The moment I spotted a beef sandwich outside the arrival hall of Bangalore International Airport, I knew I was going to enjoy my three weeks in South India. While I wasn’t craving beef exactly, the sandwich represented my unequivocal departure (escape) from the backwardness of North India. No more would I be subjected to the region’s stifling restrictions and intransigence based on obsolete cultural attitudes (and in this case selective compassion); I was now in a society of relatively modern, laid-back and liberal values. [Admittedly, the slaughter and consumption of cattle for pleasure isn’t exactly the most progressive or humane practice, but its certainly more civilised than leaving such idiotic creatures to wander around crowded city streets in search of plastic rubbish and dung for sustenance]. Indeed, I soon discovered that South India is extraordinarily different to North India, as contrasting as the Mediterranean countries are to Scandinavia.
South India constitutes the five states at the tip of the Subcontinent’s “V” where Dravidian cultures and languages dominate. The state boundaries are loosely defined by the geographic coverages of each of the four major Dravidian languages: Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam and Kannada, which are relatively similar to each other (like French, Italian and Spanish). Crucially, absolutely no correlations exist between the Dravidian languages of South India and the Indo-Aryan languages (which includes Hindi, Punjabi and Bengali) of North India. To appreciate this insane dichotomy, imagine living in a city where English is the common tongue, but the national language is different. Not a related or familiar language, like German, but something utterly alien and indecipherable, like Chinese. That’s the reality of India, where native speakers of the minority Dravidian languages usually cannot understand the language of the federal government. The term “minority” though is grossly misleading, since each Dravidian language boasts 50-80 million speakers! The linguistic diversity of India is incomprehensible and totally incomparable to any other country.
I’m flabbergasted to declare this in relation to India, but I consider Bangalore to be a “liveable city” even for a pampered Western gentleman such as myself. While I’m not suggesting any intentions of a permanent relocation, if I was forced into choosing a new home in India, Bangalore would definitely be my target. Bangalore reminded me somewhat of Hong Kong and Kuala Lumpur: oases of modernity in Asia where Oriental exoticisms and tropical conditions fuse magnificently with the comforts of Westernisation. Bangalore is a megapolis of more than 10 million people, yet the overwhelming crowds, hassling, rubbish and lawless driving endemic in North Indian cities are thankfully absent. Pedestrians are afforded the luxury of footpaths, while motorists even slow down to allow people to cross the road safely! The streets are pleasantly shaded by trees with glorious canopies, and green spaces with manicured lawns and gardens breath life into the dense neighbourhoods. Bangalore is a hive of Western consumeristic activity where credit cards are widely accepted (a god-send during the cash crisis) and iconic elite brands such as Gucci, Louis Vuitton and Giorgio Armani provide familiar and strangely reassuring aesthetics to the streetscapes (despite not being stores I would typically frequent!).
Bangalore is a magnet for India’s brightest and most ambitious talent, drawn to the so-called “Silicon Valley of India” to engage in the country’s booming tech industry. Consequently, the city rivals Bombay as India’s most progressive and cosmopolitan centre and its enthralling culinary scene and nightlife reflect this reality. While in Rajasthan, I was advised by two Bangaloreans that the only worthwhile touristic pursuits in the city are eating and drinking. The former is obviously my favourite pastime, while the later was rarely attended to in North India (unintentional). I caught up with Bhagya on my first night in Bangalore and ventured to one of the city’s celebrated microbreweries, along with several of her lovely and very generous friends. I was amazed to find myself in a chic industrial pub serving quality German beers on tap, as if I had just stepped into a Melbourne, London or New York establishment. Toit brewpub was absolutely packed with Indians drinking pints of weiss beer and pale ale, which was most unusual after the standard scene in North India of locals swigging whisky outside a grungy “English Beer and Wine Shop” (I never deduced the reason for the name). I visited more gastropubs the next day, enjoying the break from bland Kingfisher lager and sampling trendy dishes (rustic classics with modern twists, like panko-crumbed fish and chips with sirarcha infused aioli) for the novelty of it in India.
Something I love about contemporary Asian cities like Bangalore are the hidden pockets of traditional culture surviving within jungles of concrete and modern commercialism. Bangalore’s Krishna Rajendra Market certainly fits this bill. The market thrives with locals shopping for tropical fruits, vegetables, Indian cookware and, most notably, flowers. The basement level of the market complex is completely devoted to the wholesale trade of flowers and banana leaves. The unsuspecting tourist is blinded by the resultantly vivid cacophony of colours emanating from this glorious space existing in the shadows of a gritty metropolis. Many vendors feature piles and piles of a single variety of flower strewn on their raised, tile storefronts. Customers buy the flowers literally by the shovel load. The flowers are used for devotional purposes at (usually Hindu) temples and elsewhere. Several aisles sell exclusively flower garlands, which are assembled every day by remarkably skilful and hard-working men (I never spotted a woman undertaking this task, which would be construed as “feminine” in the West). Exploring this basement maze of flower shops was incredibly enjoyable, apparently for both the vendors and I. Most people were genuinely beaming at my presence and were eager to chat and have their photographs taken. One elderly gentleman even gave me one of his roses. It was a completely useless present that obviously ended up in the bin very quickly; but it’s always the thought that counts!
I travelled to the nearby city of Mysore, yet another amiable South Indian destination. While Bangalore represents the modern, aspirational face of India, Mysore is regarded as the cultural capital of their shared state of Karnataka. Mysore was ruled by the Hindu Wodeyar dynasty for more than six centuries and developed into the region’s foremost city. The dynasty's eventual alliance with the British Empire transformed its urban layout and architectural composition. The colonial legacy is easily identifiable in the city’s atypical Indian character: wide boulevards, footpaths (!), roundabouts with ornamental rotundas and statues, Victorian-era buildings, and above all, a profound sense of space. Consequently, Mysore has the vibe of a provincial town rather than a city of more than a million people; perhaps somewhat like Adelaide. The city’s solitary attraction of notoriety is Mysore Palace, a Word Heritage listed edifice which fuses South Indian, Mughal and Victorian-era architectural styles (an example of Orientalism). The enormous building was constructed at the turn of the century and externally looks somewhat like a European palace, aside from its open-air nature (catering to the tropical climate) and Oriental decorative motifs. Inside though, the building features a series of whimsically designed halls and rooms, with gold and teal dominating as the colours of choice. On Sunday evening for 45 minutes every week, Mysore Palace is magnificently illuminated by 97,000 light bulbs. It was at this rare spectacle that I bumped into British Hattie and Susanna, who I met in Udaipur. This would commence an almost daily occurrence in South India of encountering people I met earlier in my trip.
In a country of more than a billion people, one must expect tremendous variation between regional cuisines. While this is indeed true for India, generally every culinary offering in the country falls into two umbrella categories: North Indian and South Indian. In North India, dairy products like ghee, butter, cream and butter milk are employed liberally in the preparation of thick gravy curries and heavy accompanying breads. In South India though, coconut oil is preferred for food preparation and rice, rather than bread, is the foremost staple. South Indian curries are lighter, runnier and probably healthier than their Northern counterparts; I certainly thought they were easier to stomach multiple times a day long-term. Andhra cuisine is particularly popular throughout South India; the food hailing from the region’s least tourist state but culinary epicentre. Andhra restaurants typically specialise in banana leaf thalis (hence the demand for banana leaves at the market) and biriyani. The all-you-can-eat thalis ($2-3) feature mounds of rice piled onto banana leaves and served with 3-4 simple vegetable curries, sambar (lentil-based broth), raita (yoghurt dip), rasam (a broth made from tamarind juice and spices), pickled lime, papadums and cardamom-infused rice pudding. A selection of chilli condiments are always available on the table, including fried chillies, chilli paste and a spicy peanut crumb, which added much needed spice (I found food in India was surprisingly not that spicy). Patrons can then order meat or fish “side dishes” to the meal, as South Indians are thankfully more liberal about eating animal flesh than their Northern counterparts. Biriyani is long-grained rice cooked in meat broth and served with meat and vegetables. A “vegetarian” Biriyani is an oxymoron, so never order one because it will taste shit.
Bangalore and Mysore totally reinvigorated my enthusiasm for travelling in India, which made me somewhat disappointed in the realisation I had less than three weeks to explore the Deep South. However, I think if I visited Bangalore at the start of my trip, I would have been underwhelmed and eager to move on to the “real India”. But for those who have spent an extended period in India, Bangalore is fascinating to visit to see the modern face of the country; as much a part of “real India” as any other city.
That’s all for now,