay by!! The next morning we surfaced a bit blearily to hear a little boy on his way to school telling his friends we must be Australian gypsies!!! Something like that!!
The next day we went and booked the car into Nandi Toyota where it was having its service. Initially they wanted to ship in parts from Japan - which would have been really expensive and taken 7 weeks - but thankfully we managed to talk them out of that. We had already got the part numbers from Australia and we were able to source them locally - the car was ready by the end of the day and we were free to go! I enjoyed a few hours in their luxurious waiting room reading through the wealth of newspapers they provided - most in English which was a treat!
We spent a day doing some tourist things - I think Bangalore is more a city you come to to eat drink shop and party than to sightsee but there were a few interesting things to see!
We took on the services of a guide/navigator for the day - he hardly spoke English and wasn't terribly informative but he knew the roads very well! Thus he saved us hours in about turns!! First we went to the Lalbagh Botanical Gardens.
It was Saturday morning so they were full of families enjoying the sunshine, and as ever vendors everywhere. The gardens are set on 96 hectares and were built in the 18th century by Hyder Ali and his son Tipu Sultan and named for the rich colour of all the roses -Lalbagh means "red garden." Tipu as mentioned before was a Muslim King - and I will speak more of him later. Tipu had many strong character traits but one was an absolute hatred of the English! Thus he'd probably be horrified to see the replica of Crystal Palace in London which now graces the park! The gardens and plants were lovely and we also walked up to see one of the ancient Kempegowdas' watchtowers. Built by Kempegowda, the founder of Bangalore in the 16th century this was one of 4 supposed to mark the eventual boundaries of the city. Of course by now they are quite by passed!!
We then saw the famous Nandi statue within the 16th century Bull Temple - very similar to the one at Mysore. Nandi the bull was Shiva the god's mode of transport (hence Nandi Toyota) people apparently bring their cars here to be blessed (good idea given India's drivers!!!) but we didn't see this.
Driving around there are a great many parks and gardens and some very grand buildings. The Vidhana Soudha built by convict labour was very imposing. Now a civil service building it bears the slogan "Government work is God's work"!!
Next stop on the tour was Tipu Sultan's palace and fort. This palace is fairly small but had really nice ornate carved teak pillars. In its heyday it would have been beautiful with all its vegetable colour paintings but sadly it has fallen into disrepair and little remains of the former grandeur. However some of the interior was still impressive - we're pictured on the balcony where he received visitors. It was built by his father and completed by Tipu in 1791. After Tipu's defeat and death the victorious Duke of Wellington lived here for a while.
Tipu tends to pop up here and there in this neck of the woods and I got interested to learn more and read a book about him. He really was a fascinating man. A Muslim leader he really was one of the few in Indi a who saw clearly the threat the British represented. Known as the Tiger of Mysore after (allegedly) winning a battle against one he fought 4 wars against the British before dying in the last one in 1799 at the age of 49. After this the way was freed for nearly 200 years of English rule. He tried repeatedly to galvanize the other Indian rulers into action against the British but they were bought off with money and promises of shares in Tipu's land and only realized their error later. He also liaised with Napoleon and plotted to join with him to fight against the British only the Revolution got in the latter's way! He lived and died by his slogan: "the life of a lion for a day is better than the life of a jackal for a hundred years."
He also did a great deal of social reform and actually is credited with developing the rocket - apparently his picture remains in NASA to this day. A real all rounder!!
In the palace as well as some paintings there was a fascinating toy Tipu had had built on display. It could be wound up and showed a British soldier being devoured by a tiger - with an accompanying sound track of roars and screams!!! The original (like so much of India's heritage!) is now in London in the V & A Museum and we'll definitely have to see it when we get there. I grew to have enormous respect for Tipu though no doubt he'd not have liked me - his dislike of the Brits was legendary!!! His 2 infant sons were taken as hostages in one of the wars and no one is sure what became of them. One theory is that they were given to a rickshaw puller in Calcutta and apparently till this day you meet rickshaw pullers there who claim to be descended from the great ruler!
Finally in our tour we saw the ISKCON temple - or the International Society of Krishna Consciousness -or Hare Krishna's as they're better known. We were actually trying to find the Bangalore Palace which is supposedly a replica of Windsor castle where the Maharaja of Mysore's descendants still live - but no one seemed to have heard of it and it just went into the too hard basket finding it!! So we saw the signs and ended up in the Hare Krishna palace instead! It was a real palaver just getting in, we checked in our shoes went through security and then Andrew had to go back to check in the camera - no pictures allowed! We got one outside later though - though it doesn't really capture the size of the place. It is certainly an incredibly wealthy religion and they do seem to do some good - they have an enormous kitchen and try and provide a good lunch to all the poor children in the city every day. It was quite an experience but neither of us felt the need to grab an orange robe and convert! Check out their site on www.iskconbangalore.org
We spent a pleasant couple of days having a look around the Garden City though in parts it is more like the traffic jam city! We had to get some parcels sent from the post office which was interesting. We were ushered to a special parcel department and the lady (and her assistant) sewed them up in calico - it was quite a performance which has remained unchanged for 150 years! At a cost of only 10 rupees a parcel too!!
We ate at Kroshy's Bar and Restaurant a superb set up which has been successively run by 3 generations of the same family - we loved the fish curry. We also ate at Ebonys a restaurant with a great view of the city (though if you want to sit outside and get the best view best to book - we didn't!)
Here we had a wonderful Parsi meal. A minority religious group originally from Persia - Mr. Tata is one - the Parsi food was superb. We had Mutton Dhansak a delicious dish of lamb and lentils - we were hungry so only remembered afterwards that we never got a picture of the food!!! We got a shot of the view though!!! Seeing ladies drinking beer and out and about on their own on "girls' nights out" in the evenings was a shock - it doesn't really happen in much of India - again a reminder that Bangalore has a lot of western influences.
So we were planning to leave Bangalore the next day when once more fate intervened and we met someone who changed our direction! Omer Kaiser is a Bangalorean resident and a vintage car enthusiast. He drives a 1966 Land Rover and so inevitably we got talking! He took us out for a steak - at a restaurant near the post office - "The Only Place" - which was really good and the first time we've had a steak for ages!
Omer has a company organising adventure holidays - from cycling to kayaking to horse safaris and camping trips and of course 4 WD holidays. See his site www.xtrailsexpeditions.in for more information. He is also involved in setting up holidays for those who want to come and assist with looking after wildlife. Would we like to come and see 85 rescued bears just 20km out of Bangalore? Yes please!!
Unfortunately the vet Dr Arun wasn't there for 4 days so we had to wait. I chose this moment to develop a bad flu type bug (not swine flu!) which probably wasn't bad timing as we had a few days "off". We moved into Omer's comfortable guest house Minerva Residency where we enjoyed a few days R & R before Thursday.
We knew very little about the movement to save the bears before this and it was a real eye opener. The bears are sloth bears which are native to India. They are stolen by poachers when they are just cubs (and the mothers are often killed) and sold to the nomadic Kalandar gypsies. The bear's muzzle is then pierced with a red hot iron rod and his canine teeth are knocked out. A rope is threaded through the still sore muzzle and the bear begins his life as a performer. Walking from town to town they are made to "dance" when the rope is pulled as they are in so much pain. This will be their life until disease kills them or they die of old age. The practice of dancing bears has been illegal for 5 years but still it carries on.
Of course it would be easy to brand the gypsies as cruel - and some cases of real cruelly do exist - but you have to remember that this livelihood is all they have known in over 400 years since they moved down from Turkmenistan. They are themselves a very poor oppressed group of society. The Government has thus commenced a "buy back "scheme of the bears, aimed at education rather than punishment of these people. For surrendering the bear and signing (or thumb printing) a legal agreement that states that they will never use an animal this way again they are given 50,000 rupees and some help training to start a new career. The ladies are taught sewing and handicraft skills and schools are set up for the children.
This whole process is driven by the Wildlife SOS - see www.wildlifesos.org The centre we visited - one of 5- was set up 7 years ago with funding from some UK based charities. The 5 centres house 570 bears and there were 85 at the one we visited the Bannerghatta Bear Rescue Centre.
Here the bears are very well looked after by 2 vets Dr A Sha Arun and Dr V Divya and their 20 staff - many of who are gypsies whose ancestors would have been bear dancers. We spent a day there and I have to say it was truly heartwarming. The animals were so well cared for. Many of them are understandably initially terrified of humans associating them with pain- but slowly they are rehabilitated.
There are cages where the bears are treated when sick or fed (more of this later!) but generally the bears are released into the open as soon as possible. They have 50 acres of park land to call their own. They are given tyres and toys to play with and gradually they learn to become bears again - wrestling each other swimming in the pools and digging holes. A lot of these bears have never seen one of their own kind and some of them are never able to mix. Thankfully mostly they do, a fact evidenced by one of the female bears breeding with a visiting wild sloth bear! All the rescue centre males are desexed.
The bears have excellent medical care and the vets are clearly devoted to them. They are fed twice a day with porridge (very goldilocks!!) and also have plentiful fresh fruits and vegetables. The porridge is designed to be as close to their natural diet as possible - and they certain seem to love it!!! We went on a feed run with the fruit and it was amazing to see the bears running towards the truck - like big shaggy dogs! The one in our picture was particularly keen!!
You can see signs of what they have endured everywhere: e.g.) their poor scarred noses, some of them being undersized as they were housed in tiny areas and some keep "dancing" frantically to music in their heads. It is clear their years in captivity really hurt them - but also clear that this place is bear heaven!!!
One of the bear enclosures has a large family of Chital or spotted deer living there. They were gorgeous looking animals and one couple jumped in the bear enclosure one day and they have been all living together - deer and bears - happily ever after. Sadly some deer also jumped into the area where the rescued tigers roam with less happy results!
Feeding time was amazing. You can't use a flash around the Bears (again bad memories) so some of the pictures are a bit dark, but the one with me shows the porridge bowls (which contain real honey) lined up.
Each bear gets 4.5 litres twice a day so with 85 -that's a lotta porridge! They arrive at the cages for feeding and are juggled around so all bears get fed (though some greedy bears try for a 2nd go!) Dr Divya did an amazing job - she can actually tell each individual bear apart as can Dr Arun. Thus if one bear is off his/her food for 2 or 3 days they can be immediately brought in for examination. They have no table manners - the noise was like 100 industrial hoovers going on simultaneously !!!
At the end of feeding time those very reluctant to leave the trough (we all know people like that!) are sprayed away with water. The one in my picture is trying hard to get under the door for seconds!!!!
During the day we also got to see the nearby tiger and lion reserves. Again these are rescued animals that live in as near to natural conditions as possible. They weren't Buddhist tigers like the ones we met in Thailand (at Kanchaburi) so we stayed well back but we saw some beautiful specimens. We also spotted a couple of lions but they were very much asleep.
Bannerghatta also has a Biological Park - with hundred of beautiful butterflies - much like the ones we saw in Malaysia - and we got to look around.
We've had so many great days on this trip but for me this was one of the best. Have a look at Wildlife SOS's site as above if you want to find out more or donate to this worthy cause. Omer works closely with Wildlife SOS and is in the process of setting up a volunteer program. On this you can plan a trip around visiting the bears or other rescued wildlife at sanctuaries around India and actually get involved with their day to day care.
As mentioned earlier Omer's site is www.xtrailsexpeditions.in and he can also be contacted by mobile on +91 9845581829. We'd really recommend visiting one of these sanctuaries it was an amazing experience. You can also go for longer some - like the leopard sanctuary up north - are a few days trek into the jungle!
After our wonderful day out Omer tried to take us to his club in Bangalore - an old colonial relic - sadly Andrew couldn't get in as he didn't have long pants on - Omer didn't know the rules had changed. The Empire strikes back!!! So instead we again went to "The Only Place" and again had a great steak with him - don't know when we'll next have one!!! Thanks Omer for an unforgettable experience.
On Saturday 20 June we set off back down the road to Mysore - the best route to get back to the coast. On the way we again stopped at Srirangapatnam - where Tipu's capital was located. As detailed on the previous page we had seen part of it on the way in but having now learnt more about the great man I wanted a better look.
So, we saw Darja Daulat Bagh (or "built from the sea" - I guess a tribute to his ports) his ornate palace, which was in better repair than his Bangalore one and pretty impressive as were the gardens. The hand painted murals on the walls were really interesting - especially the one depicting all the Indian rulers of the day.
We also saw the Mosque with a school within the old fort and finally the impressive Gumtaz where he his father and mother are all buried. The Tiger of Mysore has a tiger skin (fake thankfully!) draped over his coffin.
Finally we drove back to Mysore where - for one night only - we headed back to a warm welcome at the Green Hotel.