We had an easy 3 hour train journey from Bangalore to Mysore. We booked seats in the old fashioned, non air conditioned first class compartment. The roomy booth was fairly clean and the four huge fans bolted to the ceiling made the morning temperatures more than bearable. The great thing was that the windows fully opened too.
Very quickly the urban scenery surrendered to the countryside, the air felt fresher and the pollution lifted from our lungs. The warm sun went from oppressive to soothing as it came through the open window onto our arms and faces.
Today was was the start of the Ganesh Churthi festival, which celebrates the birth and re-birth of Ganesh. It's a time where Hindu families bring a brightly decorated clay statue into their home which also will be decorated with flashing lights and swathes of brightly coloured garlands of flowers and ribbons. On the first day, families and extended families get together for a vegetarian feast but will exclude onions and garlic. The statue remains in the home for a period of either 3,5 ,7 or 10 days (depending on family tradition) and on the 11th day the statue is immersed in a bucket of water and the clay then softens again and is used in the family garden. Towns have much larger statues made (in Mumbai the statue is 70ft tall) and on the 11th day, it is taken from the specially made shrine and paraded through the streets accompanied by crowds of singing and dancing spectators.
We arrive at Mysore and quickly find an auto driver to take us to the hotel, the guy's name was also Ravi and he was an informative, chatty guy (a bit like a cabbie I suppose). We arranged for him to take us round the historical sights of Mysore the following day. This left us a day to explore the local area on foot.
Mysore is another clean city, the festival kept the streets quiet and our long walk was peaceful and almost tranquil. That was until we heard the beat of distant drums and singing (chanting?). We followed the joyful sound until we reached a side road, at the far end of the street a small crowd of maybe 150 men and boys were dancing round an open backed van carrying a statue of Ganesh. The pavement was getting busier by the minute and we tentatively inched our way toward the celebration. Our way was partially blocked by a herd of cows grazing on the roadside rubbish and onion peelings.
Looking toward the crowd again, we could see that packs of men were grabbing people from the pavement and hoisting them up in the air, giving them a bit of a throw around then putting them back down a little dazed not too far from where they were snatched from. This was our cue to drift away and stay ahead of the growing throng.
As the Ganeshmobile reached the main road, the procession interweaved with that of another but very different celebration. On the other side of the road a congregation of around 50 men huddled round their statue of the beautifully ornate Ganesh and were solemnly worshipping their god. The two crowds met and like autumn leaves being whipped up by a gust of wind, the smaller group seemed to be whirled around before being left as they were, while the larger crowd moved onward to their destination.
We stayed 100 meters or so ahead of the procession until we reached our road, it was starting to get dark and our stomachs were rumbling. One last thing to be said about the Ganesh Churthi festival is that it's the only festival in India in which the class system is set aside, Bollywood actors rub shoulders with office workers and street cleaners in the street celebrations.
Our hotel was again right on top of the main shopping area, but strangely there were very few restaurants or snack bars.
The festival had closed what restaurants there were and so it was dinner at the hotel tonight.
The next day we had arranged for a 5 hour tour round the city and surrounding areas. There was a national strike over the price of diesel in force today and we weren't sure as to what would be open. The rickshaw driver Ravi, sent his brother, Sham, to take us round. Our first stop was the Chamundi hill temple, Chamundi hill is one of the eight sacred hills in India, you can look up the others and let us know what they are.
The 30 minute drive up was scenic with amazing vistas looking out across the old town and new Mysore. The temple was busy, a few hundred Hindus were praying and making offerings of flowers, coconuts and fruit. We decided (and were later commended) to stay outside and take photos. This was still a holy festival and going in felt like an imposition. The temple is stunning, the golden stone tiers are highlighted with white stone statues depicting the Hindu gods.
Around one thousand steps lead you down to the bottom of the temple complex, on each step we could see yellow and red finger marks where pilgrims had touched each step either on their way up to or down from the temple. Toward the bottom of the steps there is a large bull temple. The statue of Nandi (Shiva's mode of transport) is thought to be from the 12th century, making it the oldest monument we'd seen in India by some 300 years. The black granite statue is fifteen feet high and around 25 feet long and has been intricately carved with rows of bells round its neck.
Back in the rickshaw we headed back to town to Mysore palace. Unlike Bangalore palace, this is a REAL palace. Impressive gates and archways mark the four entry points to the walled grounds. Within the perimeter, there are 12 Hindu temples dating from the 14th to 20th centuries, the two largest and by far the most beautiful are the two sand coloured temples at opposing sides of the complex. The grounds, although having the pre-season maintenance carried out are wonderful. Wide walkways that thread their way through lush lawns (cut by hand) and flowerbeds. We wandered around the perimeter of the estate but our eye was continually drawn toward the impressive sight of the palace. The white granite building is topped with pink marble domes, at the front the numerous archways create an open fronted forecourt for the cannons and horse guard. They also allow for an open gallery near the top of the building where spectators sit to watch public events held in the palace grounds.
Everyone must remove their footwear to enter the palace. Cue the remonstrations and the now classic question "can I wear socks?" from J. Footwear removed and we pad into the cool entrance of the palace. Along the inside walls, is a frieze depicting the Dasara parade for the Maharaja. What is fascinating about the paintings is that they have been taken from photographs and each face in these pictures is a real person. Some of the scenes have hundreds of people in them and to see so many perfectly painted individuals is quite amazing.
The marriage hall, we agreed was at this point, the most beautiful room we have ever been in. The octagonal hall's ceiling was made of peacock green and blue stained glass, the ornate gold frame was supported by 32 green cast iron pillars. The floor had brown and yellow floral tiling with the odd bit of green and blue to match he ceiling. The palace demonstrates perfectly how many building styles can be amalgamated in harmony. Hindu, Victorian, Gothic, Mogul and Art Deco were the influences that our untrained eyes picked out.
Upstairs and we came to the other most beautiful room we had ever seen, Jan actually gasped as walked over the threshold into the ????? Room and we remained speechless for a good while afterward. Along the back wall of the room brightly coloured paintings of the deities and depictions from the Mahabharata adorn the walls, each enormous painting was surrounded by a finely carved teak frame, the pattern so intricate and complex that our eyes went fuzzy just looking at them. Then the hall itself, three rows of 11 red and white pillars, so perfectly aligned that, when looking from one end to the other, it seems like you are looking at an infinity mirror. The multi-domed ceiling is simply breathtaking, the carvings and terracotta colours are beyond any accurate description...squirly carvings and sort of pink in colour???
Our tour was cut short as the palace was shutting early due to the strike, we rushed through the remaining rooms and back out to collect out flip flops.
Sham, our driver was waiting patiently for us outside and on we went to St Philomena's church.
Within the grounds of the church, Jan mentioned that for the first time in India she felt at ease at a religious site, was it due to common beliefs or because she could keep her shoes on? Having said that, we did notice that visitors still removed their shoes prior to entering the building.
Compared to the palace it felt pretty dreary, only afterward, once we'd returned to the hotel did we appreciate the fine Gothic architecture. It's no Notre Dame but nonetheless it certainly deserved more respect than our spoilt eyes initially gave it.
There were a couple of other landmarks we visited for a quick snapshot as we drove by. However there was a definite change on the streets, they had become deserted there wasn't even a single cow, goat or chicken in sight and every shop had closed. The bandh (national strike) was in full effect and we decided to call an end to the day out.
Our final day in Mysore and we had no plans, we wandered around town and found a back street shoe mender to fix Jan's boots that had got ruined on our waterfall trek in week 2. The guy did an amazing job of re-sealing and polishing the battered boots, there were no machines just a can of resin and polish and a huge amount of effortless skill. The boots came up like new and all for the price of a can of coke in the UK.
While we were waiting a guy came in off the street and clearly wanted a pair of shoes made, the shoemaker told the man to put his feet on a piece of paper and he drew round his feet. The man chose the style he wanted from those on show and was told to come back tomorrow to collect the sandals, it was as simple as that.
Back at the hotel we had another monkey encounter too, these monkeys were feasting on the brown furry tamarind pods (think of the skin on a kiwi fruit) from the tree directly outside our room. The troupe had made their way down from the roof of the hotel, the dominant male arrived first and sat on guard until all under his charge had descended. They jumped into the tree, the older female foraged for the tamarind while the three babies played in the upper branches. We watched them for a good 30 minutes before they moved on. Simply wonderful.
We go back to Bangalore before heading south again to Coimbatore.