Bengaluru, or the anglicized Bangalore as it was officially known until recently, has always been a melting pot, a city of immigrants. One among a dozen theories about its name stems from folklore about the 12th century Hoysala king Veera Ballala who stopped by hungry at the hut of an old lady. She had nothing to offer him but a bowl of boiled beans (bendakalu). He named the area Bendakaluru but it was the building of a fort in the area by chieftain Kempe Gowda by 1537 that established it as a settlement. The four watchtowers he built at the current Lal Bagh Botanical Garden, Kempambudhi Tank, Ulsoor Lake and Mekhri Circle still stand.
Sitting at about 920m above sea level on the Deccan Plateau, Bengaluru was known for its mild weather and greenery, earning it the nicknames ‘Garden City’ and ‘pensioners’ paradise’. The presence of the British in the military cantonment area until Indian independence in 1947 meant the city housed a large number of Europeans, missionaries and Anglo-Indians. Captain R L McClintock of the Madras Sappers, one of the main engineering groups of the Indian army that is still headquartered in Bengaluru, is said to have invented the Bangalore torpedo, an explosive charge used by combat engineers to clear obstacles that would otherwise require them to approach directly, in 1912.
Rather than look back at its history, the city has always looked forward. India’s first power generation unit – a hydroelectric one – was set up to support operations at the nearby Kolar Gold Fields in early 1905, and Bangalore became the first Asian city to get electric street lights that year.
Famously, a few years later, a chance meeting between the entrepreneur and philanthropist Jamsetji Tata and the monk Swami Vivekananda on a ship from Yokohama to Vancouver resulted in the establishment in 1909 of the Indian Institute of Sciences (IISc) in Bangalore, with land donated by the Maharaja of Mysore, Krishnaraja Wodeyar IV. Its first Indian director was the Nobel laureate Sir C V Raman, who also went on to found the Raman Research Institute that did groundbreaking work in liquid crystals and astrophysics. This year, IISc was ranked the second-best research institute in the world in the QS University Rankings – it is the first Indian institution to get nearly 100,000 citations in research papers in the span of five years.
In the 1950s, a focus on public sector enterprises, and on research and education meant the city saw an influx of migrants from all over the country. The preponderance of engineering colleges, research institutes and other educational institutions attracted students while organizations in heavy machinery, aeronautics, defence equipment and space exploration industries drew a highly-skilled workforce. The Indian Space Research Organization, for example, is headquartered in Bengaluru and was the first Asian space agency behind a successful Mars landing, among other feathers in its hat.
Sir M Visvevaraya, another engineer of note with many public works to his credit, designed and planned the locality of Jayanagar in 1959, then the city’s first planned neighbourhood and the largest in Asia at the time.
As for the defunct mines of Kolar, one of the deepest mining sites in the world, they hosted well-known neutrino particle experiments till 1992.
Growth exploded in the early 1990s when one of the country’s first tech parks were set up in the suburb of Whitefield, and kicked off what has come to be known as the IT boom. Ironically BORN was called The Whitefield Group when it was started in April 2011. Bengaluru remains, according to the latest surveys, one of the best places for students to find a job in India thanks to thousands of tech startups. The biggest fish of them all are now two of the biggest players in the software services space globally – Infosys and Wipro. Headquartered in Bengaluru, they now provide their consulting, software development and outsourcing services to companies and projects around the world. They are among hundreds of other tech companies that have their operations in the satellite town, Electronic City, in Hosur.
Bengaluru is now the fourth largest technology cluster in the world after Silicon Valley, Boston and London, and still remains the top of the list in the country when it comes to venture capital funding for startups, ahead of any other Indian city.
Now one of India’s biggest metropolitan centres with over 12 million residents and boasting a large educated, middle-class and cosmopolitan workforce, Bengaluru is home to 33 of India’s 119 billionaires, most of them self-made.
They include trained master brewer Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, who started out making enzymes and fining agents for breweries in her garage – the Kingfisher brand of beer is local, served straight from the tap in many city pubs – and now runs the powerhouse biotech company Biocon located at Electronic City. Another pioneer, that of affordable cardiac surgery, Devi Shetty, has his specialist hospital up the road from Biocon.
Another Bengaluru startup made good is Flipkart, now one of the largest eCommerce companies in India, and which was bought over last year by Walmart.
It is home to the HQ of India’s giant aerospace establishment which was once headed by our CEO’s father.
New startups in the areas of artificial intelligence, food technology, fintech and robotics are expected to keep Bengaluru at the top of the innovation heap even in the years to come.
This blistering growth has seen some of the erstwhile Garden City’s water-bodies and green cover gobbled up, its outlying villages subsumed into tech parks. One such is the area behind the old HAL airport, where BORN has its Bengaluru branch.