For last year's holiday to India we headed south, spending two weeks travelling from Hyderabad to Mysore. Yes, I should arguably be writing about THIS year's trip but I'm still living in the past whilst I write this year's batch.
If you had asked me what there was to see in Bangalore before we actually went there, then I would have struggled to tell you the main attractions with the exception of the Lal Bagh gardens. Looking back I do rather wonder why we planned to spend so long there because all the guidebooks concurred that it wasn't the best place for tourists to go. Finding ourselves adopted by a local auto-rickshaw driver who took it upon himself to try to find some things actually worth doing, we ended our tourism on our first day in the city with a trip to Bangalore's finest park.Based on my very very basic knowledge of Hindi (in total about 40-50 words, none of which can be combined into a sentence) I suspect that Lal Bagh means 'The Red Gardens' but I could well be wrong. What I did know was that it ranked near the top of the city's not very long 'must see' list. We Brits are generally sceptical about the ability of any other country to produce a decent public park or botanical gardens. We may have lousy weather but we're a nation of gardeners and despite a national trait of modesty, we can be remarkably arrogant about our ability to beat the world at all things horticultural. I once went with my family to an enormous Dutch international horticultural expo where we all stood around rubbing our chins, sucking air over our teeth and saying "These foreigners just don't understand gardening, do they?"
Sunday afternoon was a good time to go to Lal Bagh since it seemed that the whole of the city was out in force to take a stroll in the city's biggest park. Unlike many attractions, this is one where being a tourist doesn't come at a high price and entrance was just 10 rupees. Lal Bagh is a constructed on a massive scale and covers 240 acres. There's no way you could see it all without spending at least half a day there, possibly more. Unfortunately we arrived late in the afternoon and knew we wouldn't have time to do more than scratch the surface.
The park was set up in 1740 by local heroes Hyder Ali and his son Tipu Sultan and together they gathered tropical and sub-tropical plants in between fighting against the British. Ironically, many years after their deaths, their collection was supplemented in the 1870s by the British Gardens Superintendent, John Cameron, who imported plants all the way from Kew Gardens. Cameron also commissioned the building of the famous glass house which wouldn't look out of place in Kew itself and was inspired in its design by the Crystal Palace in London. In a real spirit of British gentility Cameron intended that it should be used for horticultural shows and in an equally stubborn spirit the people of Bangalore continue with such shows to this day.
We weren't too sure whether the gardens would be a bit too kitsch when the thing we came across after entering was a rather poor flower clock that reminded me of childhood seaside visits to Weston-Super-Mare. The clock wasn't particularly well executed and the presence of all seven of Snow White's dwarves (but not the lady herself) was an unexplained addition. We giggled rather too much and feared that all our worst imaginings about the quality of Indian parks were about to come true.Other things that force you do a double-take and question whether this is Bangalore or Basingstoke are the rose gardens and a pretty little bandstand that wouldn't look out of place in any traditional English municipal park. We passed this on the way to the greenhouse and on our return at the end of our visit, when a local folk band were setting up to play in the early evening.
The greenhouse exceeded all my expectations and was bigger, fancier and more all-round awesome than I could ever have imagined. It's a truly magnificent construction and all the more remarkable for being so totally unnecessary in the tropical climate of India. To avoid everything getting totally over-heated, the glass only starts at about a height of 10 feet so that fresh air is almost sucked through the building. I'd love to be there for the flower show since I've seen photographs and it looks absolutely incredible.
Lal Bagh is also home to one of the oldest specimen rock formations in the world – the Peninsular Gneiss which dates back roughly 3 billion years – yes, billion, not million. That's not far off half the age of the earth. As a geologist by education, I had to have a good look at that and like all the other tourist we clambered across this National Geological Monument like a bunch of over-excited ants. In the middle of the outcrop we found one of the so-called Kempe Gowda towers which were set out in the 16th Century to mark the boundaries of what the city's founder Kempe Gowda imagined to be the likely greatest extent of the city. He couldn't possibly have imagined that his ambition for the city covered only a tiny proportion of 21st century Bangalore.
Last Light on the Lake
Passing rose gardens, cactus gardens and a lotus pond we became aware that the light was fading so we rushed towards to lake to watch the sunset. It was a bit of a crazy thing to do because we'd left out hotel many hours before with a plan to just stroll around some shops and now found ourselves at twilight with no mosquito repellent, hanging out by a lake – it wasn't clever and we were likely to get eaten a live so we had to take care not to stay too long. After grabbing a few photographs and swatting away lots of bugs, we headed back through the park to return to our driver and head back to the B&B with a long and busy day behind us.
In all honesty I struggle to recommend going to Bangalore but if you find yourself there, Lal Bagh should be on your list of places to see. It's big, pretty, mostly well maintained and a great place to hang out with the locals. And it's probably the best tourist bargain in the city.