Mysuru Dasara

The reason we were able to take a mini, four-day vacation was for Dasara, celebrated in style in Mysore (traditionally and again known as Mysuru, but called Mysore by the Brits who couldn’t seem to pronounce it). Melissa got us set up to experience it fully with Gold Cards, which serve as admission to several events and cultural venues and also allows for a common folks’ version of a VIP experience for the main events. After many warnings that we were going to be facing crowds like we’ve never seen before, Melissa spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to best do this amazing celebration. This post will be different than the others — we’re going to describe what we did, and, in the vain assumption that anyone will care, we’re going to share thoughts on how we think we might have done it even better for other future potential Mysuru Dasara celebrants who google like we did.

First, we had to pick up our Gold Cards on Friday morning. Melissa very cleverly found us a hotel across the street from the District Commissioner’s (DC) Office. While Tom was disappointed that Batman and Wonder Woman were not going to be there, it turned out to be a lovely old Colonial building. We were there early, so we explored the grounds a little, grounds that mostly included a lovely rose and dahlia garden. After finally figuring out where we were supposed to pick up our passes, we were off to Chamundi Hill.

After sorting through the different bits of advice we got on how best to both navigate the crowds and have the best experience with the parades on Saturday, we decided to skip the start of the Jamboo Savari parade in the Palace in favor of making sure we got to Bannimantap Grounds to see the end of the parade and get great seats for the military parades and the Torchlight Parade. As a result, we had a completely free morning for just relaxing. Boy, did we need it. We ended up relaxing by the pool for a good long while. Melissa still couldn’t stop googling for advice on how to make the most of our Gold Cards, though, and finally found a blog post that suggested it was worth it to go to the palace. We quickly shifted gears: We had plenty of time; let’s just head to the palace, and if we aren’t having an incredible time, we can always leave early with plenty of time to still get to Bannimantap as planned. So we mobilized.

On our walk there and outside the gates leading to the Palace grounds, we experienced a couple of instances of what we started just referring to as “the crush of humanity”, when many, many people are all funneling into a very small space, and each one has to be first and is trying to push his/her way to the front of the line. We had found our way behind a single file line of women snaking their way through the crowd, through spaces that didn’t really exist but were simply between people who weren’t crushed up against each other quite as densely as in other spots. By the time we pushed our way out the other side, we were overheated, exhausted, and a little bewildered. This experience of being stuck in the middle of a crowd of people, pressing against you from all sides, while you just barely inch forward through tiny crevices in the crowd is unlike anything we’ve experienced before in the US. It’s a wee bit panic-inducing at times. Thanks to our Gold Cards, when we found the right gate, not only did get through without having to trample anyone to get there, but a couple of very nice fellows were waiting with bags of water, nuts, and mango juice for us. We agreed that our Gold Cards had just paid for themselves.

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We found what looked like great seats in the 4th row of the second tier of the Gold Card section, not far from where the parade would start and with a good view down a plaza underneath the real VIP section where the Maharaja and other super-VIPs would watch the parade, just in case special stuff happened there. And special stuff happened indeed. We had our first sighting (of the day) of the elephants, all painted and jeweled-up and accompanied by some stately camels, as they delivered a man we assumed was the Maharaja to the viewing area. We started to get the sense for the frustration to come as the crowd around us built. Chairs were loosely in rows, but people started grabbing extra chairs and stacking them to sit on, which not only blocked the view of the people behind them, but also took chairs out of circulation for others. More chairs came, and people took them with no regard for the original concept of rows, continuing to stack them on top of each other and filling in the aisles where they found it convenient to do so. Our seats began to seem less wonderful.

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Finally, the beautiful elephants returned. This time their mahouts (handlers) put up their parasols, and the parade was off. It was amazing. There were fabulous dancers, fun bands, and floats that clearly told a story. The only problem was that we didn’t understand the story the floats were telling, and between people standing to take pictures, and other people (including chair stackers) yelling at the standers, and the fact that the view wasn’t so good after all because even in the good moments, Melissa could only see the tops of the dancers’ and bands’ heads, we decided we indeed were not having the “incredible time” that was the bar that would mean we stayed. So, having gloried in the elephants, we decided to leave before the crowd with plenty of time to go back to the hotel, reset, and get a rickshaw to Bannimantap in time to see the whole parade.

We decided we were glad we went to the Palace, even if just to see the elephants those couple of extra times. If we had it to do over again, we’d go a bit earlier. The parade started at 1:30ish. We got there at 12:30ish. If we had gotten there at 11:00 or 11:30, maybe we would have gotten seats in the front row that would have made irrelevant all the chair-stacking and jockeying for position behind us. On the other hand, we wouldn’t have had that incredibly relaxing morning, so we didn’t exactly regret our choices; we just wish we’d done the parade better.

We also could have done our drop-off in Bannimantap better. First, the rickshaw driver basically headed straight for the venue, after telling us we’d have to pay extra because he was going to take the long way around. Hmmm. When the crowd ahead looked like it was getting too dense, we asked him to stop and let us out. Realizing what we were looking at was the parade route, Tom had the brilliant notion that we could get through the crowd and follow the route to the venue for the evening activities and what we thought was the parade’s end. We tried both edges of the crowd, trying to get through. The first was impossibly dense, like the gates earlier. The second was even worse and intensely smelly. Melissa began to panic. Bad idea. Somehow we managed to push our way backwards out of the crowd and got advice from a woman to go down to the next road. Now that we were again overheated and a little agitated, we found our way around the parade route entirely, approaching the Bannimantap Grounds from the backside. We were fixated on getting to our gate and into the grounds in order to get better seats than we had at the Palace. We went where we were told and ended up again on the parade route. This time, though, the crowd wasn’t so dense. We got out on the street and made it a little ways up the road when a phalanx of local police ushered us out of the street and on to a sidewalk with other parade watchers.

That fixation on getting to our gate meant we missed out on fully appreciating what was happening around us. There were very nice folks, including one of the policemen who was trying to convince Tom that Obama loved Modi, and an older gentleman who was quite taken by Melissa, insisting that she reminded him of his mother who was also named Melissa, even though that’s a name we haven’t come across, nor have we come across many Indians outside of the school who can pronounce it. The kids around us fulfilled our growing stereotype of Indian kids as being just wonderful, happy people. But we kept eyeing what we thought was our gate just past that phalanx of police and scheming ways to get to it.

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And then the parade showed up. It turns out they were so militant about keeping the area clear next to us because that was where the elephants turned in to finish their day! So the huge, beautiful beasts passed feet from us. They were incredible. We loved them. A few more dancers danced their way by, and then it stopped. By the time the crowds started rushing the street and closing off the route at the road where we entered the parade route, we realized the rest of the parade wasn’t going to get to us. Rats. Also, it was past the time people kept telling us that the gate for the Gold Card holders was going to open, so we found our way into the street and walked briskly past the police, very intentionally avoiding eye contact. We got to our gate, into the venue, and to our seats. And what seats they were! Because the venue was practically empty. It turned out, we got there an hour earlier than we really needed to.

On further reflection, we should have gotten the rickshaw driver to somehow drop us off on the east side of the parade route and found our way to the hotels on Bannimantap Road, like Hotel Athithi, where we could have seen as much of the parade as we wanted and still had plenty of time to get in to Bannimantap Grounds for great seats.

The event at Bannimantap Grounds was crazy. It started verrrrrry slowly. In fact, a good amount of the crowd, clearly the ones in the know, waited until later to even arrive. It started with a long, drawn out military procession. The band played the national anthem a few times, for which we all stood each time. The governor of Karnataka was there, so he not only was driven past the troops, but the troops then marched by his reviewing stand. Tom admitted later that he might have dozed off at one point.

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Then the fun finally began. An army unit of motorcycle stunt men performed some pretty amazing stunts. There were 20 motorcycles in all, and they would speed toward each other in formation, just barely avoiding collision. We joked that they were just replicating Bangalore traffic, but it really was quite impressive. They also jumped up to stand on the seats of the speeding motorcycles or drove with multiple people balanced on the motorcycles in crazy acrobatic poses. It was great. That was followed by a lavish, incredible dance with about 100 dancers in costumes, moving in sync. The final act was the torchlight parade. We hadn’t known what that meant exactly and were delighted to see that it was precision marching and artful torch wielding we had never imagined. It was incredible and beautiful.

With our spirits buoyed after a frustrating series of choices, we decided to walk along the parade route back toward town and our hotel. It was just simply a lovely evening for a walk, and a pleasure to out amidst the happy people surrounded by tinkly lights on every surface and building. Bannimantap Road is a lovely neighborhood (and at this point we realized the above advice about where best to view the parade). About half way back we decided to take a ride with the next rickshaw driver who asked. One hundred rupees later, we were home in the safety of our comfy hotel room.

We knew the day would be like this. Everyone we told about our trip to Mysore for Dasara all said the same two things: It’s going to be incredible, and it’s going to be more crowded than anything you’ve ever seen. It was both of those things. Maybe we could have had better seats at the Palace. Maybe we could have avoided the four or five instances of soul-sucking crushes of humanity. Maybe we could have done things better at Bannimantap. But in the end, we saw the elephants three times, including once at a distance of about 15 feet. We saw great dancers, fun bands, a torchlight parade we couldn’t have imagined, and experienced one of the most important festivals in Southern India. It was a very good day.

Summary of advice for future gold card attendees:

  1. Make the most of your Gold Card (we learned the next day that it is valid through the holiday, not through the holiday weekend)
  2. Go to the palace for the Jamboo Savari – it’s worth it – but go early and get yourself into the front row of one of the risers. The front row is very long and anywhere in it will be better than any other option further back. The very front section is for white gold cards (invitees) rather than black gold cards that can be purchased – they are on a lower riser so no worries about being behind them.
  3. Go from there directly to the southern edge of the Bannimantap grounds along the parade route. You might just tell your driver to take you to Hotel Athithi or National Residency. You might even consider staying at the National Residency or any other hotel along the parade route if you could get a room with a street-facing view. In this case, a fancy view might trump an otherwise fancy hotel.
  4. No big rush to get yourself to Bannimantap grounds for the evening. The stand is steeply raked, so your view is unlikely to be obstructed anywhere unless you end up in the seats on the ground in front. There is no reason to be there before 7, and 7:30 would be just fine.
  5. You’ll be given water, mango juice, and snacks at the palace and the Bannimantap grounds. No need to carry more unless you’re concerned about dehydration (Melissa prefers a little dehydration to public pit toilets shared by a million people).
  6. Expect the crowds and don’t get freaked out. They’re all there to have the same good time you’re seeking. No matter how much you are expecting the crowds, there will be moments that are beyond your expectations. It might be easier to not freak out if you know all of your belongings are well secured.

3 thoughts on “Mysuru Dasara”

  1. I hardly know how to reply. I have never read anything quite like this. What an experience! And it was written in a way that transported me to India. Your writings are so vivid and lifelike. Thank you for sharing this incredible journey with all of us! There has to be a book in your future! Love you both!

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  2. What an amazing story… and string of stories. I love this… the good and the challenging. You guys are leading such an incredible adventure. We are so so lucky to get to share just a slice of it with you… and can’t wait for you to share a real slice with us!!

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