Pic1 : Bangalored! A tour of a ruined bungalow in the heart of the city.
Pic2 : Arun Pai
Pic3 : Vijay Tiruvady presents the Lalbagh Walk to delegates of the United Nations World Tourism Organisation
Most Bangaloreans have an impulse to tear their hair out whenever they have out-of-town visitors. What can they possibly share with them, apart from two gardens and a crumbling palace, as a neighbour put it?
Launched in March 2005, Bangalore Walks (www.bangalorewalks.com) offers an alternative route, coaxing city dwellers to cast away their indifference. Corporate visitors from GE, Volvo, PricewaterhouseCoopers, Unilever, IBM and Accenture, besides local citizens, have greeted the concept with a high five.
This is the brainchild of Arun Pai, whose former avatars included time as an Arthur Andersen consultant, at a New York education company, and at a Mumbai angel fund. Each unique walk experience involves months of research, market testing and pre-launch fine-tuning for clients aged eight to 90. Pai explains, "If you visit London, New York or Singapore, you feel there's so much to do, so little time to do it in. But even cities like Bangalore have fascinating stories underlying their growth. The time has come to tell them. Our concept grew in response to a personal passion and a serious market need."
For instance, take their weekend Lalbagh Walk through a hallowed green space. What's special about it? Standing at the foot of the 16th-century mandapam erected by the Yelahanka chieftain Kempe Gowda, presenter Vijay Tiruvady addresses our motley group of eight:
"Of the world's 2,000-odd botanical and horticultural gardens, few contain the diversity that Lalbagh does within its 200 acres. You'll find the Chilean Araucaria here, the Cannonball tree from Guyana, the Panamanian Candle tree, and the beautiful Amherstia Nobilis from Myanmar... "
In those magical moments, Tiruvady offers us new eyes through which to view the familiar. Over the next three hours, we discover layered histories within the public park that is the city's pride.
For instance, that Lalbagh originally began as a 40-acre 18th century Islamic garden that Haider Ali of Mysore modelled on the pleasure gardens of Sira, near Tumkur. That the Rose and Cypress Garden that it morphed into under Haider's son, Tipu Sultan, owed some of its floral brilliance to the Tigala community from Tamil Nadu, known for its gardening expertise. That Tipu imported plants from distant lands where he had envoys. That Lord Wellesley redefined Lalbagh as a botanical garden. Each layer was superimposed on a 3,000-year-old gneiss formation, perhaps once part of the legendary Gondwanaland before the continental drift.
As we wander with Tiruvady, questions bloom in our minds. From which sacred tree did god create heaven and earth (clue: Indian mythology)? Which fruit has flowers that grow inwards, nurturing wasps that help it to pollinate? Which tree has resin that is prized as amber? Which Indian tree "plants itself," according to Pliny the Elder?
We connect with Tiruvady's passion for Lalbagh, as we cull answers like flowers for a puja. We discover the secret lives of bamboos and peepals, the Talipot Palm and the Paperbark tree. The nature-propelled spell sparks camaraderie and conversation over masala dosa, grape juice, and other traditional breakfast delights at an eatery with a history to round out the experience.
Noted playwright-actor Girish Karnad observes of Lalbagh Walk: "I can't remember when I have had such a delightful time re-exploring a venue I thought I knew intimately. In three hours your `walk' brings to life history, environment, botany, culture, landscape architecture, gardening and food — unpeeling an unknown Bangalore/ Bengaluru."
An experience just as extraordinary awaits those who take a Victorian Walk down central M.G. Road with Pai. It all begins at the Holy Trinity Church, as we close our eyes and listen: "It is the year 1791, and each one of us is a soldier in the English army... "
Then and now!
Thus transformed, we gaze outwards at 7 a.m. — and perceive an upward slope leading to South Parade, the heart of the British cantonment. In a trice, the traffic seems to vanish. Instead, we imagine never-ending parties amidst bungalows with lavish gardens, chukkas of polo, rounds of golf, and hunts with baying English dogs!
By degrees, we rub shoulders with Cornwallis and Wellesley, Napoleon and Tipu Sultan. And we plunge into the Great Trignometric Survey of India. We realise that now-bustling M.G. Road was once the preserve of the army, the church and a few landed families.
As we delve, we jettison mundane notions about Bangalore. We garner answers to a tale of two cities. What makes over 15,000 expatriates feel at home amidst the Garden City's monkey-tops, those ornate external wooden trappings that crown most local windows, perhaps to keep monkeys away (or for them to swing from)? Did our city play a role in the Allied landings at Normandy on D-Day in 1944? Which was the first city in south Asia to be electrified? What role did this knowledge capital play in the stellar lives of Sabeer Bhatia and Krishna Bharat?
Melding quiz time with a fellowship meet, the Victorian Walk is an adventure that woos us with both wit and trivia. May Worng, an Australian Subject Matter Expert who spent over four months at the local ANZ Bank, recalls, "I'd never realised there was so much history on M.G. Road alone — Yahoo, the Bible Society, the Hotmail founder, Winston Churchill, etc. I've now started exploring the backstreets."
Lahar Appaiah, a Bangalorean for over 23 years, now a corporate lawyer with a large IT firm, notes, "The walk reinforced notions I had about our city. But I also learnt about Bangalore's importance as a military and defence location." Jamshedpur-bred Anjali Varma, currently with a Bangalore recreation company, stresses, "I always thought Bangalore was a mix of a small town and semi-metro, though the history was a little hazy. The walk added newer dimensions to my understanding. I fell in love with this city all over again."
The word spreads
Today, Bangalore Walks also offers customised tours for overseas business visitors, out-of-town fort explorations, teambuilding activities, a 45-minute city-based musical that is a hit at corporate themed dinners, besides history and nature `Exploriences' for schoolchildren.
Pai jokes about its word-of-mouth client routing, "Can you believe we are a company with half-a-dozen product offerings, thousands of retail customers, and a veritable who's-who of corporate India on our client list — and we have never printed a brochure!"