Beyond its tech facade, India's wilderness beckons

Despite modernization, country's traditional culture still vibrant and alive

June 11, 2006|By VANI RANGACHAR | VANI RANGACHAR,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BANGALORE, INDIA -- On our visits home to Bangalore when I was a child, my mom toted giant jars of Skippy so my siblings and I could have peanut butter sandwiches. My grandmother bought her vegetables fresh from a cart that a skinny, muscular man pushed through the street, and milk was sold, still warm, by a man who milked the water buffalo in front of her house. When we went touring outside the city, it was only to visit ancient temple after ancient temple. These were some of the sureties of my India.

But during a trip here in March, after an absence of six years, I realized that many of the certainties of childhood were gone - vanished in a tech and outsourcing boom that has proved an economic boon for the city. The people, my family, were all dear and familiar to me, but the city? Almost unrecognizable.

Those water buffaloes had long since vanished from Bangalore's streets. High-rise apartment buildings tower where there were farm fields. In a city that once had no grocery stores, there is now a Food World, with milk and vegetables in refrigerated cases, freezers full of prepared foods and shelves stocked with Skippy.

At the trendy Blue Bar - this in a place where "proper" people didn't drink and foreign brands were hard to find - I sipped an excellent Grey Goose martini, my first in India. I had a cappuccino at Cafe Coffee Day, a Starbucks-like place where patrons are glued to their cell phones. And I got the best haircut of my life at Bounce, a high-end salon that opened last year.

With my shorn locks went my notions of the city I thought I knew, where modernization always seemed several decades behind the United States.

Until now.

Bangalore has become hip, fun and effervescently energetic, riding high on the shoulders of prosperity. But this city of about 6 million is not a tourist magnet. It's the capital of Karnataka state and primarily a business center, and it's hard to spend more than a couple of leisurely days here.

There's not much sightseeing besides a couple of pretty parks and some architecturally interesting government buildings. Unlike Delhi or Rajasthan to the north, it has no romantic rose-tinged palaces and forts, no camel rides in the desert, no villagers wearing mirror-work skirts and tops. Its traffic jams are legendary.

If you are in Bangalore, it's likely you are here on business, or you are like me, a visiting nonresident Indian (or NRI, as the acronym-loving Indians call us). When the nonstop city wears you out, it's time to get away.

There are more vacation spots and activities to try outside the city than ever before. Shravan Gupta, director of Travel Tours, an agency with 10 offices in Bangalore and other southern India cities, credits the improved ease of travel. "With the low-cost carriers and a lot of highway improvements, a lot more places are accessible," Gupta said.

I checked out one resort north of the city. Angsana Bangalore, a Marriott-style resort, opened in 2001. It's affiliated with the Asian luxury chain Banyan Tree Hotels & Resorts, which has been expanding across Asia and the Pacific since 1995. The 8-acre resort has a spa, a conference center and a meandering, manmade stream, with a pool and waterfall. Room rates start at $178.

Angsana and other such resorts depend on corporate retreats and conferences to fill their rooms during the week. On the Wednesday I visited, I wasn't able to get a room because all 39 had been filled by Philips electronics company employees having an off-site conference, a desk clerk told me.

So I decided to go farther afield.

Shreyas

I traveled 22 miles from Bangalore northwest to Shreyas, a yoga retreat started in 2004. It was a stressful 1 1/2 -hour drive (even though I had borrowed my cousin's driver), during which we had several near-collisions on a garbage-strewn road jammed with people, rickshaws and cars.

Maybe it was the journey that made my arrival at Shreyas feel so welcoming. Inside the gates, coconut trees rustled in the breeze. It was quiet enough to hear bird song.

Two men clad in white kurtas and loose pants greeted me at the entrance. One placed a garland of flowers around my neck; the other handed me a cool, wet washcloth to clean off the road grime.

Shreyas, owned by a widely traveled financier, Pawan Malik, is an artful melding of Indian and international, spiritual and high-tech. Vegetables, herbs and flowers are grown on the 25-acre property, and the cuisine is vegetarian, wholesome (no alcoholic drinks) and innovative. Its dozen rooms and cabin-tents have broadband Internet connections but no TV. (For the desperate, there's a room where you can watch DVDs.)

Shreyas has an almost religious attention to detail in service and decoration. The landscaping on the former coconut farm includes artfully placed statues of Hindu gods. Temple-like granite columns frame passageways at the main building. A library holds volumes by Deepak Chopra and Kahlil Gibran.

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