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Published: February 24th 2015
We left Mudumalai National Park at 10.30am and continued our northward journey, this time heading for Mysore
. India is often termed the “land of the farmer”, and we could easily see why as we drove through vast expanses of agricultural land of cotton, palm trees, bananas, sugar cane and rice. Every so often we’d drive through a tiny village, but most of the time the rural landscape stretched to the horizon.
Slow agricultural machinery, trucks and farm animals were sharing very narrow roads with speeding buses, motorbikes and cars – which equated to very dangerous driving conditions. We came across an accident between a bus and a car, but it didn’t appear that anyone was injured.
We dropped into the Chamundi Hill Temple on our way into Mysore. We wandered through the popular and crowded temple, and on the way out I made a donation to the temple and picked up an orange rope bracelet and a red/orange cotton bracelet (which I wore for the rest of our India travels). We jumped back in the minibus and headed towards Mysore, eventually arriving at 2.30pm.
We checked into Hotel KVC International and ordered dahl tadka
topped with tempered spices) and vegetable shahajahani
(vegetable curry) for lunch in Spicy Dine, the hotel’s restaurant. The menu description for vegetable shahajahani
was ‘vegetables cooked in semi Indian gravy’. I wasn’t entirely sure what semi Indian gravy was, but it tasted great.
We had a masala chai
(spiced sweet milky tea) to freshen up before heading out to Mysore Palace at 4.30pm. We wandered around the impressive but crumbling palace for about an hour, and I was amazed at the skill of the painters who’d managed to paint a cow in one of the frescos whose eyes and face literally followed you as you walked past it. I walked back and forwards past this cow at least three times, and the illusion was extraordinary. Unfortunately we were being led through the palace by a local guide with a bit too much attitude and an enormous chip on his shoulder, and it tainted my experience somewhat. On our way back to the hotel we briefly stopped in at St Philomena’s Church and the Eco-Friendly Incense Sticks Factory.
We had a few drinks in the hotel’s roof top bar before heading out to dinner at the Park Lane Hotel
Restaurant at 7.30pm. We shared an aloo gobi
(potato and cauliflower curry) with butter naans
(leavened bread cooked in a wood fired oven) and parathas
(naans stuffed with potato), and it was excellent. The combination of potato and cauliflower in a hot curry sauce is just so good. Four of us crammed into an auto rickshaw
(motorised tricycle with a passenger cabin) on the way back to the hotel, where we kicked back in the rooftop bar before heading down to the hotel lobby at midnight to access the free wifi. It had been a long travel day, and we were exhausted.
We headed out for a morning walk at 8.30am and unknowingly found ourselves in the midst of Pongal celebrations, a four day festival where families get together to honour the year’s harvest. We realised the day was a little different to most when we met a yellow cow in the street. Cows are honoured for their contribution to the harvest, and this involves colouring the cows yellow. We also passed a number of women creating rangoli
(colourful chalk drawings) on the streets outside their houses. We withdrew some rupees from a guarded ATM, stopped at a tiny
cafe (Preethi Sagar) for a chai
(tea) and met a few more yellow cows on our way back to the hotel.
We jumped into a minibus at 9.30am and headed to the Keshava Temple in Somanathapur, an hour’s drive from Mysore. We wandered around the temple in the intense morning sun, got a little distracted by a full-on wedding photo shoot, cooled down with a fresh coconut juice and then headed back to Mysore at midday.
On the drive back to Mysore, the tranquillity of rural India slowly gave way to the mayhem of urban India, and this transition continued to amaze me. We headed straight to the Red Pepper Restaurant, cooled down with a fresh lime soda
(fresh lime juice, sugar syrup, salt and soda water) and ordered a ‘veg thali
’ – with rice, paratha (naan stuffed with potato), vegetable soup, rasam (spicy tamarind broth), gobi manchurian (spicy cauliflower stir-fry), paneer butter masala (Indian cottage cheese curry), dahl curry (lentil curry), beetroot poriyal (beetroot fried with coconut and spices), pickle, curd, and a pappadam.
We finished lunch at 2pm and made our way to Mysore’s fascinating Devaraja Market. We wandered around the market stalls which were
crammed with vivid flowers, fruits and vegetables before walking back through the city streets to our hotel. We were leaving Mysore at 8.30pm on an 11 hour overnight train to the eastern coast of India, so we settled in the hotel lobby with the free wifi and caught up on our travel notes.
We jumped into a minibus at 6pm and headed out to dinner in the house of a local Mysorean family. They’d prepared vegetable biryani
(a spiced rice dish cooked with vegetables), brinjal curry
(eggplant/aubergine curry), mixed vegetable curry, chicken tandoori
(roast chicken marinated with a special spice paste and yoghurt), and cucumber raita (yoghurt based sauce); followed by custard and gulab jamun
(fried doughnut-like milk-based balls, soaked in spiced sugar syrup). It was fantastic, and a fascinating insight into local customs. After thanking our hosts, we clambered into the minibus and headed to the train station.
Fortuitously, Mysore Palace was on the way, and its many thousands of light bulbs had been switched on for the Pongal Festival. The Palace was glowing, so we jumped out and joined the throngs of locals who were enjoying the spectacle. I felt like a moth being unwittingly drawn
to a bright light – it was an incredible experience.
We arrived at the train station at 8pm, picked up some snacks and boarded our overnight sleeper carriage for the 11 hour trip to Chennai. I was amazed that we were the only non-locals on the train. Families had settled in with home-cooked meals and children were excited about the journey ahead. It was a warm and friendly atmosphere.
The train left at 8.30pm on the dot. We sat and talked with two young students who were sharing our berth before settling into our bunks at around 10.30pm. The gentle rocking of the train had me asleep in no time. SHE SAID...
It was a wrench to leave the peaceful Jungle Retreat in Mudumalai National Park for the four hour minibus ride to Mysore
. The jungle landscape soon gave way to Karnataka’s plains and open farmland. We passed fields of banana trees, cotton trees and coconut trees.
The drive was mostly uneventful and I slept for about 90% of it. We were dreadfully behind on writing our blog notes and I had hoped to catch up on the bus trip, but a few late
nights in a row were starting to catch up with us. We stopped at the chain Cafe Coffee Day for hot drinks, but it was the clean toilet that was the main reason for the stop.
Mysore is the second largest city in Karnataka and used to be the royal capital (Bangalore is the State capital now). This was to be our only stop in this State. The main languages spoken in Mysore are Kannada and Hindi.
As we approached Mysore, our minibus wound its way up Chamundi Hill on the edge of town. There were convoys of buses carrying pilgrims up the same hill, and it was a little disconcerting that the buses were full beyond capacity and being driven by complete maniacs.
At the top of the hill we explored Sri Chamundeswari Temple, dedicated to the Goddess Durga. Leaving our shoes in the open air ‘cloak room’ across the street, we had just enough time to enter the temple before it closed. As we squeezed past the gate I realised the ground we were walking on was full of things I wouldn’t like to step in barefoot, but I had to put that out of
my mind and keep walking.
It was the first day of the Pongal Harvest Festival and we got a little lost in the hustling, bustling crowd streaming in with their offerings. Crowds like this at first appear overwhelming in India (especially as they are so loud), but the people were very friendly and just parted to let us through. Inside the temple we made a swift circuit, and I did my best to dodge the priests dishing out blessings for a small ‘donation’. However, Karni organised blessings for all of us which were given with a tilak
(red powder marking) on our foreheads.
Outside as we mixed in with the woman, men and children, I was very aware that it was so crowded that I couldn’t see the ground – and when there are cows, dogs and goats around, it pays to always see where you are putting your feet. Andrew and Lee stopped to buy bracelets for us - I picked a black one with red beads, while Andrew picked an orange one for himself.
From the hilltop, the view of Mysore was quite beautiful and far greener than I’d imagined an Indian city to look
like. We descended the hill a little way to a nearby statue of a large black monolithic bull (Nandi). The Goddess Durga is an incarnation of Parvati, wife of Shiva, and apparently wherever there’s a connection to Shiva, there’s a bull.
The southern Indian states celebrate the Hindu festival Pongal – a four day harvest thanksgiving celebration in mid-January – to honour the weather gods, the land’s abundance and their cattle. Pongal seems to be associated with many legends, but I like the legend which involves Lord Shiva and his bull Nandi the most. In the legend, on the third day of Pongal, Lord Shiva sent Nandi to tell the people to have an oil bath daily and eat once a month. However, Nandi got confused (as a bull probably would) and told people to eat daily and bathe once a month. This angered Shiva, so he banished Nandi to earth to help the people to toil the ground and produce more food.
On the first day of Pongal (which was our first day in Mysore), people usually buy new goods and clothes to celebrate the start of a new cycle. The second day is when the sun
god Lord Surya is offered special prayers. People wear their new clothes and decorate their houses with rangoli
(floor designs using rice flour and coloured clay - they are called kolam
in Tamil Nadu). On the third day the cattle are honoured for their part in farming life – they are washed, rubbed down with a turmeric paste, have their horns painted and are sometimes decorated with flowers. The fourth day is reserved for gathering and celebrating with families and friends.
The main food of the festival is sakkarai pongal – a dish of the season’s first rice, fresh milk, jaggery
(a solid product produced from reducing sugar cane juice or palm sap), coconut, raisins, cashews and cardamom, all of which are boiled to almost a paste. When the milk and rice are boiled in a claypot, if the pot boils evenly on all sides, it’s a sign of prosperity and abundance for the year to come. Given that rice is grown throughout southern India, it’s not surprising that there are so many rice dishes – especially festive rice dishes.
We arrived in Mysore and checked into our hotel – KVC International Hotel. The street was very green
and calm, the hotel had huge clean rooms with hot water that worked, but annoyingly, the wifi only worked in the lobby. The biggest let down at this hotel was that the hotel staff were inefficient, slow and uninterested.
We decided to have a quick lunch in the hotel restaurant, but it was anything but quick. We ordered dahl tadka
(cooked lentils topped with tempered spices) and vegetable shahajahani
(vegetable curry) and rice. A guy with a really bad toupee took ten minutes to take our order, with much repeating, clarifying and more repeating. I was beginning to think we were in a sketch comedy. The food was surprisingly good, but then the bill saga began. It took Andrew 20 minutes to get (and pay) the bill. We later realised that money could only be handled in one area of the hotel, so when the staff ask for the bill, the bill was first generated by a cashier, then walked up or down to the floor we were on, then walked back to the cashier, then walked back to us with our change. How could a business as large as this hotel operate so inefficiently??
After the frustratingly
disorganised hour that it took us to have lunch and put some laundry in, we headed to the Mysore Palace. Mysore Palace is a product of the Wodeyar Dynasty heritage and is set in huge grounds of courtyards and gardens planted with palm trees. We had to surrender our cameras and leave our shoes in a locker before we gained entry. We were accompanied by a local guide who immediately annoyed most of us with his smartarse sayings and forced, tragic, dad-type jokes. He had clearly memorised his spiel and was put off if anyone interrupted to ask questions.
The palace is supposed to be one of the most ornate palaces in India – its interior was an in-your-face kaleidoscope of coloured glass and mirrors. It was built by the Maharaja of Mysore at the end of the 19th Century and it is a mixture of many styles of architecture and decor. The palace contained a heart wrenching amount of ivory, and more than expected amounts of blingy silver and gold. The most over-the-top items for me were the bejewelled throne and the heavy gold howdah
(a seat placed on the back of an elephant with a railing and
canopy)... because apparently the well fed Maharaja wasn’t already heavy enough on the poor elephant’s back. There was a sense that this palace was furnished on the basis that ‘more is better’. If anyone needs a good example of man's inhumanity to taste – we found it! 😊
Even though most aspects of the decor weren’t to my taste, there were some features that were quite stunning. I loved the floor tiles and extensive stained glass in peacock motifs in the Marriage Pavilion. The soaring ornate ceilings and sculpted pillars in the Durbar Hall were eye catching, but I did question the colour choices! And the intricately carved wooden doors throughout the palace were beautiful.
My favourite part of the palace involved the paintings that had been painted with a 3D effect, where the eyes of some of the humans and the heads of the animals followed you from one side of the room to the other – our guide liked calling them ‘the Indian Mona Lisas’. It was impressive enough that a few of us kept walking backwards and forwards to test the theory.
After our un-engaging tour, we walked to the large forecourt / parade
ground area for a front-on look at the palace. We arrived at the same time as a large posse of small school girls in matching uniforms, and their teacher decided to send them over to practise their English. So in a very cute chorus, we got roared at... ‘hello!whereyoufromwhatsyourname?’. I disentangled myself out of the scrum of little people, but Kim and a few others were more accommodating of their high pitched squeals.
Mysore was the first place in India to get extensive electricity in the late 1920s, as the then Maharaja had built a hydroelectric power station. To this day, on some special festivals the whole palace is lit up in lights and everyone is welcome to come into the grounds to see it. We were lucky to see this on our last night, as it was lit up for Pongal. It was quite stunning to see all the buildings outlined in thousands of lights. It was packed and we were warned to keep together. I love seeing local people enjoying their own city, especially when tourist attractions in India are beyond the means of most locals (even though they pay much lower entrance fees than foreigners).
On our way back to the hotel we dropped into St Philomena’s Church. I quite liked this church, but there were quite a few people praying and I didn’t wish to intrude, so I didn’t look around as much as I wanted to. As with most churches we've seen in India so far, it was very apparent that it could have done with some general repairs - and it was good to see that there was a fundraising board outside for this cause.
Mysore is known for its incense, so we expressed an interest in visiting an incense factory. To say it left a bad taste in our mouths was an understatement... we walked into a small, cramped space off a little laneway and there were two people sitting on the floor rolling incense sticks at an alarmingly fast rate. One was an older woman of about 70, and the other a girl of about 20 or less. There was something very wrong about the guy running the place, and we all felt it. He sourced his workers from orphanages and other welfare organisations, and he claimed the workers were paid regardless of the number of incense sticks they
rolled, but I could tell by the young girl’s face that this wasn’t true. We might be wrong and he might have been a nice guy, but it speaks volumes that almost all twelve people in a group were creeped out by him. I was glad that no one bought anything from his business.
The usual suspects gathered for pre-dinner drinks at our hotel’s bar before our minibus drove us to Park Lane Restaurant for dinner. The rooftop restaurant setting was quite lovely and we had an enjoyable meal of aloo gobi
(potato and cauliflower curry) with butter naans
(leavened bread cooked in a wood fired oven) and parathas
(naans stuffed with potato). We caught auto rickshaws
(motorised tricycles with a passenger cabin) back to the hotel, had one last drink in the hotel bar before calling it a night.
Early the next morning, Andrew and I went for a walk around the hotel to find an ATM. We asked the bank guard for a chai
(tea) stall recommendation and he pointed us in the direction of a small street just off the main road. The smaller streets were yet to awake and it was a nice quiet
walk. It was the second day of Pongal, and of the few people out and about, women were drawing rangoli
designs on the footpaths in front of their houses while men were congregating at the chai
Preethi Sagar Cafe was a busy little hive of a place with a constant stream of breakfast customers, but we weren’t hungry so we sat with our glasses of chai
and people-watched. As was the case in all the smaller shops and cafes we went to, I was the only female present.
Later that morning we drove out into the countryside an hour from Mysore, to the Keshava Temple in Somanathapur. On the way we passed more farmland, mostly just-harvested rice fields that cattle were now being grazed on.
Keshava Temple is a beautiful example of Hoysala temple architecture from the 13th Century. It is enclosed within a high wall, and we entered the rectangular complex through a room with tall pillars. The temple is made of soapstone that has aged to a warm grey. While it is no longer active, the temple was once dedicated to Vishnu. There are three shrines which contained a statue each – two of
the statues are original, but the third was ‘taken by invaders’. Our guide was quite good and seemed to enjoy his job. It was a public holiday for Pongal, so the guide’s wife and three children joined us for the tour, and they were dressed in beautifully colourful festive clothes.
The Hindu faith is a way of life for most Indians, and our guide seemed determined that we grasped the basics of the religion – a religion characterised by millions of gods/goddesses and reincarnation leading to a better life. We learned about Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, along with their wives and children.
The three shrines have a striking star shaped design with highly decorative towers above them. The outside walls are covered in panels with decorative bands of friezes and carved reliefs. The panels have sculpted swans, yalis
(part lion part horse mythical beasts), horsemen and a procession of elephants at the bottom. The other walls depicted detailed epics and stories from Hindu texts which were intricately and beautifully carved. The main hall, the three shrines and their associated rooms were all as decorative as the outside walls.
I liked these carvings more than many I’ve seen
in other Hindu temples, as they weren’t painted in garish colours. There was a symmetry and balance to the overall design that I loved, and there was also a very lovely ambience to this place. I think I would rate this as one of my favourite Hindu temples to date! 😊
On the way back to Mysore we stopped at the Red Pepper Restaurant for lunch. We all ordered the ‘veg thali
’, which came with rice, paratha (naan stuffed with potato), vegetable soup, rasam (spicy tamarind broth), gobi Manchurian (spicy cauliflower stir-fry), paneer butter masala (Indian cottage cheese curry), dahl curry (lentil curry), beetroot poriyal (beetroot fried with coconut and spices), pickle, curd and a pappadam.
Back in Mysore, we visited the central Devaraja Market that specialised in fruit, vegetables and flowers. It was a riot of colour! My camera couldn’t keep up with the pace at which the market moved. The flower market was like nothing I’ve ever seen. There were whole rows of stalls that were dedicated to selling one or two specific flowers, and the negotiations between the merchants were loud and swift. The walkways were narrow and manic with men hurrying past with multiple
sacks on their backs or garlands of marigolds stacked high on hand carts. Andrew’s tall frame isn’t easily missed in an Asian market, but I frequently lost sight of him in the hustle and bustle. I’m not sure if the market is always that busy or if it was more hectic because of the Pongal festival.
We were catching an overnight train that evening, so our group was using two day rooms until we left. We got back to the hotel, showered and organised ourselves for the onward journey.
We had been invited to an early dinner at a local family home. The table for the thirteen of us took up the entire living space in their house. The couple’s two grown daughters had come over to help cook for us. Pressure cookers hissed and whistled in the kitchen, a sound I associated with my parent’s kitchen in my childhood. The meal was simple but delicious – an incredible vegetable biryani
(a spiced rice dish cooked with vegetables), brinjal curry
(eggplant/aubergine curry), chicken tandoori
(roast chicken marinated with a special spice paste and yoghurt) and cucumber raita (yoghurt based sauce). If truth be told, I’m not a fan
... I find it dry and a bit ‘meh’, and the only time I really enjoyed it was in Malaysia, where they ‘flood’ the biryani
with curry sauces. However, this version of biryani
was quite moist and tasty. For dessert we were served a very sweet custard and gulab jamun
(fried doughnut-like milk-based balls soaked in spiced sugar syrup). I haven’t talked about Indian desserts yet – they have coma-inducing amounts of sugar in them, so I’ve only been having a small serving – which is a first in all my travels!
On the way to the station we dropped in to see the lights of the palace before continuing on to catch the first of our two overnight trains in India. We got to the station and joined the masses of people rushing to get night trains to different destinations all over the country. I was pleasantly surprised that the Indian railway system was nowhere near as decrepit or disorganised as I had read it was.
Our packs fitted neatly underneath our seats. I’d heard of thefts on the trains, so if our packs had been too big to shove under the seats, I would have
shared my bed with my bag rather than leave it sitting in the walkway – one of the advantages of having short legs. 😊
The overnight train from Mysore to Chennai was supposed to take 11 hours. It was our sixth overnight train in Asia, but it was a first for some members of our travelling group. We were in second class 3AC, which was an air-conditioned carriage with berths containing three bunks on either side of the wall and two bunks opposite in the walkway. This is the first time we’ve had triple bunks, and I’m not sure which bunk I prefer. However, the top bunk is the most private, and you can lie down whenever you want to as it’s a standalone bunk. During the day the middle bunk is folded up and the bottom bunk acts as a seat for all three occupants. So depending on who you’re sitting with, you could be relegated to lying in your bunk very early in the journey rather than sitting comfortably until you’re ready to sleep. The ‘ladder’ for the upper bunks consisted of two very small rungs that jutted into the walkway, and in 3AC the top bunk
was pretty high... I’m surprised no one had an accident on descent. Andrew and I got the two bunks in the walkway, so the politics of the three bunk system didn’t apply.
Having learnt my lesson from overnight trains in Vietnam, I packed a few layers of clothing and a warm jacket for when the aircon was cranked to ‘arctic’. However, this train kept fairly warm all night. Sheets, pillows and blankets were provided and looked clean enough, but I’d packed my own tiny silk sleep-sheet which was very comfortable. I did a bit of writing in my upper bunk, but I drifted off to sleep as the train picked up speed and started swaying a bit. I woke up once during the night when the train stopped to pick up passengers, and the next time I woke was at 5am when we were nearing Chennai.
I was a little concerned about the stories I’d heard about ‘train mice’, and I can confirm that they do exist. I only saw one, and I had no other option but to ignore it and hope it didn’t pop into my upper bunk during the night! We’d already been warned about
not carrying any food in our packs or leaving any food on the floor.
Having had many conversations with friends and family about train toilets, I’d like to report that the toilets weren’t nearly as horrible as I’d imagined. They were ok-ish to begin with, but Andrew reliably informed me that they were a bit ‘messy’ as the trip wore on. As per my usual way of coping with train toilets, I tried not to drink too much, but I get headaches from being dehydrated, so I just had to get over it. As with most things, the reality is never as bad as the perception, and they really weren’t that bad when I used them at 5am. However, I think I went through a week’s supply of wet wipes and hand sanitizer in that one trip to the toilet.
If you want some ‘toilet tips for moving trains' – shoes are always better than thongs (flip flops) for obvious reasons; tight fitting leggings or trousers are better than floppy/baggy ones; and the squat toilets are far cleaner than the western-styled toilets. But let’s face it – neither option is going to be a very pleasant experience. But
I lived. And I didn’t get Ebola. 😊
Our next stop is Chennai (Madras) on our way to the seaside village of Mamallapuram on the east coast of Tamil Nadu.
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