Mysore, to put it delicately, makes a lousy first impression. Clanking into the bus-clogged, frenzied Central Station on a Sunday afternoon, lugging baggage sans map through the simmering maze of streets, neglecting of course, to book lodging ahead, had me snarling and snapping and grinding my molars in five minutes. Toss in the prerequisite honking (Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Jain – this stuff is all by the way – India’s main religion is the Cult of Horn, which they practice devoutly and ceaselessly) and the charm of the “Sandalwood City” was lost on me.
On the other hand, one may have a more phlegmatic temperament (keeping in mind that the sub-continent is not a first impression kind of place), settled in, had a shower and counted to ten, in which case Mysore can be a delight, as classically ‘India’ as it gets, boasting a splendid market, some fine squares, a very serviceable zoo and one of the nation’s great palaces.
They also serve beef. A continual surprise in the land of sacred cows and vegetarians is the availability of meat in the deep south, where India is predominantly Hindu. I had expected the “Pur-Veg” restaurants and even the “Non-Veg,” which generally meant a fare of chicken or lamb or fish. But beef?
The answer lies in the heady mix of creeds. After my ten count, I did a brief reconnaissance up and down Ashoka Road and found the beef kiosk next to a handsome green and white mosque, just down the street from the lofty St. Philomena’s cathedral. Behind two massive metal vats, the genial chef ladled me some beef and rice to go (the other vat was rice with chicken) and after the usual query, “Where are you coming sir?” they wrapped up a bundle in newspaper and string, whereupon I scampered back to the hotel room and left a big greasy mess on the accent table. I considered the possibilities: It may have been goat, although it wasn’t so fatty and bony. It may have been something I didn’t want to consider. It was delicious stuff though and for my own peace of mind, it was beef.
Originally known as Mahishur, “where the Demon Buffalo was slain,” Mysore dates from 1399 and was the center of power for the maharajahs of the Wodeyar Dynasty, who ruled for fourteen centuries. Today, it is the state of Karnataka’s most popular destination, the second city after Bangalore and if it doesn’t quite equal that city’s industrial boom (and attendant mess), it has taken pride of place as south India’s locus and training ground for serious yoga students and devotees. It also exceeds Bangalore as a vivid reminder of India’s imperial glories. Here I was fortunate to arrive when I did, for after Sunday sunsets (or the festival evenings which stuff the nation’s calendar), one can join the crowds massing at the north gate of Mysore Palace. By the adjacent green pavilion, where musicians tootled among elephant statues, at once a delighted ‘aahhh’ rose from the throngs, who pressed and jostled me through the entrance. The switch had been flipped on a hundred thousand light bulbs, and the entire complex – palace, gates, and temples, set ablaze. Too Vegas for the jaded perhaps and the meter reading would drive the Earth Day crowd batty but it was a remarkable sight for all that – and on Sunday evening, the admission was free.