Features

Bustling Bengaluru

1 Jun 2024 by Hannah Brandler
Bengaluru (Credit Shylendra Hoode/iStock)

New routes enhance access to India’s Silicon Valley, a city of high-tech scenes, hectic markets and green havens.

Our retro bus slammed the breaks at a frantic junction, signalling that we had reached our destination. Forget parking! We said our prayers and committed to a dangerous game of dodgeball with tuk-tuks, motorbikes and the occasional cow – the chaos accompanied by a cacophony of piercing car horns.

“This is India,” beckoned our guide as we (safely) made it to Krishnarajendra Market, the largest wholesale market in Bengaluru (formerly Bangalore) – the capital of India’s southern state of Karnataka.

Despite now being “off-road”, we still had our guard up as motorbikes weaved in and out of the spice-lined lanes – my gaze working overtime to appreciate the colourful commodities while also ensuring my toes didn’t become roadkill.

More commotion awaited indoors, with merchants hollering as they meandered the labyrinthine lanes – their heads supporting heavy sacks of flowers – while traders auctioned off bags of loose flowers in an atrium-like space. Down in the basement, craftsmen strung together floral necklaces and wedding centrepieces, with the damp space brought to life by petals of myriad colours and patterns (including my daisy-printed culottes that serendipitously blended in).

This fast-paced scene is emblematic of life in the rapidly growing city of Bengaluru, which has mushroomed from 700,000 inhabitants at the time of independence in 1947 to becoming India’s third most populous city, today home to approximately 15 million people.

As well as having one of Asia’s largest flower markets, the city also holds the esteemed title of India’s Silicon Valley, and is home to a booming high-tech environment. The city is packed with technology parks, unicorn start-ups and skilled engineers working on the next big thing in artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things (IoT) and machine learning.

Here, you’ll find headquarters of global IT and finance firms including Google, Microsoft, JPMorgan Chase, IBM, Accenture, Samsung and Goldman Sachs – the latter has its largest base outside of New York here, with three interconnected ten-storey glass towers housing over 8,000 employees.

K R Market - provided by Hannah Brandler

Soaring traffic

Unlike the frenetic scenes in the city centre, Kempegowda International Airport offers a calming oasis-like arrival for newcomers to Bengaluru. Located in Devanahalli, about 40km from the city centre, the 255,000 sqm hub is an architectural triumph. Global firm SOM have drawn on Bengaluru’s alternative moniker as India’s Garden City to create a site reminiscent of a “terminal in a garden”.

Visitors are welcomed into airy biophilic spaces characterised by soaring bamboo structures, living walls, water features and floor-to-ceiling windows flooding the space with natural light.

Aside from its design success, the airport has also achieved record-breaking passenger numbers in the financial year of 2024, serving 37.5 million travellers, with the international sector growing by approximately 23 per cent in comparison to the previous year.

The big news for 2024 is Virgin Atlantic’s entry into the market. The carrier launched a daily route from London Heathrow at the end of March, competing with British Airways, which has flown to the city since 2005. (Find out more about the route in our interview with CEO Shai Weiss). The two carriers offer a total of 14 flights per week to Bengaluru, while codeshare agreements with IndiGo provide connectivity to further destinations across the domestic carrier’s network.

“[Virgin Atlantic’s] presence on the ground helps us to further strengthen something called a living bridge between India and the UK,” said Chandru Iyer, the British Deputy High Commissioner at a press conference in April.

“One of the key pillars upon which this relationship really stands is the people-to-people connection. The representation of that starts at the very top with the Prime Minister [Rishi Sunak], who is of Indian origin,” he adds. Indeed, the Indian diaspora in the UK is about 1.8 million people, making up just over 3 per cent of the population, according to the 2021 census.

“We always felt London was underserved… We believe it is an extension of India. We have a common love for cricket and football. Although the British went back in 1947, we think of ourselves as Anglophile and quasi-British,” explained Satyaki Raghunath, the airport’s chief operating officer.

Aside from ancestral ties, there is a strong business travel demographic visiting the country. As of 2023, there are 954 Indian companies operating in the UK, with combined revenues of almost £50.5 billion. Iyer added that around 700 British companies operate in India with similar revenues. “Both governments are keen to take this relationship a notch higher in terms of trade and investment, healthcare and pharmaceutical, defence and security – the list goes on,” said Iyer.

Trade between the two countries stood at £36.3 billion during the financial year 2022/23, an increase of 34.2 per cent from the previous year, and India is the second-largest source of foreign direct investment after the United States according to the Department for Business and Trade. By comparison, the UK is the sixth largest inward investor in India, accounting for around 5.34 per cent of all foreign direct investment. As for the future, the UK has put its free trade deal negotiations on hold until after India’s general election (due to conclude on 1 June).

Beyond the UK

It’s not just the UK enhancing connectivity to Bengaluru. Further noteworthy routes to the high-tech metropolis include Qantas’ service from Sydney, which marked the first direct connection between Southern India and Australia in 2022, while United Airlines began daily flights from San Francisco in the same year. Emirates, meanwhile, decided to deploy its A380 to the city two years ago, and upgraded the aircraft to include its new premium economy cabin last year – a firm sign of business travel on the route.

Traffic is only set to increase in the future. “We believe that we will be at about 60 million annual passengers over the course of the next five years, which is an incredible growth story and mirrors everything that India stands for today. Economic growth, opportunity, growing middle class, the propensity to spend,” said Raghunath.

“The market is looking very strong. We’ve got somewhere between 1,000 and 1,200 aircraft expected to show up in India over the course of the next decade or so. The possibilities are endless,” he enthused.

Flag carrier Air India has also entered into an agreement with the airport to enhance international connectivity, operational efficiency and passenger experience over the next five years. Initiatives include the creation of a domestic lounge for premium and frequent travellers of Air India and Vistara.

Airlines Hotel mural - provided by Hannah Brandler

Lagging behind

In my experience, however, there appear to be several aspects at odds with the city’s high-tech reputation, which may deter existing or prospective tech giants. First off, there’s the complex and clunky visa application process, which can take up to two hours – the most frustrating step being the requirement to list every country you’ve visited in the past ten years, with a short-sighted cap of 20 countries. Take note, frequent travellers!

Ground transport, too, is a challenge. We spent hours crawling in heavy traffic during our trip, making it difficult to pack all the sights into just a few days – eventually we abandoned our minibus to zip around the city in a tuk-tuk. Things are looking up, however, with plans to expand the Namma Metro network to areas including Devanahalli in northern Bengaluru – the site of Kempegowda International Airport as well as a forthcoming multibillion-dollar business park.

More serious is the state of basic infrastructure, which is unable to keep up with the city’s rapid rate of growth. At the time of my visit in early April, the city was in the midst of a severe water crisis, initially caused by a weak monsoon season in 2023 but aggravated by mismanagement and large-scale construction that has destroyed lakes and green spaces.

The city’s borewells, designed to extract groundwater, are already running dry. Residents, particularly those on the outskirts of the city, are forced to alter their routines, limiting their water use and even missing work to source water from tankers. Looking ahead, the BBC reports that the city’s growth has surpassed projections made during the commissioning process of the Cauvery project (named after the river), which is designed to supply the city with water. It’s thought that the project won’t meet the city’s water needs beyond 2029.

Green lungs

While some natural spaces have fallen victim to rapid urbanisation, the city continues to pride itself on its Garden City title, with tree-lined avenues and parks offering some respite from the crowds and car fumes.

Cubbon Park, or Sri Chamarajendra Park, is regarded as one of the city’s ‘green lungs’, cleansing your organs after a tuk-tuk journey or two. The 121-hectare space in the city’s Central Administrative Area is home to tree trunks concealed by climbing ivy, along with silver oak trees, jacarandas and Gulmohars. At the heart of the park is also the historic Seshadri Iyer Memorial Hall, a gothic red-painted building which is home to the city’s central library, boasting a collection of 265,000 books and an impressive section dedicated to braille. South of Cubbon Park is Lalbagh Botanical Garden, a lush 97-hectare space housing India’s largest collection of tropical and sub-tropical plants.

To make the most of the city’s green side, we spent our last morning at the old-school outdoor eatery, Airlines Hotel (we never got to the bottom of the name but the site gives no clues of any association to an airport hotel). The no-frills South Indian breakfast spot is a local favourite, with metal tables, lime-green plastic chairs and a kitchen shack surrounded by otherworldly Avatar-like Banyan trees, whose branches intertwine overhead to form a cooling canopy. Adjacent is a car park, brightened by a beautiful 80-foot mural depicting Van Gogh’s Starry Night, created by 18 artists (see @creatibeeti on Instagram).

We’re told that the restaurant has been running for over 55 years, with our waiter on staff for 44 of those. We took his guidance on what to order from the whiteboard, with our table speedily brought to life by crispy yet delicate butter masala dosas, pancake-like onion uttapam, channa bhatura (chickpea curry) and soft, spongy idli. As we feasted on the delicacies, our tour guide’s words once again rang in my head, “This is India.”

Moxy Bengaluru - Credit Pankaj Anaand

New hotels

Moxy Bengaluru Airport Prestige Tech Cloud

Marriott’s Moxy brand debuted in India at the start of the year, with a quirky hotel located just ten minutes from the airport. The 128 rooms include smart features such as LED lights, keyless entry and flexible furniture – think foldable desks and chairs – while public spaces include a graffiti wall, a game arcade, library, 24-hour fitness centre and 25-metre outdoor swimming pool – plus the fittingly named Layover pool bar, complete with a DJ booth and vibrant graffiti. On-site activities include board game nights, weekly movie nights and Jenga wars.

Hyatt Centric Hebbal Bengaluru

Hyatt opened this hotel in the city’s business hub of Hebbal in May, joining the brand’s existing city centre property on MG Road. The lifestyle hotel is close to multiple business parks and offers 152 rooms, suites and long-stay accommodation. Further facilities include an all-day dining outlet, rooftop bar, lobby cafe and lounge, plus 930 sqm of event space, an outdoor swimming pool, spa and fitness centre.

DoubleTree by Hilton Bengaluru Whitefield

Located in the tech hub of Whitefield, this 180-room hotel is also just 15 minutes’ drive to Phoenix Marketcity and VR Bengaluru shopping centres. The property opened in March, complete with British Colonial-inspired design, including the Anglo-Indian all-day dining restaurant 1882, along with modern European decor. Don’t miss the rooftop bar and pool for skyline views.

Novotel Bengaluru Airport Varun and ibis Style Bengaluru Airport Varun
Accor has signed two properties in northern Bengaluru, both of which are set to open in 2027. The 180-room adjacent properties will be located in the KIADB Aerospace SEZ, Hardware & IT Park area, and share facilities including meeting spaces, pool and fitness centre.

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The cover of the Business Traveller June 2024 edition
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