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Published: February 18th 2008
NandiSekar duped us
. He didn't come to pick us up as promised. Maybe it was because there were no shops open at 4:25 am so he couldn't swap fare for vouchers. Now, outside Paradise Guesthouse, we were faced with a huge predicament. Our train would leave Central at 5 am. Needing to find a rickshaw, we stepped out into the scary darkness of early-morning Triplicaine. There was a whole nocturnal world at work including more than a few stray dogs scrounging in the heaps. Scary though it was, the darkness also hid the things which had so grieved us the day before and haunted our sleep. We were thankful. Rupees 70 paid for the 12-minute ride and we got to the station on time. First thoughts, after surveying the thousands of waiting passengers, baggage and cargo, was that a fantastic logistical system must be in place to get all these people and packages to the correct destination (never mind on time).
The Shatabdi Express, we understand, is a new train. Leatherette-covered cushioned seats, complimentary bottled water and AC were only the beginning. An hour into the journey the attendant handed out packages of delicious Indian meals. And before we rolled
into Bengaluru's station we were fed again. Through the Shatabdi's tinted windows we watched a big city creeping up to us and you know how we feel about big cities. Instantly, we made the decision to forego a visit to Bengaluru and stay to the train to Mysore which promised to be quieter. The conductor lifted 40 Rupees apiece from us in return for transport to Mysore and (woohoo) another serving of curries, rice and naan. Not bad at all! Not at all bad!
India's countryside was grand. Soft, rolling, verdant hills, acres of rice fields and coconut plantations, empty plains and rocky pastures. An odd, and surprisingly clean, river wiggled beneath the raised metal bridge over which the train crawled and disappeared around a bend. Our destination came into sight. Mysore, which was once the seat of Wodeyars' dynasty starting back in 1399, was the right decision. We arrived to a clean, organized city with just the right amount of hustle and bustle. Parking our bags in a clean, well-appointed room which we secured with our own padlock, we bypassed lunch (it was just about 1 pm) and set off exploring.
6 Rupees bought us tickets on
the bus to Chamundi Hill which loomed large over the flat town. At the very top of this, one of India's holiest hills, was Sri Chamundeswari Temple which sported an impressive 7-storey, 40-meter-high gopuram
. A few monkeys scampered up and down the tower. Following the hundreds of pilgrims, some of whom had made the tough climb up 1000 steps from the foot of the hill, we handed over our sandals to a 'keeper' and joined a long line waiting for entry into the temple. Our presence certainly caught a fair bit of attention and soon a group of youngsters had us under inquisition.
'Where are you from', they asked.
'West Indies', Vibert replied. He knew what the reply would be.
'Aaaah, West Indies. Brian Lara', in reference to the world famous cricketer from Trinidad. Cricket was the tie that bound Indians to Caribbean/West Indies/Guyana folk. We played up the 'cricket card' as an easy ice-breaker.
'Nah', said Vibert. 'More like Chanderpal and Sarwan' Referring to cricketers from Guyana.
'You know, if West Indies playing Australia or South Africa, we backing West Indies. But if West Indies playing India..."
He left it hanging. The answer was obvious
. Just before we entered
Not sure if this is his statue, but legend has it that godess Chamundeswari(Chamundi slayed this demon who was the ruler of the area currently known as Mysore
the temple a monkey calmly strode over to an unsuspecting pilgrim, ripped open his plastic bag of offerings and walked away with two bananas.
The floor was cold outside but colder inside. Close to the altar where a few candles burned, people were kneeling and praying, offering coconuts and bananas and dropping donations into a metal box. We shuffled in the crowd and caught a glimpse of a silver god at the far end just before hustling out the side door. Somehow coconut water seemed like the appropriate drink and we slugged down a couple under the watchful eyes of a few monkeys. A series of rough-cut steps behind the coconut vendor led down the hillside. About one-thirds of the way down, we came upon Nandi, the bull vehicle of Shiva. At 5 meters (16.4 feet), the black-skinned, garlanded 1659 rock carving is one of India's largest and most revered bull statues.
Back in the town, it was almost night. To our great surprise and good fortune it happened to be the one night when the Mysore Palace would be lit up. The spectacular Indo-Saracenic structure is the replacement for the previous palace which was burnt down in
1897. When, after a scrumptious dinner, we got to the palace grounds, it was already teeming with people. A passerby told us that about 80,000 bulbs were on. We didn't doubt. Every inch of the palace was outlined and so too the surrounding buildings. We soaked it all in. Ironically, it was only after
they killed the lights at 9 pm that we spotted a small herd of elephants in silhouette on the palace grounds.
We spent the next morning browsing thru the palace grounds and the nearby Devaraja Market. Stalls were piled high with fruits and vegetable and flowers which were being lassoed together into garlands. Spices filled the air mingling with the thousands of bargaining voices. Shanna was drawn to the kumkum
, coloured powder used for bindi dots, which formed colourful volcanoes along the counter-tops of a few stalls. Deeper into the market we went drawn in by the sights, smells and sounds. One storefront was filled with perfume bottles and incense sticks. We stopped. Muzammil gladly introduced us to each smell evening offering up handy tips for their uses. An hour later we emerged with two hand-carved, pearl in-laid, wooden boxes containing 12 small bottles each
of the purest Mysore fragrances. These fragrances, like Black Rose, Jasmine, Jade and Night Queen, are the underpinnings of some of the world's most expensive perfumes. The price was more than right too. The packages were professionally wrapped in custom-made cotton sacks on to which we scribbled the names and addresses of our moms (Aaaaaaaah 😊) and we rushed over to the post office and sent our little packages off. And not a moment too late too because we had a few minutes left before we caught the ordinary train (Vibert has Shatabdi-withdrawal symptoms
) back to Bengaluru.
Slower than the Shatabdi, this train got us there at 6 pm. We had enough time to grab some dinner (masala dosas), find our departure platform in the huge, creepy station and while some time away in the special waiting room reserved for AC class ticket-holders. The train arrived and we boarded and found our beds in the non-AC, regular class section. Three-tiered bunk beds were bolted to each side of a compartment and a two-tiered bunk was stapled to the wall on the other side of the dividing corridor. We had lower and middle berth beds and a friendly, motherly neighbour
on the lower berth of the other tier. She quickly whipped out a chain and secured her bags to a hook beneath the lower bunk. We followed suit and before settling in for the overnighter made pit stops (you know, for comparison). There was a 'Western style' and an 'Indian style' toilet. The 'Western' we knew well and our suspicions about the 'Indian style' were right-on. Slightly-raised platforms were on both sides of a hole in the floor of the train and from the upward rushing wind one could tell that whatever what did in here landed squarely on the tracks below. There was no toilet paper but, rather conveniently, a tap was within arm reach.
Sleep was sweet aided by the natural rocking motion of the train. Early the next morning, our friendly neighbour told us that the next station was where we should get off. Indian trains do not announce the upcoming station(s) and signs are sometimes in Hindi or non-existent. As we were readying to exit a group of about five ladies approached our cubicle. They clapped the heels of their hands together and gestured seemingly for money. But these weren't women and they were not
begging. This was our encounter with The Invisibles
- a highly-feared, ostracized group of men who were either castrated or otherwise gender ambiguous. They are thought to possess the powers to bless or curse and they'd leverage these 'powers' by demanding money. The Invisibles invariably show up at births and wedding ceremonies and were known to get aggressive if their demands weren't met. We did not meet their demands and a hefty individual (being politically correct) advanced seemingly to touch Vibert's head. Shanna shouted at the individual and the group moved on. We hopped off the train at 7:10 am at its second-to-last stop, Londa.
LONDA A lazy group of three auto-rickshaw drivers eyed us sleepily
. We negotiated the ride to the bus stop and soon were rolling thru the quaintest, smallest town. No more than a ragtag collection of old, wooden houses, we had come this way only for a bus connection. In the 2 hours we spent trolling the little village, we fell in love with the emptiness, the peace of the place. And when we said 'goodbye', it was on a horrid, over-crowded, stand-in-the-aisle bus (or what used
to be a bus) which bumped and
thumped its way, for 4 hours, to Panaji aka Panjim in Goa. 😊
😊 Our friendly neighbour on the train
😊 Muzammil, the fragrance guru from Devaraja Market
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