A lady guides a motley group of people interested in architecture and local history into Bengaluru’s Krishna Rao Park, at the centre of which is a curious, abandoned pavilion. A chowkidar unlocks it and lets us in, and we discover a grand conference hall covered in cobwebs and bird droppings, like a scene out of a scary movie. I never knew that such a place existed right in the heart of town. In that setting, Dr. Rachel Lee narrates the riveting story of German architect, Otto Koenigsberger, who designed this pavilion while he lived and worked in Bengaluru from 1939 to 1948.
I’d never heard of him before this day, but I’m learning a lot of new things on this walk organised by the Centre for Contemporary Studies at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc). Koenigsberger, who was Jewish, escaped Nazi persecution and found a safe haven in India. Around 1940, he was appointed the Chief Architect and Town Planner of the princely state of Mysore. The walk in his footsteps ends at the leafy IISc campus, where Koenigsberger designed several interesting buildings that are still in use as offices and lecture halls. Unfortunately a number of Koenigsberger’s fine constructions, such as a bus terminus at Kalasipalyam, and tiffin mantaps in Malleswaram, have been demolished. But some of the cities he was involved in planning elsewhere, such as Jamshedpur and Bhubaneswar, still stand as a legacy to his vision of a well-organised modern city.
This is the second heritage walk I’ve been on in this past week, and I suspect I’m becoming something of a walk junkie. A few days earlier, I had joined another tour organised by Bengaluru by Foot, which traces the history of Tipu Sultan, a better-known name than Koenigsberger when it comes to the shaping of Bengaluru’s history. I had heard about Tipu’s birthplace at Devanahalli, just next to the new Bengaluru International Airport, but going there seemed like an ordeal. Besides, how would I interpret whatever I saw? For that purpose, Ameen Ahmed, a PR man turned wildlife enthusiast and heritage lover, is a great guide and I get to see much more than I’d bargained for. After climbing the ramparts of Devanahalli’s impressive fort, which is rarely visited by tourists but often used for film shoots, we drive on to Sultanpet, a small town at the foot of Nandi Hills, named after Tipu. We stroll inside a 1,000-year-old temple and then to an abandoned British burial ground with spooky tombstones. Nearby is a tiny mosque, now completely crumbling, that Tipu built at the point where steps lead uphill. We then drive to the top of the hill to explore Tipu’s hunting lodge and walk along 18th-century fortifications that are still standing.
All this hectic walking made me recall the time 15 years ago when I first moved to the city. Then there were no such heritage walks on offer, but I walked around a lot, figuring it was the best way to get to know my new hometown. Bengaluru, which today grows at an estimated rate of 600 square feet per minute, was a smaller city then. It was completely feasible to walk the 7-8 kilometres from where I lived to M.G. Road or City Market.
I especially enjoyed strolling in the Majestic area, where I first set foot as a backpacker ages ago. It was rich in character, with its cheap old-style lodges, even cheaper eateries, eccentric shops, and grey markets. It was there that I acquired a fascination for seedy bars, gobi Manchurian, and art deco cinemas. Majestic fulfilled all the criteria for an interesting microcosm through which to view the world, so for me, a novelist, it became an unending source of inspiration. Gradually I began planning a series of detective novels and decided to name my fictional hero, what else, but Mr. Majestic. He was based on my encounters with the neighbourhood’s touts, and in the first novel Mr. Majestic! The Tout of Bengaluru, the tout becomes a detective who walks through the city in search of a lost tourist. The research required a lot of walking.
My friends thought me totally spaced out whenever they spotted me walking about. Trying to usher me into their air-conditioned cars, they told me of how V.S. Naipaul complained, in A Million Mutinies Now, about the poor pavements in Bengaluru. I pooh-poohed their warnings. Then one day, 10 years ago, heading home after one of my epic walks, in pouring monsoon rain, I fell into a drain through a hole in the pavement and broke a leg. Alert fellow city-dwellers rescued me, brought me to a hospital, and I spent the next four months laid up in bed. The friends tut-tutted, told you so.
After that, the city didn’t quite seem like it was made for walking anymore. But then, about a year after breaking my leg, I discovered the possibility of going on organised city walks. My first walk was a memorable tour of the old fort in Bengaluru Pete, the node around which the city originally grew, organised by INTACH (Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage). The fort is often closed to tourists but our guide took us down into the dungeon where Tipu Sultan kept British prisoners. I was hooked. The next INTACH walk took me to the Gavipuram cave temple and its surroundings, through which we were guided by the erudite architect and INTACH convener Sathya Prakash Varanasi. The same walk included a visit to one of the towers built hundreds of years ago by Bengaluru’s founder, Kempegowda, to mark the city’s westernmost point. Of course, the city has grown well beyond that landmark now, and the small tower stands lost in the middle of habitation.
My appetite to learn more about my own city grew, for I was reminded how walking is a mode of transport particularly suited to the discovery of edifying detail. The INTACH walks were a great start, but they were sporadic. But then, around that same time in 2005, my prayers were answered when a company called BangaloreWALKS was started by Arun Pai. I heard about them a year or two later, signed up for one of their heritage walks, and was told to arrive at the meeting point at an ungodly hour on a Sunday morning. The meeting point was Trinity Church, which I had never heard of despite having lived in Bengaluru for half a decade. It turned out that the Trinity Circle, right on M.G. Road, is named for this slightly forlorn building and it just went to prove that the very places I thought myself familiar with still held secrets worth discovering. The church’s walls bore witness to some of the peculiar hardships of British life in India: memorial plaques mentioned Englishmen falling down Jog Falls or getting eaten by tigers in Shimoga. Expat life for us foreigners in India has clearly improved since then. After giving us some history of the church, our guide for the day, Arun’s wife, the author Roopa Pai, took us down the length of M.G. Road, known as South Parade in British times. Every 50 steps or so, we stopped to look at something interesting such as the site of the bungalow where the young Winston Churchill had supposedly lived.
At that time, I remember wondering whether there’d really be takers for this kind of activity—getting up early, battling Sunday shoppers, listening to outdoor lectures on local history. To my surprise, ten years on, BangaloreWALKS has played host to 30,000 walkers on more than a thousand walks. These have included a variety of destinations, including the ever popular “Green Heritage Walk” conducted by Vijay Thiruvady in the Lalbagh Botanical Gardens.
When I contact Arun Pai and congratulate him on their success story, he tells me that ten years ago, most people described Bengaluru as a place with “nothing much to see.” Tourists were advised to go to Mysore instead.
This approach troubled Arun and led to a brainwave. Let’s take the most famous road in Bengaluru that everyone thinks they know well, and conduct a walk there, Arun decided. And the Victorian Bangalore Walk that I had taken emerged as an experiment in 2005. Though first started with foreign tourists in mind, their biggest surprise was that locals flocked to the walk in huge numbers.
A decade later, there are many heritage walking companies mushrooming in the city, and there’s room for many more, thinks Arun. I agree and am especially happy there are now walks to suit all tastes. Recently, I went on one that combined two of my passions, exploring the city and good food: A Biryani Walk in Fraser Town organised by Unhurried, a company that conducts walks that specifically look at food traditions and architectural history. The biryani walk involved trying many versions of the dish at half-a-dozen speciality restaurants around Mosque Road, an area of Bengaluru known for its non-vegetarian eating habits. As a certified glutton, I wasn’t disappointed by the offerings. Foodie and architect Mansoor Ali guided us through the local dakhni biryani (also known as Bengaluru biryani), a delicious Gujarati Kutchi Memon style mutton dum biryani, a rare kofta biryani, and then the totally unique Bhatkal-style shaiya biryani made of rice flour vermicelli. Many more snacks were included: grilled quail, delectable kulfi, and a bag of goodies with treats I had no idea existed, from the 100-year-old Albert Bakery.
Bengaluru by Foot Despite having recently started operations, they already have 28 different tours on offer (www.b engalurubyfoot.com; ₹3,500 for the full-day Tipu Sultan tour, including transport, breakfast, and lunch).
INTACH Great walks, but highly sporadic and very popular. They’re often fully booked within 15 minutes of announcement on their mailing list (www.intachblr.org/parichay.html; walks are sometimes free or there’s a nominal charge of a few hundred rupees).
BangaloreWALKS This veteran walking tour company has a walk every weekend of the year led by well-informed guides who share their love for the city (www.bangalorewalks.com; aims to be affordable and still charges only ₹500 per walk, as it did in the beginning).
Unhurried Founded with the intention of conducting heritage tours around food traditions and architectural history such as bungalows in the old British cantonment. (Unhurried.in; the biryani walk costs ₹1,500 per mouth, including biryani tastings and too many snack samples.)
Appeared in the December 2015 issue as “This City Was Made For Walking”.
Zac O'Yeah is the author of the Bengaluru crime novel trilogy "Mr Majestic", "Hari, a Hero for Hire" and "Tropical Detective" (Pan Macmillan India) and his latest travel book is "A Walk Through Barygaza" (Amazon/Westland Books 2017).
Nirlek Dhulla thrives on using photography to document travel and cultural experiences. He thrives on interacting with people and spaces, discovering connections and stories and emotions that best represent them.