Up until last week, I’d never been to India. My best friend at university was originally from Gujarat, a BBFC colleague and good friend was from Kerala and I must have watched and classified at least a couple of hundred South Asian films over the 11 years that I worked as a Film Examiner at the BBFC. Our interpreters would patiently explain various cultural aspects in each film, so I know all the major film stars, the differences between the main South Indian languages Kannada, Telugu, Tamil and Malayalam, as well as about ‘ragging’, ‘Eve-teasing’ and ‘dishoom’ style fighting. And yet when I arrived with the husband in Bangalore, Karnataka last week for an old friend’s wedding, I was still totally unprepared.
I had done some basic research about what to do and where to eat in Bangalore, but as the trip was centred around a Japanese-Tamil wedding spread over three days of festivities, I didn’t do as much as I would normally have. The vaccinations were painful (Hepatitis A, tyhpoid, tetanus, diphtheria and polio combined into two arm-numbing jabs), the Indian visa application process even more painful (that frustrating and arduous experience would take up a separate post) and the packing took an entire weekend. In hindsight, the most useful items that we took with us and which are essential for any future trip to India include, in no particular order, hand wipes, hand gel, tissues, Imodium, socks for visiting temples, comfortable shoes, sunblock, sunglasses, hat and sandwich bags (for carrying money, dirty socks and any used tissues when you’re out and about).
Since our return home, I’ve been going through the hundreds of photos and attempting to digest the eight day trip as a first timer to India. I’m fully aware that Bangalore was an extremely gentle and easy introduction to the country and that our experience would have been completely different had we landed in another part of India, but nevertheless I’m still overwhelmed by the sheer assault on the senses. The incessant honking of horns, the crazy heart-stopping traffic, the vast array of glorious colours in women’s clothes and at street markets, the delights of sampling new types of food for the first time, talking to friendly strangers on the street (including a bus driver who pulled up in front of me on a busy road, stopping all the traffic and asked me if I needed any help, to which I responded I was only trying to cross the road. He relayed this to the bus conductor, who burst into laughter!) and of course attending a wedding in India. All I know is that we can’t wait to return to India again to experience it all over again. The problem we now face is not knowing where to go next!
Here are a few highlights from the trip, again in no particular order:
- Attending an Indian wedding – I’ve seen countless Indian weddings in the films I’ve watched over the years but it’s a whole other experience to attend as a guest. It was also a Japanese-Tamil wedding with guests arriving from all over the world, so it was a rather unique experience. The temple ceremony was most definitely the highlight for everyone there. It involves some complicated rituals spread over many hours, but fortunately for my husband, he was befriended by an elderly gentleman who was helping to conduct the various stages of the ceremony and just happened to have the rituals book in his hand. If you’re fortunate enough to attend an Indian wedding, then do some research beforehand to get the most out of it, otherwise you’ll feel a bit bewildered. The temple lunch was incredible, served on banana leaves and I ate more than my fair share of aloo bonda, my newly discovered favourite deep fried snack in the shape of a ball with a subtly spicy potato filling …
- Tamil new year celebrations & post-wedding lunch at Karavalli – when I was doing my Bangalore research, I discovered that Karavalli was 49th in Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants 2014 list. I naturally emailed to make a booking but never got a reply. After mentioning this on Twitter to The Gateway Hotel a fortnight later, the manager emailed me to apologise but in the end I never made a booking. So you can imagine how delighted I was to discover that the post-wedding lunch on Tamil New Year was to take place at Karavalli. The food with special new year dishes was superb, to say the least, and deserves its very own future post
- Malleswaram market & Sri Sagar (Central Tiffin Room) – we were in the Malleswaram area quite a lot because of the wedding, so we were able to explore the flower, fruit and vegetable market on Sampige Road in the morning as well as early evening (I particularly love the fragrance of jasmine garlands), walk around the shopping area, bump into some stray donkeys and eat not once but twice at Sri Sagar (Central Tiffin Room) at 7th Cross and Margosa Road. Dating from the 1920s, it’s best known for its benne masala dosas. There’s no menu but we went with local friends both times, so apart from the superb dosas, we also tried their other specialities including rava idli, kesari bath and of course the famous filter coffee. I also had a glass of delicious hot badam (almond milk). We went for a late, second breakfast at 10.30 in the morning, which wasn’t too busy (upstairs is nice and breezy), but it’s much trickier getting in on a Saturday evening!
- Temple visits, Gandhi Bazaar & Vidyarthi Bhavan – one morning we took a hotel taxi to Gandhi Bazaar but as it was still a bit early for the shops to open, our driver Bala gave us a little tour around three nearby temples. The first stop was Nandi Temple where the giant bull is constructed from a single stone. Then we walked down to the nearby Dodda Ganesha Temple where we were fortunate to catch a priest performing a ceremony, washing the statue with a mixture of milk, honey and ghee. Finally we drove to the magnificent Gavi Gangadeshwara Temple, an unusual cave temple which is really worth a visit, even if just to meet a former comrade of Gandhi, now 105 yet still on his feet all day. A note about visiting temples, shoes have to be left outside but if you don’t like the idea of walking about inside with bare feet, then it’s acceptable to wear socks. Gandhi Bazaar is an interesting area to explore, after an excellent breakfast of masala dosas and filter coffee at the famous Vidyarthi Bhavan on the main road, where both locals and politicians like to hang out. There’s no queue, just people hovering around crowded tables hoping to grab a spare seat with strangers, and no menu either but there’s really only one thing to order…
- Mavalli Tiffin Rooms (MTR) – another Bangalore institution dating from 1924 and famous for its dosas and other tiffin snacks. We went to the original Lalbagh Road restaurant for a 12 course thali lunch (INR 200), the only option at lunch. And seeing as they also had a branch on St Mark’s Road, we managed to squeeze in four more meals there. It’s modern and not nearly as atmospheric as the original location, but being just a five minute walk away, definitely easier to reach. We preferred the masala dosas at MTR, just ever so slightly better than those at CTR. Other favourites include bisibele bhath, aloo bonda and poori
- Staying at St Mark’s Hotel – after reading about it in the New York Times 36 Hours in Bangalore, we booked a room there, as did a few other wedding guests. I’d recommend it to any visitor to Bangalore. The rooms are comfortable, the shower far better than the one at home and best of all, the service was extremely friendly and helpful throughout. Furthermore, the breakfast was superb, with a vast array of Indian and Western options. We filled up on freshly prepared vadas, dosas, parathas, idlis, sambar and chutneys every morning, the perfect start to the day. For a four star boutique hotel, it cost just the equivalent of an average B&B in England. It really was a home from home for the duration of our trip and a tranquil place for recovering from the outside bustle and heat (especially on the sixth floor)
- Koshy’s – if you’re staying at St Mark’s Hotel, then a trip to Koshy’s about a kilometre up the road (39 St Mark’s Road) is a must. Koshy’s is another of those Bangalore institutions, dating from the early 1940s and originally started out as a bakery. We preferred the old school atmosphere in the non-air conditioned cafe section on the left, where drinks and lighter meals are served by elderly waiters in white jackets. The food in the fiercely air-conditioned Jewel Box restaurant is pretty good (I had the Koshy’s special butter chicken), but in terms of ambience, the cafe is much better
- Taking an auto-rickshaw – being naturally risk-averse, I wasn’t too keen on this but we took our first one on our first evening in Bangalore, led by our Japanese friend who’s practically a local, as she spends so much time in India. It was somewhat nerve-wracking and often felt as if the vehicle would tilt over when the driver careered around corners fast. It’s also noisy and difficult to breathe or keep your eyes open because of the dust and pollution. However, it’s cheap and much quicker and easier than walking, so it’s the best option for shorter distances (rides lasting up to 30 minutes or so). Just agree the price before getting in (on the left hand side), have the right amount of cash ready and make sure the driver knows where you want to go (and you also need to know a recognisable landmark plus the cross road / junction of your destination)
- Learning to cross the road Indian-style – this takes some practice but eventually you have to cross the road unless you want to spend your entire trip from the inside of an auto-rickshaw or taxi. Having lived in Beijing in the mid-90s, I learnt to cross six lanes of traffic by hopping across lane by lane and just hoping for the best, but I’ve long forgotten those skills. Most of the time in Bangalore I was just yanked across by the husband who developed the knack relatively quickly. It also helps to know that the oncoming traffic – an intimidating mass of cars, taxis, auto-rickshaws, motorbikes, lorries and buses – will weave and swerve to avoid you and no one is out to run you over. So just keep your nerve and cross with some determination…
- Eating with the right hand only – on day one we didn’t think we’d be any good at this, but after a bit of practice eating a thali without any cutlery on the first day, by day two we managed to eat masala dosas without any problems (tip from friend, start in the middle where the potato filling is). After a while I learnt to use just my thumb, forefinger and middle finger and have developed a nifty technique for tearing different types of Indian bread by gripping a piece with my thumb and forefinger and using the middle finger to push / tear it!
- Day trip to Mysore organised through Padhaaro – Ish, the co-founder of Padhaaro, contacted me on Twitter during my research stage. It’s an Indian travel start-up connecting visitors to India with local greeters and experts in various cities throughout the country. I’m not at all keen on organised tours and visiting tourist locations, so the Padhaaro style of travelling and exploring seemed much more appealing. Ish was incredibly helpful and gave me tips on the best places to eat in Bangalore and then I booked a personal day trip to Mysore. The cost of the private car and driver for the day (07.00 to 22.30) was US$85, while there was no fee for our Greeter, Mysore-based architecture graduate Khushmita (we just had to cover her meals and entrance fees). Before the trip, she emailed me a detailed itinerary for the day and after one quick tweak on my end (more bazaar walking and less nature), we were set to go. Mysore is about 140 km from Bangalore, and takes 3 hours to get there. Hopefully I’ll write a separate post on Mysore soon, but for now, I’ll say that seeing the city through Khushmita’s eyes was truly special. She created the perfect blend of culture (too much and I become overwhelmed), nature, eating and market browsing. We tucked in to a hearty dosa breakfast at a cafe in a heritage building, visited the splendid Mysore Palace, wandered around the art gallery in Jaganmohan Palace, lunched at the Olive Garden at the foot of the Chamundi Hills, drove up the hills to walk around the Chamundeshwari Temple and surrounding market, then spent the early evening exploring the shopping area and old bazaar. There, Khushmita took us to the famous Guru sweet shop where she introduced us to the toothache-inducing but delightful Mysore pak. I’m certainly going to use Padhaaro again when we revisit India, and of course stay in touch with Khushmita…
I know I’ve barely scratched the surface in attempting to convey even the most basic of impressions of our first visit to India, but I hope to write in more detail at a later stage. While I was writing this post, I sipped on a lassi made with homemade yoghurt and flavoured with cardamom pods and honey, followed by the husband’s home-made Andhra pesarattu dosas and curry. And we’re looking forward to watching the Indian film The Lunchbox…
Thanks for reading!
Helen Yuet Ling Pang