“ Palace built in 1887 „
~Strolling on a Sunday Afternoon~
In November 2009 we took a two week trip to central southern Indian, travelling between Hyderabad and Mysore. Along the way we had two stops in Bangalore.
After we'd arrived at the lovely Terrace Gardens B&B in Bangalore we were faced with a challenge - what to do on a Sunday. Unusually for a large Indian city, Bangalore was ludicrously quiet and the normal 'open all hours' culture of India didn't seem to apply. Many of the shops and attractions were closed and we weren't really sure how to amuse ourselves. We checked our guidebook, pulled together a few ideas of places we could go and see and decided to head off and just wander around. How naïve can you get? You can't stroll in Bangalore - it's enormous. Everything is really far apart. We must have been crazy.
Before we even made it from our hotel to the MG Road we picked up a follower. A guy with a splendid moustache dressed in a grey uniform slowed his auto-rickshaw (aka tuk tuk) to walking pace and asked us where we wanted to go. "We're just walking around, going to look at the MG Road" I told him, "We don't need a driver". He stayed with us chatting away, telling us he'd be really cheap "Why walk madame, I only want 10 rupees and I'll take you to the MG Road". I wasn't convinced - I'd seen the map, it was just at the end of the road we were on.
Eventually he appealed to our sympathy. He told us that there was no business for him today and he hadn't had a customer all day. He said the shops on the MG Road would mostly be closed (I doubted him but it was actually true) and he'd happily drive us around for half a day for 50 rupees (about 70p). What did we have to lose?, he asked and to be fair, he had a point. We had no particular plans, he had nothing better to do, why not keep each other company. We decided to just go with the flow.
We got into the tuk tuk and I told him what I had on my 'to-see' list. I wanted to go to Lal Bagh gardens and Tipu Sultan's palace. He told us that he thought the latter wasn't so great but he'd really like to take us to Bangalore Palace. We'd ruled out the Palace in our half-plan because our guidebook said it only opened one week each year. Either we struck really lucky (possible) or the guidebook was wrong (probably). He showed us some pictures and we decided to let him take us wherever he wanted.
It soon became very apparent that what looked like quite small distances on my map were a long way in a tuk tuk with a complex one way system. No wonder the place is so congested if everyone had to drive twice as far to get anywhere. It seemed to take forever but eventually we found ourselves at the palace, the driver dropped us off and told us where he'd be waiting and said we could take our time.
~Would the Queen let Megadeth into Windsor?~
Bangalore Palace is a bizarre place that's not as old as you might expect but is every bit as weird as you could hope. By Indian terms it's a newbie - built between 1862 and 1944 with its completion only beating Independence by three years. The British architect was inspired by Windsor Castle, or so they claim. Personally I couldn't really see too many similarities other than a bit of a rounded turret over-kill but inspiration works in strange ways sometimes. It's now owned by Srikanta Datta Narsimharaja Wadiyar, the current head of the wealthy royal Wadiyar family.
These days Bangalore Palace is known as a concert venue, but not for delicate twangy traditional music, oh no! Bangalore Palace is becoming a major stop-off point for hard rock bands looking for a big space in which to make a loud noise. They don't let the likes of Megadeth and Iron Maiden into the palace but the grounds are enormous and the head-banging leather-clad youth of India flock to these outdoor extravaganzas.
~No Wonder the Wadiyars are Wealthy~
With no leather to be seen and no intent to listen to loud music, we rolled up and were dropped off by our determined auto-rickshaw driver. The first thing we realised was that this was one of the most controlled and regimented Indian attractions we'd ever seen. No flak was being cut by the guards - your camera was not allowed out of your pocket until you'd bought not only your entrance ticket but also your camera permit. The camera permit is one of the more annoying of Indian tourist 'taxes' but I'm not normally wound up by it. In the hottest tourist hotspots you can expect to get stung for camera charges but never have I faced a charge of 500 rupees (about £7) just for the pleasure of taking my own pictures. If that weren't bad enough, the entrance fee per person was another 200 rupees on top. If you are thinking "Hey, that doesn't sound like a lot" I can put it into context - it's easily enough to cover a whole day of tourist attractions and lunch in most cities.
By this time we'd been in India for over a week and was getting in the 'zone'. I harrumphed and grumbled about the price, threatened to leave, told them it was a ludicrous price and acted rather stroppy. Then the guy on the desk offered me a 'very special deal, madam' and knocked off the cost of one entrance ticket. It was very noticeable that we didn't get a receipt and I did suspect that some of the money may not have gone 'through the books'.
Happy with his 700 rupees, the guy on the desk called over a man in a white uniform to accompany us round the palace. At first I thought this was a bit weird and a bit annoying and I wondered if they thought we were going to steal something. However we soon quite warmed to our personal guide who was determined to make sure we saw all his favourite things. Of course we knew that there was another big tip to be dished out at the end but he did make a big difference to our enjoyment - added to which there are no signposts and you'd never find your way round without help.
~Not Quite Like the National Trust~
Once inside some of the décor is pretty spectacular and a lot of it is very funny. Some of the colour combinations are almost painful and the combination of styles raises a smile. OK, if a guy in a white uniform hadn't been watching our every step we probably would have giggled out loud instead of making sarcastic murmurs. There are lots of pillars and mock-Gothic arches. Decorated ceilings are sometimes a bit TOO decorated and the stained glass just looks out of place. But despite this it's extraordinarily charming. Some of the doors are very extreme - carved and polished and inlaid and even gilded. If you can physically do something to a door, they will have done it. The same can be said for the staircases where we also found some amazing plant stands that seemed to be climbing up the stairs. Stuffed bits of elephants popped up time and again - from wall mounted heads to feet umbrella stands and a stuffed trunk that had been fashioned as an ashtray. I couldn't help thinking it was a shocking way to treat a mighty beast although he was apparently a 'rogue' killer elephant. Somehow that's almost worse to turn him into an ornament.
Because the family still live in the palace, there are quite a few signs of life going on in the background. The office from where they run their affairs has phones and printers and wall mounted pictures in plastic bags just like you'd see in any Indian office! We also saw the workshop from which one of the family runs his clothing empire although subsequent discussions we had with some shop keepers in the city who knew him suggested that is more interested in draping cloth over models than in actually designing clothes.
I particularly liked the courtyards and balconies, many of which were decorated with gorgeous old Pilkington tiles. In both Bangalore and Mysore we saw lots of examples of this world famous Lancastrian ceramics factory reaching out to the world. I get a strange sense of international continuity when I see he same type of tiles in an Indian palace as on the floor of the Chapter House of Salisbury Cathedral.
There was a beautiful inner courtyard inspired by Moorish Spain, painted iron balconies that reminded me of Australia, and over the top use of arches all over the place. Refreshingly some of the rooms are in a pretty ruined state - filled with dusty and broken furniture that reminds visitors that it's a constant job to keep such a place in working order.
I loved the photographs of members of the family hobnobbing with the great and the good of the Raj and the Independence movement with shots of Nehru and Mountbatten scattered amongst the more personal family pictures. One of the old kings had a taste for very bad nudes both painted and photographed - I suspect art was being used as a cover for liking to paint and photograph naked women. Belgian chandeliers dangled in abundance.
After about 40 minutes we tipped our guide and headed outside. He accompanied us to the guard to hand over the photo permit just to make absolutely sure that nobody was sneaking any pics. Don't try the 'Me taking pics? No, I was just looking at some messages on my smart phone and the camera accidentally went off' trick. You won't get shot despite the guys with guns but you might be leaving earlier than you intended.
The gardens were large and neatly tended but not very interesting and the views of the exterior were impressive now that we were finally allowed to take pictures. Neatly tended ivy creeps just half way up the outside leaving the upper floor honey coloured limestone exposed. There's a collection of old carriages that might distract you for a moment or two but little more.
Despite being stupidly expensive, the chance to visit a working palace where people still live and where the number of visitors is tightly controlled was a bit of a special experience. Add to this that the range of tourist attractions in Bangalore is very limited and the palace should probably be on your list. What it lacks in real history, Bangalore Palace makes up for with over the top décor, personal insights and sheer absurdity. Just check it's open before you get too excited and plan a visit.