India | Mysore: January 4-6, 2009

January 4th, 2008

We packed up at our apartment and headed to the bus station, our auto all crammed up with us and our many bags. The bus station itself seemed like a slice of chaos, not knowing exactly where our bus was leaving from, no real signs, or information desk. Asking around here and there and wandering about with our luggage, we finally got to our platform. The bus was thankfully not packed and we had a relaxing journey to Mysore, with Karthik sleeping most of it off. Our bus arrived at the Mysore Bus Station right on time at 5 pm. As soon as we got off the bus, and were putting on our backpacks, we were approached by a local man, asking if we needed an autorickshaw. We hesitated, and told him to give us some time to put on our luggage. He said no problem, and that he could arrange for tours around the city and to other destinations around. Again, we didn’t want to be scammed, but eventually we relented after hearing him out. He led us to an auto outside the station, where his friend who was both the driver and tour guide was waiting.

We headed off to our hotel, and on the way, told them we mostly just wanted to see the Mysore Palace and especially tonight, when it would be fully lit up since it was Sunday. They agreed to pick us up later that evening. The Ginger Hotel chain, owned by Tata, was a chain of budget hotels with locations all over India and was geared towards the traveler wanting a clean and affordable place. It was all ‘self-service’ and lacked the bellboy and similar bells and whistles other hotels do. Our room was very basic, but had all the amenities we care for, and more importantly, was clean! We had some coffee and snacks at the Café Coffee Day located right at the hotel and waited for our auto to take us to the Mysore Palace. The ride to the palace was short and calm, what with Mysore being a fairly small and quiet town. At the palace, the ‘special’ lights had not come on yet. The palace is a remnant from the Wodeyar dynasty that ruled these parts for many centuries and is supposed to be one of the most beautiful buildings in India. Every Sunday for an hour in the evening, the regular lights are turned off and thousands of individual light bulbs all over the palace as well as around the premises are turned on. We were eager to see just how fantastic it’s hailed to be. There was a good crowd that turned out to see the event, and we were just lucky to be here on the right day!

And then all of a sudden, the lights were turned off and it went dark. A few seconds after, the brightest display of lights we’d ever seen was switched on. It was damn amazing! The entire structure of the palace, the auxiliary buildings, the main entrance gate, the walls, ALL had light bulbs that distinctly outlined the shape in such detail. It was perfect! We just stood in amazement for a while, and then started snapping away, experimenting with the camera’s settings to get it right. Of course, the tripod was needed. Every location around the palace revealed a new perspective and the palace just seemed like a giant three-dimensional dollhouse lit up in the dark. Even the temples inside the palace complex were lit up and Penny especially liked the way the entrance gate looked like. We stayed the entire time till the lights went out, and then took the auto back to Ginger. We were hungry again, so we tried the food at the hotel’s restaurant. It was really good! We watched some shows, just chilled, and are off to bed.

January 5th, 2009

Today we went to visit the Mysore Palace during daylight and actually explore inside. Our usual auto driver/tour guide came by and picked us up. At the palace, the scene looked quite different from the night before; a lot less crowded, hotter, and the usual vendors/hawkers began to harass us. We quickly avoided them and went over to the ticket counter. We learnt that the price of tickets for foreigners (namely us) was Rs. 200, but ahem… we’re also Indian, aren’t we? So we pretended to be citizens and paid Rs. 20! Sweet! We walked around the grounds, almost entirely alone. So our snaps around and in front of the palace were relatively uncluttered with human traffic… rare thing in India! After some time, we felt like exploring inside. The real bummer was that we absolutely couldn’t take any pictures inside. That really, really sucked, especially since we love to snap away! Blah! Sigh… we’ll have to get used to it.

So we had take off our shoes and enter inside… passing by several glass displays behind which were some intricate dollhouses, thrones, and other interesting curios which were the remnants of the Wodeyar family dynasty. The entire palace inside was actually massive… containing hundreds of rooms, most of which were closed off to the public. We came upon a large hallway with intricately carved and colorful ceilings. There were dozens of beautiful paintings depicting the rich history of Mysore’s ruling family, portraits of the family, renditions from the colonial period, etc. The hallway with paintings actually encircled what was called the “Kalyana Mantap” or marriage altar – a large open room with high ceilings surrounded by columns painted a striking pastel blue. As well, near the ceiling, there were these big stained glass windows illustrating of all things, peacocks! Beautiful! From the ceiling was dangled a massive chandelier that just added to the ambience of the room. We desperately (well, mostly Karthik) wanted to take a picture in this room, but Penny warned against it given we were already here under false pretenses (cheap ticket and all!). as well, there were these details everywhere abounded with craftsmanship and intricacy, like stone carvings and wooden sculptures depicting stories from mythology that were just done so masterfully.

After some time, we left this room and headed in the direction that led to the next chamber. We went up a flight of stairs and went past massive wood and ivory doors carved in the most elaborate manner. Right next to them was another set of doors made entirely out of solid silver, again carved most intricately. Wow! Everything about the interior of this palace just made you go “WOW!” Damn their damn camera rule! We now came upon a REALLY LARGE hall, called the “Durbar Hall.” This place just floored us! I mean, for one thing, it was immense. There were at least a hundred thick columns that ran up to the ceiling creating beautiful pastel blue arches. There were wooden carvings adorning the sides of the hall that were, each of them, just perfect works of art unto themselves. Depicting more mythology and gods/goddesses, these were simply large sculptures that had a crazy amount of detail. The cool thing was that there just wasn’t a speck of dust of any of them!

We just went around this hall and admired every inch of it as much as we could. We even just stood around for some time just taking it all in. It was all too stunning. We then went into the next wing of the palace, and this room took the cake! Partly because it was decorated in ‘cake’ colors! Pastel blues, yellows, and pinks! This was Penny’s favourite room. Called the “Amba Vilasa,” it was probably the dining room/banquet hall where the royal family entertained guests while ladies-in-waiting gazed upon them from these small balconies encircling the room. This room was also surrounded by many pastel blue columns that joined their neighbours to make these elaborate, Islamic-style arches with so much detail carved into them. What’s more, this room also had a sweet stained glass ceiling. This room just had everything, and oh yes, chandeliers too! Plus everything looked so brand new; there was not a single indication of age or antiquity. Very well maintained, indeed!

Well, this was the last part of our palace tour, so we headed out, buying some postcards from the palace souvenir booth – since we didn’t take any pics inside. We walked around the inner grounds barefoot towards another wing of the palace, supposedly an older part of it. We then walked back, deciding against the idea since we wanted to leave on a really good note instead of being disappointed by what we’d have seen. We collected our shoes and then left Mysore Palace. Definitely a high point on our trip for sure! We talked to our auto driver/tour guide and decided to check out the Chamundi Hills – a large hill on the outskirts of Mysore atop which are a large temple to the goddess Chamundeswari (another form of Mother Durga) as well as a big statue of Nandi (Shiva’s bull steed).

We went uphill by auto, which took a while and along the way, we admired the sights of Mysore – the Palace we’d just seen, another palace now converted to a Taj Hotel, the lake and city centre, and the outskirts. It was really a small, quaint town although, as our auto driver informed us, the IT boom was coming to Mysore as well and it has been expanding for some time now. We reached the top of the hill, and made our way towards the main temple. But first, we bought a small basket containing offerings to the goddess – coconut, bananas, flowers, red powder, etc. We walked through a market along the way where they were selling all sorts of stuff, but Penny especially liked the colorful, yet simple saris that were hung outside the shops. She imagined being happy wearing such saris, rather than expensive silk ones, something Mysore is famous for. Outside the temple were the usual sights – women selling flowers, beggars, cattle, and monkeys! We left our shoes outside and were taking some pictures right outside the temple when… a monkey attacked Penny! Well, attack is probably too strong a word, however it knocked the offerings basket out of Penny’s hand, grabbed the bananas in it, and fled the scene. More like an ambush rather than an attack, then. Shaken from the experience, Penny couldn’t believe what just happened. But still, it was rather amusing and we chalked it up to the god Hanuman (a monkey god) wanting some food directly from us.

Inside the temple, we made it to the main altar which wasn’t too busy, offered the basket bereft of the bananas to the priest, told him our ‘Hindu credentials’ and waited while he said the prayers on our behalf. The temple itself looked fairly new and was clean, the tall gopuram (tower) in its centre stretching quite high and covered with statues and complex carvings. We then got the blessings from the priest and walked around the temple and headed back out. No monkeys in sight! We then made it to the viewing point where we could see only parts of Mysore, since it was approaching dusk and the sky was somewhat hazy. There were lots of cattle and monkeys here, so we walked back to our auto, grabbing some yummy milk shakes on the way. On the way down hill, our auto driver informed us of jaguars that called these hills their home and actually having seen one himself. They apparently prey on the dogs and some cattle that are usually found everywhere. Interesting!

We then drove to the Bull Temple, where a huge statue of Nandi made of black stone lay resting on a platform. We encircled the statue a few times, got blessings from the priest, took some snaps, and headed back home. On the way downhill, we saw the sun setting which was a pretty sight in spite of the haze obscuring it partly. We pondered going to the Taj Hotel to have dinner, but then felt that bit of splurging we can do elsewhere. On the way back, the driver wanted to show us some authentic oils and such, which we didn’t really care for but were OK with going along for the ride.

He took us to the oldest part of Mysore, which was a busy maze of congested streets and alleys filled with two-wheelers, autos, pedestrians and of course, cows. It felt quite claustrophobic for Penny, but when we arrived at our destination, the lights went out in the entire neighbourhood. We were now in a small, cramped shop selling incense and other medicated oils and the owner wanted to take us further inside past some really short doors. Penny couldn’t take this much longer, so we booted outta there and told the auto driver to take us back. We got back to our room, ordered some food from the restaurant downstairs, and watched some shows. Tomorrow, we do some shopping and checking out the famous Brindavan Gardens outside Mysore.

January 6th, 2009

We got an early start to our day, when the auto driver picked us up to take us shopping. We took with us a lot of the stuff we wanted shipped to Penny’s uncle’s house in Chandigarh, since we still had a fair bit of travelling to do and we couldn’t lug it all around with us. We first wanted to check out some silk Saris and then some handicrafts, however he had another idea. He thought he’d show us some cottage-industry type stuff. On the way, we saw a really impressive Gothic Cathedral, the St. Philomenas Church in Mysore, one of the largest in the country. We went in and it was really austere, calm, and peaceful. The outside structure itself was reminiscent of something from England and looked quite out of place here in Mysore, with its tall spires and sizeable exterior. Inside, Penny had an idea of lighting some candles. Karthik went outside to buy a few and we lit them, saying our prayers for our family. It felt good doing so. We then left, feeling good and on our way to a place the auto driver suggested.

He took us back to the older part of Mysore, and in daylight, it seemed less foreboding and less congested. Karthik saw a goat standing idly at the entrance of someone’s house, as if playing the role of the landlord peeking out at the passers-by on the street. Good picture moment, but since we were in the auto, it passed by rather quickly. We got to the incense place, where we were led to the back of the house. Inside, the ‘incense craftsman’ (for lack of a better term) showed us how he made all his various incense sticks.

We didn’t really care for an entire demonstration so, being already here, we asked how much they were and if they were indeed authentic. He insisted on them being so and after some haggling, we bought some incense sticks of various scents, weighed out on a scale. On the way out, the craftsman wanted to show us how they take the scented paste and roll the sticks to make the final product. So we were led into a small hut adjacent to the house where a few women were involved in the various stages of making the incense sticks. It was interesting to see, as well as the fact that it didn’t really smell ‘good’ in here. We expected it to, but the craftsman later explained that the paste hasn’t been treated with the oils needed to make the scent. Cool enough! Now we wanted the auto driver to take us where we wanted to do some real shopping. We rode to the centre of the city and pulled up in front of a Mysore Silk Emporium, right next to a Cauvery Handicrafts Store. Inside the Sari store, Penny was shown a whole range of Saris ranging in price and quality. But she really wasn’t interested in buying any of the silk Saris, seeing as they weren’t really something she’d wear and none of them really stood out. So as we were about to leave, the salesperson showed us some other printed Saris that were more decorated and pretty. We went to that section of the store to check out the variety they had in stock. Not really satisfied with most of them, Penny finally shortlisted them to a couple Saris, which we ended up buying. She’d need to wear one for when we visit the Guruvayoor Temple in Kerala (where women had to wear Saris and men had to wear the equivalent, dhotis).

We then went to the handicrafts store adjacent to the Sari store, but none of the sculptures really stood out – they didn’t even have some of the variety the Cauvery Emporium in Bangalore had. Disappointed, we left for another handicrafts store. Also named the Cauvery Handicrafts Store (we think it’s some kind of scam), we quickly browsed the contents and they were either badly made or too damn expensive. Alas! We’ll decide to check out the variety they have in Delhi, where they have a whole bunch of representative stores from the various states in India. We certainly didn’t want to force ourselves to buying anything we’d regret later. So now, it was off to the Post Office. There, it wasn’t really a cut-and-dry process like we’d encountered in other countries. We first had to go into a nearby building where in the courtyard of a run-down house, a man was wrapping up the packages to be sent. We had to get our package made here before we could actually go into the post office to mail anything. Meanwhile, since Penny’s uncle had suggested that we contact the Postmaster to ensure the package arrives safely and promptly, Penny went to find him/her while Karthik waited as the package was being … packed. A German tourist couple (hippies with dreadlocks and all) also came in, wanting to send some of their stuff back home. They too were headed for Ooty tomorrow, so we got talking for a bit. We even offered them our Karnataka phone SIM card in Ooty since they were looking to have a local number. We gave them our number and made tentative plans to meet up for drinks.

The packing process was something else, where the box had to be then wrapped up in jute cloth and then stitched by hand to ensure it stays intact. Crazy! So the whole damn thing took so long that the auto driver was getting antsy, since we were to catch a cab arranged by him to go check out the Brindavan Gardens. We kept assuring him that we were OK with time and this was something important to do. The packing man finally finished his business and we took the package to the ExpressPost section. Since the Postmaster was unavailable, we just did the formalities ourselves and hoped for the best. We then got into the cab waiting for us. And oh yeah, we hadn’t eaten anything since we woke up that day!! We were famished and exhausted. We told the cabbie to stop off at a restaurant along the way, preferably a good one that served awesome Masala Dosa. He nodded and we made our way to the gardens. Apparently, the gardens are so beautiful at night since they have light shows, a musical fountain, and all of this is set in the backdrop of the Krishnaraja Sagar Dam. Karthik had been there when he was much younger and he had a fairly positive impression of them.

It was already getting dark as we arrived at some restaurant of the cabbie’s choice. We didn’t want to get there too late, but since the restaurant didn’t have any dosas or South Indian food, we just picked some noodles, soup, and Chili Paneer and scarfed it down. Not bad, overall! The final stretch of road near the gardens was possibly the worst we’d EVER experienced anywhere! Our brains felt like mush while our guts felt like a rope pulled taut. What fun we had! When we finally arrived at the gardens, it was already packed – the parking lot was almost completely full. What’s more, there were large groups of people running and rushing past us. What was the hurry all about, we wondered. We got the tickets and joined the herd running towards the gardens. We were walking along a pedestrian bridge towards the gardens. Surrounding us was a large man-made lake and to our left was the long and tall damn all lit up, which looked quite impressive. Parts of the lake were choked up in weeds and it definitely stank around those sections. As we were walking, tons of people pushed and shoved their way forward as it was it seemed apparent that it was getting late for something. We didn’t want to join the rush, so we just walked at our regular speed.

As we reached the gardens, we saw a large expanse of green spotted with various plants, trees, and shrubs. We walked up a sort of gradual rise in the gardens, almost creating higher levels. At this point, we were greeted by a ton of lighted fountains. It was quite cool actually; just the sheer number of fountains and the multi-colored nature of it all. Other than that, the gardens themselves weren’t worth ALL the hype they had going for them. We were now walking towards where there was music being played and where most of the crowds were rushing towards. We came upon a large open space set-up like an outdoor theatre with stadium seats and everything. Except the main attraction was the musical fountain. We somehow managed to squeeze among the crowds and find some space. The fountain itself was quite unique and interesting. There were all sorts of nozzles, spouts, and openings that gushed out water to different heights, angles, and pressure levels. As well, there were all sorts of colored lights surrounding the fountain as well as in its centre. It was crazy, especially since it all seemed in sync with the music that was playing. The water seemed like it was alive and dancing up a storm. But, not long after, the music stopped. The fountain died down. The crowd started to disperse. We were hoping to walk around the gardens for some time before leaving, but alas, all the lights around went out and the fountains also stopped.

On the way back, we stopped at the food stalls, which were completely packed! There were hawkers shouting on speakers what stuffs they were selling - one of the hawkers sounded like the background vocal track to a House/Dance tune. We just grabbed some coffee and took in the lively atmosphere. We started heading back home, after which our cabbie picked us up and back we went through that rotten stretch of road we’d come in on. We finally reached Mysore and then we thought we’d stop for some “Mysore Pak,” a delicious, sweet, ghee-based specialty of Mysore - it was awesome! Quite tired, we came back to Ginger to crash for the night since we’re going to wake up very early tomorrow morning to head off to Ooty. Looking forward to it!

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