April's Notes From The Road: Mysore (2008)

I keep using the word “magical” to describe places and experiences in South India, and I don’t want to sound like a broken record. But Mysore is truly magical. What a wonderful way to wrap up this particular trip.

Getting to Mysore was itself enjoyable, and a trip down memory lane. After exploring Bangalore’s enormous Lalbagh Gardens (complete with a glass pavilion, lotus pond and a temple built atop a three billion year old rock), I headed to the train station and caught the Tippu Express train to Mysore. The first-class air-conditioned (read: lots of fans, but no actual A/C) car reminded me of a similar journey I took to Agra some time ago, complete with chai-wallahs, “lunch packet” orders taken by staff, and a moustached conductor in a crisp white uniform. The 2½ hour train ride cost 228 rupees (approx. $5) and, when coupled with the endless landscape of palm trees, lush green fields and brightly-colored sari that zipped past my window in route, represented quite a bargain.

Mysore itself reminds me much more of the India I remember than Chennai or Bangalore do. That is due in no small part to its serving as the historic seat of the Wodeyar raj, who still apparently lives nearby. As such it is bedecked with architectural wonders – not only the grand Mysore Palace, but also ornate smaller palaces, civic buildings, monuments, halls and homes that would fit right in with stately buildings further north (e.g., Jaipur and Udaipur). The Wodeyars are often referred to as enlightened leaders for their treatment of Indians under British rule. They were so popular with their subjects, in fact, that in 1956 the Wodeyar raj was elected as the first governor of the post-independence state of Mysore.

Speaking of the Mysore dynasty and beautiful architecture, I’m staying in a former Chittaranjan Palace that was built for Wodeyar princesses. Eighteen years ago it was converted into the Green Hotel, which is a model of sustainable tourism with all profits going to environmental projects in south India. My room is named “Small Bollywood” and is part of the palace itself. I’m not sure what is Bollywood-ish about it other than a neon quilt and several mirrors, but whatever the case I would highly recommend the hotel. The environs are positively delightful and include a small library, reading alcoves, stained glass, teak furniture – and rose petals in every room). Everyone refers to me as “Miss April” and afternoon chai in the palace gardens can’t be beat.

Mysore is perhaps best known on the tourist circuit for the Mysore Palace (built 1897 – 1912), an amazing fusion of Hindu and Islamic architectures with a splash of pan-European classical elements mixed in for good measure. It is a chock-a-block feast for the eyes, from the intricate inlaid wooden doors and solid gold doors with elephants at the entrance, to the detailed stained glass ceilings full of peacocks and lotus flowers, to the massive mosaic floors. Inside the palace grounds are also a handful of Hindu temples, some of which are older than the palace itself, and an area for kids to go for elephant and camel excursions which are advertised as “joy rides.”

In my opinion the most amazing time and way to see the palace is at night when (once a week for one hour) it and the entire palace grounds are illuminated by more than 96,000 white lights and half the city shows up to see the spectacle. The buildings look like they have arrived straight out of a fairy tale – perhaps more lights than even Santa Claus has ever seen at once – and the event is completed with a tablah concert, police consort, and hundreds (if not thousands) of locals sitting on the grass, kids playing, vendors hawking anything imaginable, and everyone having a good time.

In addition to its architecture, Mysore is also famous for its carved and inlaid sandalwood work, incense production, fine silks and wooden toys. Even though shopping was not on my agenda, it was interesting to go to the “government emporium” (a huge warehouse of these goods) and even moreso to the city’s Devaraja Market. As markets go, this one ranks among the most enjoyable that I have experienced in my travels. Although not nearly as big or colorful as Guatemala's Chichicastenango or Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar, nevertheless it had a liveliness and tempo that were quick and intense yet did not overwhelm. One aisle was dedicated only to bananas (and banana leaves – the serving dish of choice in South India), another for coconuts, another for aloo (potatoes) and garlic, another for handmade soaps, another for the colorful powders used to make bindi (forehead dots) and henna designs, and finally – most of all – a couple of aisles devoted to flowers.

The most common and revered flower in this region is jasmine, but there are also roses of many sizes and colors, and what look like some version of zinnias, bougainvilleas and more bud-blossoms of unknown flowers than I can recount. Women often wear long strands of woven jasmine in their hair, and on one fateful afternoon in the market I did the same. It was an easy exchange. Three endearing women who were perched on their stalls and weaving flower strands astonishingly fast. I asked them if I could take their photo, and they indicated that I’d need to purchase some jasmine to do so. I was more than happy to oblige, and before I knew it I was sitting on top of the stall too, showing them the digital photos I’d taken of them while they fiddled with my hair. What an ideal exchange!

Speaking of women and hair, long, straight and flowing is the way to go here. The most common styles are completely natural, with the occasional braid, and hair to one’s waist is quite common – so it’s easy to imagine what a beautiful impact weaving flowers into tresses can be. Apparently a child’s first haircut is a momentous event, for which there is a special Hindu ceremony. (Similar importance is given to giving a child his/her name, determining his/her horoscope, and the first time solid food is eaten.) Perhaps this also explains why there are so many young girls (perhaps 2-4 years old) sporting very short cropped bob-style cuts.

And now a few more random-yet-interesting things I have learned and observed during my time in South India:

  • It is illegal in India to determine the gender of a child before it is born. This is because of historically high levels of female infanticide (and the concern that more female fetuses would be aborted if the sex were known.)
  • Kingfisher Airlines is owned by the Kingfisher beer company. I took a Kingfisher flight from Bangalore back to Chennai and couldn’t help but worry that the pilots could be drunk... thankfully no incidents to report.
  • There is a notable (and welcome) lack of foreign fast-food chains in South India. No Starbucks! And no McDonalds, which is perhaps not surprising given Hindus’ admonition of beef and the strong vegetarian culture that exists nationwide. There are however Pizza Hut and Dominoes pizza shops to be found in larger cities. Apparently pizza chains have been quite successful in part because it is very easy to “translate” the foods – tomatoes, garlic and onion are already dietary staples, and paratha or naan make for almost perfect pizza crusts as they are.
  • The Chinese are the majority owner of Pakistan’s national mobile phone company. (Pakistan apparently has very loose regulations on foreign ownership of companies.) There are numerous teams of Chinese in Islamabad and Karachi, and their common working language is English.
  • Beware of getting an Abhyanga massage unless you have a penchant for large amounts of hot oil. In a one-hour period it is likely that at least a half-gallon of hot herbal oil will be spilled on you, while you slip and slide on a hard wooden table and two massage therapists work in tandem on each side of your body (Abhyanga may also be called “synchronized” massage). In my case one lady had to hold me down to keep me from sliding off the table, and I had to take four hot showers before all the oil and goo was out of my hair.

And finally, a short note about the concept of “customer service” in India. There is clearly a service-oriented mentality and culture here, which is great, but it can have sometimes unexpected results. At best it means somewhere like the Green Hotel, with first-name introductions and rose petals that are refreshed daily. Or places like Café Coffee Day, where the staff could not do enough to get my order (which included milk “on the side”) just right. At worst however it means something along the lines of what was experienced at the Pride Hotel in Chennai. After a complete fiasco in the health spa (which included trying to book a massage, being left in the lurch for four hours, ultimately having an unsatisfying treatment, only to be accosted in the hotel room 10 minutes later asking for a tip… and then being overcharged for the entire bill), we were rudely awakened at 7am on the day of our departure with an aptly-named “courtesy call” to inform us that the health spa is now open and wouldn’t we like to try it? Good grief – sometimes there is such a thing as trying too hard to please.

TraveloguesApril Rinne