The art of haggling and Naag Panchamai

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August 17th 2010
Published: August 17th 2010
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The art of haggling

Entering Mysore's Devaraja Market my nose is immediately set upon by a thuggish bunch of powerful scents. I attempt to ascertain from where each nasal jab originates but cannot separate any from the general olfactory assault; the combined effect is just too much. After taking a standing count of eight my head clears a little and I am finally able to drag some individual scents from out of the madly brawling whole. I smell garlic, jasmine, jaggery, piss, cumin, cow, chilli, incense, shit, lime and sweat. But there is one smell, or rather one collection of smells, that glides majestically through the unruly crowd to pluck at my nose and carry me, like the Bisto Kid to gravy, in the direction of Akram's essential oils stall.

Upon showing a vague interest in his wares, Akram sidles out from the dark shadows that envelope the back of his stall to begin his no doubt well rehearsed sales pitch. After establishing our "good names" and "which good country we are coming from," and after charming Anny with a smattering of German, Akram invites us to take a seat in the shadows, the better to watch his brother's son's demonstration of incense manufacture. With his white, crochet skull cap, brilliant smile and exemplary English, this young boy proceeds to charm the socks off us with his slick display of nimble-fingered child labour. So much so, that the few sticks of deliciously scented sandalwood joss sticks we had intended to purchase quickly turned into 300, but at a total price of 45INR (60p) it hardly needed too much persuasion.

The preliminaries out of the way, Akram now attempted to convince us that what we really needed were a couple of glass vials of homemade essential oils. Different bottles were removed from the display and with a virtuoso's flourish the stopper, wet with the contents heady fragrance, was gently dragged upon mine or Anny's upper arm, wrist, hand, shoulder - wherever had not yet been dabbed - for our nose's happy perusal. One of the first scents placed upon my arm (Yellow Lotus) really caught both mine and Anny's imagination but, to be honest, after the fourth or fifth, and definitely well before the fifteenth, my hooter had become confused; high on the powerful nose candy snorted, it had lost the ability to differentiate between the scents - Blue Moon seemed the same as Watermelon, Ylang Ylang no different from Orange. So, to stop this nasal bombardment I decided to cut to the chase and engage the softly spoken Akram in a battle of wills, temperament and brinksmanship that, in these parts, goes by the name of haggling.

"Akram, how much for a 100ml bottle of the Yellow Lotus?" I had no intention of purchasing so much but wished to establish a ballpark figure.

"Nine hundred rupees my good sir. This is a most excellent price for this very good smelling oil isn't it?"


"No problem sir, the price is being very negotiable, yes?" countered a smiling Akbar, hopefully.

Wishing to steer this conversation in the general direction of the item I was actually interested in, I said, "How about the 50ml one, what price for that?"

"Ah, very good size for travelling is 50ml, many tourists are buying the 50ml bottles." To add some factual veracity to this statement Akbar produced a book, full of written testimonies from previous tourists along with full, suspiciously long and expensive, itemised lists of their purchases.

I needed no reassurance as to Akram's integrity or character - if I had doubted it I would not have engaged him in haggling - but I did need a price for the 50ml bottle: "Very good Akram, yes, many people from the UK are purchasing many items from you but, how much for this bottle?"

"Five hundred Rupees."

Hm, more than half the price of the 100ml bottle. "How about two hundred, Akram?"

"Sorry sir, that is far too much too cheap, isn't it?" Countered Akram, with a genuine smile and no trace of anger. "I will be taking four hundred only."

Encouraged now, and with a smile of my own: "Lets say three hundred rupees Akram, look, I have them here." At this point I flourish three crisp 100 rupee notes and raise them to my nose. "They smell almost as good as your perfume!"

"Three seventy five, and that is really being my last offer," replied Akram, laughing.

"And mine," I answered, "is three fifty including the incense."

A short deliberation, a smile and a head wobble, then: "Ok my friend, you are having yourself a deal."

A handshake and more smiles seal the transaction and, even though he made a few more tentative, half-hearted attempts to sell some perfume to Anny, both parties emerged from the deal with integrity, honour and humour intact. Though unfortunately the sad fact is, that it rarely goes as smoothly or as pleasantly as that; at least not for me anyway.

Further into the depths of the Devaraja Market, my Yellow Lotus oil cradled in my hand, I pass a shop with an interesting display of beautifully carved, devotional objects in wood. I have wanted either a Ganesh statue or one of Nataraja for a while now and am interested in how much they might cost. As soon as I enter the shop I am latched onto by a small bird-like man who proceeds to flutter about me whilst twittering in my ear as I attempt to study his wares. I try and concentrate but simply can't seem to sift the English from his staccato beeps and trills. Very little of what he says makes any sense at all. I eventually manage to tune in a little to his avian tongue and ascertain that he is telling me something about his shop, its age and history. I try and act interested, I mean I'm sure I would have been had I understood him but in truth my mind is focused on a delightful carved wooden Ganesh on the shelf. "How much for this Ganesh?" I ask, interrupting him in mid tweet.

"This masterpiece. Sandalwood sir. Very beautiful. Everywhere else very expensive." He replies, his eyes now fixed upon mine with hawk-like intensity.

"Yes, indeed, it is very nice. I like it," I mumble, "But how much is it?"

"What price would you like to be paying sir?"

What price would I like to be paying? This is a sales technique that I've never fully understood. If one were vaguely aware of the actual cost of an item then I could answer with a fair response, but since I have absolutely no idea as to its value I am equally clueless as to how to answer. From here, things can only become awkward.

"I'm sorry, I don't know how much it is worth. Can you not give me a price?" I plead.

"Sir, this very fine detail, very much quality. Sandalwood yes."

"Yes, sandalwood," I mutter, getting a little edgy and reluctant now and starting to place the Ganesh back on the shelf, "but how much?"

"Ok Sir, the price I am telling you. Five thousand rupees for you only sir," he whistles, hopefully.

Oh shit, I think. That's way too much for me. That's almost three days budget for both of us, best beat a tactical retreat. "I'm sorry, but that's just too much money for me. It is a very beautiful statue but out of my price range. Sorry."

"This is not being a problems Sir," the birdman counters, a little desperate now. "You can be paying me the less monies also. How much can you afford to be giving me?"

Well, I think, I could give you the six hundred rupees in my pocket but I know for sure that you would not accept that, so I am left with a flat retraction of any interest as my only way out: "I'm sorry," I add again, "It really is too much, I was just browsing, really."

A little more desperate now, and seeing me edging my way towards the door, the birdman swoops, cutting me off by another display case. "I am having some smaller pieces here sir also. Much better for your budget," he says, waving a poorly carved elephant under my nose.

"No thank you."

"Here Sir, please be looking at this. Beautiful small Ganesh. Not sandalwood. Only three hundred rupees."
I know I could buy this for one hundred rupees, but I really don't want it, and his constant fluttering, twittering desperation is making me want to exit his shop at my earliest available convenience. "No, sorry, really. I have to go and meet my friend. She'll be wondering where I am. Perhaps I'll come back later," I lie.

"Two hundred then sir, please," he pleads, desperation causing him to pluck at my arm in an attempt to stall my exit.

I shake my head, avoid eye contact, brush away his talons and keep walking.

"Ok, Sir, Sir, no problem. One hundred rupees for you only. Sir, please! Come back!"

I keep walking, all the while shaking my head and fluttering my hand disdainfully at my side, just relieved to have finally escaped from what had become a very uncomfortable situation. In fairness, in the second situation as soon as I was made aware of the price and I realised I could never afford the item I was no longer in a haggling situation, rather just the victim of a moderately hard sell. If I had of wanted the Ganesh, then I'm sure we could have agreed on a reasonable price and both parties would have parted satisfied. As it was I was left feeling a little used, harried and pursued, and I'm sure Mr. Bird was left cursing himself for his display of desperation at the behest of his greed.

Some people claim that haggling is a fair and equable way for two parties to establish a price that is mutually agreeable and does not allow either person to loose face. I'm sure that, amongst traders who know their products and buyers its price, all will go well. It seems to me that it is when tourists are added into the mix, tourists who in the main have absolutely no clue as to an items worth, that exploitation can occur. Mostly of the tourist, but sometimes of the trader as well. A trader is never, ever, going to sell an item without making at least a tiny profit and most of the time he will seek to make as large a one as possible. Which means, reasonably enough, that when Mr. "I don't know the price" tourist ambles up to Mr. "I know the price but I'm not going to tell you" trader's stall, an exploitation of the tourist will take place. Repeat this many times over until it becomes common practice, so usual that it is no longer even considered morally wrong and, as sure as it's curry in and curry out, you end up with two tier, government backed, foreigner pricing at India's official tourist sites!

But, as I said, sometimes the trader can be exploited as well. Sort of. Knowing that he is likely to pay over the odds for most items that are not fixed price, be they trinkets, statues and fabrics from a shop, a ride in a rickshaw, or accommodation, Mr. Tourist is going to do his absolute damndest not to be, as he sees it, cheated. He will invariable engage with Mr. Trader from a standpoint of either supercilious superiority or one of open disdain; attempting to conduct the purchase on his terms and thereby immediately forcing the trader into a defensively minded position. Each refusal the trader makes to one of Mr. Tourist's crazy offers only manages to further bridle Mr. Tourist and in the process actively reinforces his negative assumptions regarding Mr. Trader. At this point he may get angry, swear, call Mr. Trader a cheat,a thief, or worse. Mr. Trader now has two choices: either tell Mr. Tourist where to go; which keeps his dignity but looses him a sale or, as often happens, to fawn and simper at Mr. Tourist Sahib's feet; which gains him a sale through massaging an asshole's ego, but strips him of a little more of his dignity.

Haggling for goods is a big part of any travellers life when backpacking round Asia and unless one has too much money or too little pride, some negotiation will always have to take place. This is expected and accepted and as long as one bargains with humour and fairness, one will achieve as good a price as their haggling skills allow. However, if one wishes to avoid haggling, then these days there are plenty of options available. All purchases of gifts, statues and fabrics could be made from government emporiums where the prices are always fixed; markets could be avoided and all fruit and vegetables simply bought from supermarkets; pre-paid taxis and rickshaws can more often than not be found and, if you are happy to always pay the fixed tariff, paying for a room need not ever again involve the pretence of having to leave. But this would be boring, sanitised travel; so many chances for interaction lost, so many little battles won, lost, and so many more exorbitantly priced, dank and mouldy rooms slept in - rather than the exact same pit, but cheaper, and therefore better! I do still appreciate a taxi driver that uses his meter though!

Naag Panchami

Subrahmanya is a God He is the son of Shiva and Parvati, both of whom are Gods themselves. He has an Elephant headed God called Ganesh as his brother and He himself is a bit of a snake. Subrahmanya is also the name of a small town in the Western Ghats which has two temples devoted to its titular lord and, on Saturday 14th August, would be one of the very best places to be in India to celebrate Naag Panchami. But first we had to get there.

We arrived at Mysore's Central bus station expecting a direct journey of around five hours, with buses leaving every half an hour. What we found was that due to a political rally, or some other equally spurious reason, we had just missed the last direct bus and would have to wait two hours for an indirect one, travelling via Sullia. Never heard of the place myself but, being our only option (our preferred method of travel, the train, was fully booked), we settled in for the wait. I read the Times of India, chatted with farmers who stood around with neem twigs in their mouths and brand new, gleaming spades at their sides, and a very white and very Hollandish family from Dutchland, who were attracting quite a crowd with their brazen display of synchronised blondness!

We finally got on a bus and after sitting there with half a dozen others for an hour or so we were informed that the bus would not be leaving and we should transfer to the one adjacent. This achieved we then waited another half hour before finally juddering away in a thick cloud of noxious fumes. The first two hours of the trip were enjoyed under sunny skies and on smoothly tarmaced roads. As we began our climb into the Ghats the clouds descended, or rather we rose to meet them, or both, and the roads began to snake and pit. Once fully ensconced in those hills and with dark forest surrounding us the roads became rutted and pitted, vertiginous and twisty, and the rain came down in torrents. Eight hours after arriving at Mysore's bus station, we pulled into Sullia's. Our bus to Subrahmanya would leave at eight, a further hour away.

The sun having long since set, looking out the bus window was as though into an infinite chasm of nothingness, a voluptuous black void, and the only proof that we were surrounded by forest was the constant clicking and whirring of insects and the monotonous, hypnotic belching of frogs. Occasionally branches would scrape against the side of the bus and prehistorically large insects, attracted by the light, would fly in and bombard the passengers. While in the process of keeping my eye on a particularly nasty looking specimen that was crashing about near my seat I was surprised by the speedy arrival in the seat next to me by a well dressed young man with nervously smiling eyes and a stiffly proffered hand. "Hello," he said all at once, "I saw you at Sullia bus station and wanted to speak to you then but sometimes it is . . . "

"Difficult?" I offered, glad of the company.

"Yes difficult, but also hard to know how to be starting," he explained, "this is why I am now coming to sit with you."

"To be starting?" I smiled.

"Yes, but to be offering you my help also." He spoke, slower now, looking down at the document folder balanced upon his knees.

Not quite knowing what he meant but intrigued to find out: "How is it that you can help me?"

"You are tourist in India. You are visiting my native place and it is my duty to be helping you. In a film I watched, the Government said that if we meet a foreigners we should not be angry to them, we should help them." He explained, earnestly.

"Well, many people must have watched this film because we have been helped all the time and nobody, well mostly nobody, has been angry to us," I said, offering my hand again: "but what is your name?"

"Shampa Sir," he said quickly, happily.

"Shampersa?" I repeated, slowly.

"No. Shampa," he giggled, "and what is your good name?"

Enunciating slowly and carefully now, "my name is Scott."

"Pleased to be meeting you Escott."

"You too Shampa."

The conversation carried happily on for an absorbing half an hour before we reached Shampa's stop. We arranged to meet the next day and for Shampa to spend a couple of hours showing us around Subrahmanya. All that was left for us to do was get into town and thence to find a hotel to get ourselves some much needed rest. I was slightly worried that as this was the day before a festival all the rooms would be full of pilgrims, so when we found that the first couple we tried were indeed full we started to get a little worried. All ended well though as a short hike away from the main street found us a decent room in one of the many lodges that serve Subrahmanya's endless stream of pilgrims.

Subrahmanya is beautifully located, nestling as it is in thickly forested hills and on the banks of three beautiful rivers. It looked particularly special as we walked up to the main Temple on Saturday to meet Shampa, as the thick mist of morning was only just being burnt away by the sun and it still hung mysteriously, in little pockets and wispy patches, partly obscuring the steeply sided, dark green hills that rose just behind the Temple. After taking off our flip flops and leaving them in a pile with many hundreds more, Shampa ushered us through the small, simply carved goporum that lead to the Temple's outer courtyard and the start of a very long queue for food.

The Temple was providing free food to any of todays devotees who wished to eat. Judging by the length of the queue that amounted to pretty much everybody. What surprised me the most though was how orderly everyone was in queuing, no one was pushing and fighting, nobody barging straight to the front in flat denial of all those already there; in fact the line that snaked across the courtyard and slithered up stairs was such a perfect example of order that I felt almost homesick! We declined to join the obviously drugged populace as, though I've been enjoying India at a relatively slow pace; India has still had me running - if you know what I mean. So we entered the inner courtyard instead and joined another queue, this one was snaking its way round the Temple's centre and was to gain entrance to the inner sanctum to allow a glimpse of the deity himself.

People in the queue around us were chanting mantras and incanting prayers, Brahmins, their sacred string looped over their shoulders and hands clasped in prayer, shuffled slowly forwards, shoulder to bare shoulder with farmers and peasants, doctors and lawyers, as well as two intrigued tourists. Some took their devotional activities to greater, much more extraordinary lengths. Beside me I witnessed a couple making a clockwise circumnavigation of the inner sanctum. The man, like every other male, with his top removed, had neatly parted hair, manicured nails and well pressed slacks and was walking slowly, eyes cast humbly downwards while, on the wet, stone flagged floor at his feet, rolled his wife. With her arms raised above her head and her hands clasped together, palm to palm, she rolled with eyes closed and without once hesitating, the entire length of our side of the square. When she came to the end and was close to bumping into the wall (all other devotees made ample space for her) her husband bent to touch her sopping wet and filthy Salwaar Kameez clad body to inform her of the need to turn. Perhaps I read too much into what, after all, could well have been a prostration all of her own design, but I couldn't help interpreting this extraordinary display as a metaphor for India's improving, but still poor, state of sexual inequality.

Once inside the Temple the queue soon reverted to type, for as soon as the pilgrims caught sight of their adored deity they lost control and, farmers and lawyers all, launched themselves adoringly forward to prostrate themselves at its golden, heavily garlanded feet. Temple priests were conveniently stationed to haul the faithful up from the floor so as to allow those pressing in from behind a precious few seconds in the company of their adored Lord; a process that seemed to demand a none too subtle hand. Around the deity there was another little courtyard, and here Temple priests, presumably filling in time between bouts of bouncing, were performing elaborate Pooja that held whole swathes of the worshippers enraptured. Others were handing out scented water, blessed milk and Kum Kum to the devotees, whilst others still were collecting the elaborate boxes of offerings, known as Prassad, that were being carried by yet another line of worshippers. I had enjoyed this experience immensely, but due to the intoxicating and claustrophobic atmosphere that was aggravating my already strained system, we left the chanting and singing, bowing and prostrating, forehead touching and deeply meditating Hindu masses and exited into the refreshing, lightly raining mountain air.

Shampa took us to see a few more temples; two were for worship of Ganapatti (Ganesh) and another was also in veneration of the Naga God, Subrahmanya. This one had an equally long queue of pilgrims, many of these were waiting to tie a string round a tree that they believed was manifest with the spirit of the Trimurti: Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, and which had the power to grant them any wish they chose. I have no idea as to the trees efficacy but, unless looks truly are deceptive, the poor sickly specimen they were venerating so looked barely able to stand, let alone grant several thousand aspirants their greatest desires. Perhaps it had something to do with being strangled with sacred string, drowned in blessed milk, smothered in ghee and choked and burnt by a million sticks of pungent incense!

We had to say goodbye to Shampa as I again needed to make a dash for our hotel. Again, In the space of only a couple of hours, we had made another excellent friend, one who had truly enriched and illuminated what would have otherwise been a thoroughly confusing display of mass veneration, and one who had done so from a simple sense of duty, hospitality and friendship. It was now time to go make a little Pooja of my own. No, not THAT type, not all my jokes are jobby related; what I meant was, seeing as though all these beautiful Temples were surrounded by thick forest that we should go for a short walk, the better for me to get closer to my Goddess: Mother Nature.

Due to the poor control I had over my movements we didn't venture very far into the hills, far enough though so as to be entirely surrounded by a towering architecture of green, easily the equal of any religious building and, for me, far more inspiring. Lianas as thick as my leg hung from the canopy like giant organ pipes, the massive, perfectly straight trunks of trees rose like columns to the heavens and were supported on concretely splayed, flying buttress roots. Small windows in the canopy allowed a dappled, diffused light to enter this reverent space and to gently illuminate the pew like rows of shoulder high vegetation that covered the forest floor. We were not the only two in todays congregation for here, surrounding us, were a fluttering phalanx of majestically coloured butterflies and the mostly invisible, but beautifully voiced birds of the canopy and, most appropriately of all, just as we were leaving, a two meter long naga. How apt I thought, that on Naag Panchami, when everyone else is squeezed into a Temple prostrating themselves before an image of a Snake God represented in gold, that I am here, in my church, worshipping that very same God made flesh. Om Subrahmanya!


19th August 2010

I love your blog. How do you find time to write so well? And keep up to date? I am constantly so far behind. And, on a more practical note, how do you put that horizontal strip of photo under the title bar? I like it and I want to steal it for my blog. I read this with great interest because I'm going to Mysore next week... planning a bit of a shopping spree so I'd better sharpen my haggling skills. Jen
20th August 2010

Religious leaders have contended for millennia that burning incense is good for the soul. Now, biologists have learned that it is good for our brains too. In a new study appearing online in The FASEB Journal (, an international team of scientists, including researchers from Johns Hopkins University and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, describe how burning frankincense (resin from the Boswellia plant) activates poorly understood ion channels in the brain to alleviate anxiety or depression. This suggests .. READ FULL ARTICLE HERE

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