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Friday, 01 January 2016

Mysore, India

Written by Richard Taylor
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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.



After the palace I wandered about the attendant circles and squares, stopping by a juice stand, where I chatted with a German girl, in Karnataka doing volunteer work.  She recommended the “water million” juice (that’s how it was spelled).  A cute promotional gimmick, except the other juices were spelled more of less correctly.  Anyway, it was good.


The next day I eschewed the tours (I like to walk a city). On the streets and sidewalks were a great many six pointed stars, usually scrawled in chalk (the signs for Karnataka State Bank have this logo).  Whether this proclaimed an affinity for the Jewish State or, like the svastikas inscribed on Hindu temples, predated its current associations, remained unknown to me.

Eager to escape the heat and honking, I walked west from the palace and noticed an arrow sign stamped ZOO.  Dubious at first - India is not known for its zoos (with so many national parks and exotic fauna they seem superfluous) and the zoos on hand are often dingy, miserable places, I found Mysore’s Sri Chamarajendra Zoological Gardens very fine.  It’s one of India’s most venerable, dating from 1892, with a large collection of birds and spacious grounds for the animals.  Heavily forested, with tended paths, it makes for as pastoral a walk as one can find in this city, the trees and exotic birdcalls muffling Mysore’s incessant honking.


After the zoo refresher, I returned to the Maharajah’s palace – inevitably not as showy without its evening aurora but still handsome in the sunlight.  The complex dates from 1912, the original having been destroyed by fire in 1897.  Day visits require tickets, sold at the south gate for two hundred rupees, and cameras have to be checked into security cupboards – except when they don’t.  I noticed this discrepancy walking the grounds – the phone cameras I could accept with a shrug but other visitors clicking their Canons and Nikons sent me back to the starting gate and demanding satisfaction.

“You can carry no problem sir,” said the security man, handing my two cameras back to me.  “You can take no problem.”

In India, this happens a lot.


The ticket allows for visits inside the palace and having doffed shoes and cameras (they’re definitely restricted inside) one enters through the Gombe Thotti (Doll Pavilion) and the palace interior, divided into halls and pavilions:  Doll, Marriage, Durbar et al, is as ornate as the exterior is spare (for an Indian palace that is, these things are relative).  Along with what is uniquely Indian, there are international contributions as well:  Stained glass from Belgium, Italian marble, iron pillars from Scotland.

I imagine a fair bit of sneering reverse snobbery wells up during these tours – “I’ve come to India for the authentic bovine/mahatma/sitar thing – didn’t travel all this way for Belgian glass.”

In any case a photographic memory is required, or a deft hand at phone camera subterfuge.  Or one can buy postcards. 



The next day I walked east.  There wasn’t much in that direction except the railway station but it’s worth a visit.  A handsome structure, washed in azalea tones that suggest Jaipur and surrounded by greenery and fine landscaping, it’s as attractive as the bus stations are dire.  However, the City Bus Stand (as stations are called), is advantageously more central than the railway station, more central indeed than the Central Bus Stand, braced between the palace and Mysore’s mix of shops modern and traditional, from shiny pots, electronics and Bata shoes to spices, bangles, incense and the city’s famous sandalwood.  Devaraja Market is the must-see, one of India’s most colorful and photogenic (market shots are usually ‘keepers’ from any country, unless one has a penchant for tent spikes or piles of rind – and even then).  Among the jungle of bananas and flower garlands, the real eye catchers are the vivid mounds of kumkum powders, used for body painting and sold in neat packets for a hundred rupees.  I had assumed at first they were spices until one artistic vendor put me wise. 


“Here sir, I show you.”

He took a fine brush, dipped in the bright red and went about it with the care of a Japanese watercolor.  It was the second time I’d been painted in India, although the last had been more basic - a little old lady had dotted my forehead outside a temple in Hampi.  In Mysore I left Devaraja Market with red artwork on my right hand.  Walking back to the hotel, the symbol was garnering a lot of stares and raised eyebrows.  Had the artist played some mischief on me?  I tried to pull my hand into my sleeve (try that with a polo shirt), and finally slid the hand into my trouser pocket.  I thought of my snarly arrival two nights ago and kept smiling politely.  Mysore had grown on me certainly.  I suppose I wanted to make a better second impression too.



©Richard Taylor




Last modified on Friday, 01 January 2016