When Shiva sleeps all the lights come on!

Trip Start Mar 03, 2008
Trip End Mar 31, 2008

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Flag of India  ,
Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Earplugs are of no use in India as driving here involves a liberal usage of horns, so there is rarely a moment in the day or night when there is quiet.  I got up early but well rested after a heavy day of travel yesterday and got an autorickshaw to the Lalbagh gardens, which I'd read were India's version of Kew Gardens.  Whoever wrote that hadn't been to Kew then, as apart from a few old trees, some bad bonsai sculptures and rose gardens which were locked up behind railings (they probably worried that people would pick the roses or leave the ubiquitous plastic bags found everywhere on the floor and would kill off this space!) there was not a lot to see.  I finally found a tuk-tuk driver who would put on his meter to take me to the City Market but the traffic was so heavy and the pollution so overwhelming that on sight of the market, I asked the driver to keep going and take me back to my appartment to get my bag and get the hell out of Bangalore.

I got to the train station a few hours before the next train to Mysore and fought my way to the front of the queue with my little form (now I know the bureaucratic system to book a seat here!) to get my train reservation.  I always try to travel 2nd class be it on day time trains or the sleeper carriages on overnight trains (some of which keep going for 2-4 days!).  I find I meet more interesting people and after they get over the curiousity - in less touristy areas - of seeing a Westerner on a train and a single woman too, they smile and I nod or wiggle my head back to those who don't speak English and those who do speak English ask very intrusive questions, share snacks, borrow my book, lend out their newspapers which all produces a very congenial atmosphere for travel.  I also like the open windows and sitting at the open doorways to watch the beautiful countryside.  It's especially lovely in South India which is more fertile and green than in the North.  I spent a pleasant 3 hours on the train to Mysore as we sped past miles of rice paddies and palm tree groves.

Arriving at the station we all marched down the platform onto the tracks to cross over to the exit and I got a tuk tuk to a hotel recommended in my book.  Dasaprakash is large basic hotel opening out onto the courtyard.  I was given a cell like room with a hard single bed (all beds in India are rock-like), off-white walls with lots of dirty marks on them, a table and chair and a tiny bathroom area with a shower that drizzled hot water from 7-9am every morning.  It was pretty standard and with a door that I could lock from the outside with my own padlock and lots of Indian families in surrounding rooms usually 3-4 to a room (Indian families travel or make pilgrimages in large extended family groups), it was quiet enough and set back from the busy street.  I found that I was slipping fairly easily back into Indian life and after two days even the room seemed acceptable.

My first stop, as I surveyed the usual chaotic streets, was to a fabric shop with reams and reams of every colour of sari you can imagine.  Mysore is known for its silk production as well as sandalwood and incense, but my mission was to get a salwar kameez made from the cotton samples they had - these are usually ready for stitching by a tailor.  I love the synthetic and silk salwars but as a sweaty Westnerner I knew from experience that I'd suffocate in one of these and cotton was the best route to go.  I chose a green one with gold trimmings and the in-house tailor measured me up and I was told to come back the next morning to pick it up.  This is one area where Indians do work with speed!

Hanging out in restaurants is not really an Indian thing, they just tend to eat and go even if it's a family meal in a restaurant.  You also would never see a woman eating alone in a restaurant or even a snack place.  As it was getting dark, I thought I'd find a place to eat with a family section, which is less intimidating and came across Indra Cafe's Paras which was heaving with locals and always a good sign of good, safe food.  Upstairs in the family section, I ignored the stares and two Indian ladies beckoned me to sit opposite them as there was no table free.  They had a few English words and tried to convey the difference between all the different snacks, some I knew such as dosas and chaat and puris but there were four or five of each type.  After my aloo chaat, I sat and read.  Again, it's a bit of a strange sight for the locals to see someone hanging around reading in an eaterie or anywhere really to just to pass the time.  Another foreigner arrived and he tried to explain to the waiter that he didn't want anything too spicy as he was feeling a little ill.  I decided to shock the onlookers and wander over to his table and join him.  We giggled as we were sure that everyone there was commenting on the looseness of us Westerners - a woman sitting with a single man who she'd only just met.... horror of horrors!  It turned out that this guy was French and we chatted in French and English for a few hours as people came and went several times all around us.  Fabrice was from Rennes and he was travelling for several months around India.  We arranged to meet up early the next day to take in one of the nearby sights.

I met with Fabrice at 7am to take the bus to Chaumundi Hill which towers 1062m above Mysore with a Shiva temple at the top with a seven storey gopuram.  There were lots of monkeys swinging on the electricity lines and steps preening themselves and each other or cuddled up in pairs asleep.  There were already a lot of people up at the temple and as it was a special holiday, the children were all off school.  The holiday was Shivaratri, which I originally understood to be celebrating the birth of Shiva (hence the mistake in my video) but have subsequently found out is actually the one day of the year when Shiva is said to sleep, so people come to bring offerings and also stay up all night queuing to visit Shiva temples around the country and singing, drumming in the temple complexes to keep watch over him.  Having taken the bus up the hill, we decided to walk down the 1000 steps to the bottom and on our way down we met lots of people coming up in pilgrimage barefooted, some people even stopping to touch and kiss each step with their fingers as they climbed up!  We met two girls who stopped us and spoke excellent English (with strong Indian accents of course).  They were IT engineers just finishing their studies and applying for good jobs in Bangalore.  We talked about the marriages their families were trying to arrange for them with men of similar backgrounds, earning at least 60,000 rupees a month (that's about 750 pounds) which is lot in India.  Money is everything here, possibly now becoming more important than caste.  The dowry system still exists even though both this and the caste system were banned I think a number of years ago.

Exhausted in the heat by the time we got to the bottom of the hill, we got a rickshaw back to town and had a south Indian thali at the restaurant at my hotel.

In the afternoon, I went to the beautiful and vast Maharajah's Palace.  The old one had burnt down in 1897 and this one was designed by an English architect with lots of stained glass, mirrors and mosaics much of it sourced from Europe.  As I wandered around the palace, I came across a big group of girls and teachers from a college near Madurai in Tamil Nadu, they said hello and urged me to sit with them and then we spent half an hour doing group pictures which they begged me to send to them as having a picture with a Western lady was somewhat of a novelty.  They were lovely and wanted me to go on the rest of their trip with them!

My next stop was the large Mysore market and I wandered along the rows of fruit, flower, vegetables and bangle stalls, past the vendors of coloured powders used in pujas and at Holi and the aluminium pots and cooking utensil section.  I love markets and this one was especially vibrant.

I met Fabrice for dinner and we stopped en route by the palace which as luck would have it was all lit up for Shivaratri, which made my day as normally they only light it up on Sunday evening for an hour.  It was magical.  This vast palace and the surrounding walled areas were lit with what looked like millions of bulbs - it was like a scene out of Disneyland.  There were also queues snaking for at least a kilometer around the palace grounds as people waited in line (the only time you see anything resembling a queue) to visit the Shiva temple there - they queued most of the night!  Fabrice and I on the other hand went off for a very nice dinner in the Park Lane Hotel surrounded by a whole load of Westerners.... so I permitted myself to eat my curry with my left hand as no Indians were really there to watch and be offended!

The drumming in the temples went on all night for Shivaratri and that along with a mozzie which decided to have a snack on my back, I got up in a ratty mood.  I made up for this with a lovely breakfast of Pongal which is a mushy rice type thing with curry leaves and mustard seeds, spring onions and spices - along with Upma which is a similar thing made from wheat kind of couscous substance, these are my favourite Indian breakfast foods.  With only two changes of clothes still, luckily it was so hot that my clothes had dried within a few hours overnight in the bathroom and I made an early start finding the bus to Srirangapatnam.  This fort area is on an island in the Cauvery River and was home to Tipu Sultan and his father Hyder Ali, who ruled much of South India during 18th Century.  The British defeated them at the end of the century in a bloody battle.  I negotiated with a tuk tuk driver to take me to all the sites; the Sri Ranganathaswamy Tample where Brahmin priests where doing poojas in the inner sanctum; the twin tower mosque built by Tipu  Sultan and his Summer palace, Daria Dautat Bagh set in beautiful gardens.  Every inch of the interiors of this palace was adorned with murals showing life at court and Tipu's battles with the British.  The final stop was at the onion-domed Gumbaz where Hyder Ali, Tipu Sultan and his wife were entombed.

Another hot bus ride back to Mysore and a few hours later I took a bus to Brindavan Gardens.  The 45 minute drive nearly sent me over the edge, despite the freezing air-conditioned luxury bus, as with luxury you get speakers and with speakers you get ear-piercing Bollywood music.  The gardens awash with numerous fountains and water features are set below the River Cauvery dam and used as a backdrop to many Bollywood movie musical numbers (ironically after my little bus ride).  After a juice in a very posh but deserted hotel, I made a swift exit before they piped in film tunes to accompany the illuminated fountains at dusk.  On the way back the bus stopped at an Infosys office in the middle of nowhere and suddenly everyone was talking English around me instead of the local language of Kannada.
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