When in Mysore for Mysuru Dasara, one must visit the temple dedicated to the goddess for whom the celebration exists, the goddess Chamundi, slayer of Mahishasura. Tom is not a big fan of religious tourism, but Melissa loves a good temple, so we dressed in our knee-and-shoulder-covering clothing and asked the concierge for some advice on how to get there. We had assumed that we could just call an Ola to take us, as we would when going anywhere in Bengaluru, and just asked for advice on where to have the car drop us off. It was a good thing we asked, because we were told that during the festival weekend, we’d have to take the bus rather than a car. The incredibly friendly concierge told us how to get to the bus terminal just a 20 minute walk into town, and told us that the bus would be free today.
Once at the bus terminal, Tom asked for guidance and was told the bus number we needed at the far bus stand. The bus was there when we arrived, nearly ready to leave so we were gestured on quickly. Turns out it wasn’t free, but it only cost 20 rupees each (about 30 cents), which was only an issue because our supply of small bills was much smaller than it should have been. Tom had to ask the bus conductor for change once we were underway.
This bus was an adventure all by itself. It was jam-packed and we were standing, Melissa with her head in the armpit of the man holding a handle above her and Tom glaring to fend off a would-be-pick-pocketer fondling his phone in his pants pocket. It was hot and sticky with no apparent air movement given everyone pressed so tightly together, and people continued to get on at subsequent stops. Finally we got to a stop near the zoo where lots of people got off and we were able to grab seats, albeit not together. Sitting was an entirely different experience; no one else was touching us, and we could feel a clear breeze from the low windows. Aaaah. The other part of the adventure was the driver. We’re used to the craziness of Bengaluru drivers, but we didn’t expect it from a bus in Mysore. Wow, was this bus driver aggressive, constantly honking his horn and speeding around the narrow winding road up the steep hill. Miraculously, he didn’t hit anything, and we got off at the top with great relief.
In this weekend of firsts, we knocked off our first bus ride. Sure, it wasn’t ideal, but it also wasn’t as intimidating as we expected. It probably won’t ever be our first choice for travelling about town, but at least we know we can handle it in a pinch.
We’d expected a solemnity to the temple area, but this felt more like a carnival. There were little booths set up everywhere with either food or plastic tourist junk, so many in fact that we couldn’t find a place to see the view from the top of the hill. We decided to venture through the archway toward the huge temple and discovered a long winding line and people milling about everywhere. While tickets were required for the temple, our Gold Cards purchased in advance covered our admission and expedited our entry. As we were trying to figure out where to enter (there were no signs or officials anywhere), we were approached by a young man telling us that we needed to remove our shoes. And of course we did – we knew that, but just forgot in all the hubbub, and clearly walked right past the shoe check. He said we could leave them with him and the three men standing there with him and gave us offerings of flowers, incense, and idols to take into the temple. It was definitely a risk to just leave our shoes with a stranger, as we would have been very unhappy to have lost them, but we took a chance (Tom was assuming that eventually there would be a fee once our shoes were delivered safely back to us) and it worked out fine.
We entered a short line that went almost directly into the temple, separated by a rope from people who had stood in a line that wound around the temple. It made us feel a bit guilty and added to our frustration with the people in our short line who were pushing or obviously cutting. While there was little solemnity outside the temple, we expected to find it inside – but didn’t. There were clearly people there for whom this was a religious experience, bowing their heads, and finding meaning in the steps along the way, but it really seemed more like a social, habitual rite for the majority of people there. And the pushing only intensified as we moved through the temple. We couldn’t look around because we needed to focus on maintaining our footing and moving forward. We passed the priest with incense and waved it over our faces , we passed the priest with the holy water which he spooned into our hands to drink and then sprinkle on our own heads, we passed the priest who put vermillion dots between our eyebrows, and we paused with the priest who received our offering and returned our idols with vermillion dots on their brows (and then looked annoyed until we gave him money as well). We pretty quickly made our way out of the temple and breathed a sigh of relief as we headed back to where we left our shoes.
Happily our shoes were waiting right where we left them, and so were our shoe-protecting, offering-providing new friends who (no surprise to Tom) requested 200 rupees from each of us. We paid up, realizing we should have suspected something of the kind. The one we’d spoken with most was very friendly and introduced himself. Melissa thinks he said his name was Lavi, but Tom thinks he said Ravi because Lavi is not a name. He offered to take us to another temple right next door, but we weren’t really into it after the shoving match we’d experienced in the Chamundeshwari Temple. We did ask him where we might find a view, though, and he walked us to a lovely spot from which we could see all of Mysore below us. Lavi/Ravi kept pushing this other temple, the Mahabaleswara Temple devoted to Shiva, explaining that it is the ancient temple of the hilltop village where he lives, that this temple is 2000 years old where the Chamundeshwari Temple is only 800 years old, that it is peaceful inside. Melissa was finally sold and Tom agreed to come along. We were glad we did. There were only a couple other people inside and it really was just lovely. After walking us to another viewpoint, Lavi/Ravi asked us for money “for the children.” We gave him 200 rupees which he did not seem to find satisfactory, but accepted nonetheless.
We decided that we’d had enough of Chamundi Hill and now just wanted to leave, but didn’t know how. We couldn’t call a car, we didn’t want to get back on the bus, and we were having difficulty finding a path to safely walk down. And then we bumped into some Americans who animatedly asked if we’d come up the 300 steps. We hadn’t, but only because we had never heard of them. We were suddenly very eager to go down them, and they weren’t that hard to find once we knew what we were looking for (and Tom found them on Google maps). The walk down was great. It was frequently shady with stunning views off to the left, and a slow but steady procession of people walking up the steps. Most of them were alone, but some were in small groups, and as they walked, they stopped to put dots of turmeric and vermillion on the face of each step. This was the focus and solemnity we’d expected to find at the temple. We both agreed that it felt like more than 300 steps going down, and the faces coming up made it clear that they would have agreed had we asked them. With shaky legs, red faces, and a serious consciousness of our own dehydration, we began the walk back toward town, looking for a place to stop for water, food, and a little relaxation (see Kamat).