Chapter 11: An Amazing Weekend in Mysore

We spent a glorious 4-day weekend in Mysore for Mysuru Dasara.

We spent a glorious 4-day weekend in Mysore, about 95 miles southwest of our home north of Bengaluru. This was a true weekend of firsts: our first India train travel, our first public bus, our first rickshaw rides, our first experience with elephants, and (our main reason for being there) our first big, city-wide Indian celebration event. We crammed in as much as we could while ensuring daily relaxation time, fabulous meals, long walks, and lots of sleep. OK, we didn’t really worry about cramming everything in. We focused more on having an enjoyable weekend and getting to know more about a lovely city that we look forward to visiting again.

Mysore is the historic capital of the state in which we live, which also used to be called Mysore. For 600 years it was ruled by the Wodeyars, interrupted only briefly by Haidar Ali and his son Tipu Sultan. After independence from the British, they ceded their rule to the new Indian state (as did all royal families across India), but retained their titles and government involvement until Indira Gandhi ended royal status in 1971. Even then, they continued to be among the wealthiest families in the world and the city they created and lived in is full of the gorgeous buildings and monuments they created.

With independence, Bengaluru was named capital of the soon to be formed state of Karnataka. To us, this looks like a blessing for Mysore. While Bengaluru continues to grow exponentially with each year, with all of the challenges brought by a rapidly swelling population, Mysore’s population is only about a tenth that of Bengaluru. There is less visible garbage, more manageable traffic, and easily walkable streets. Given the crowds of a festival weekend, we expected issues with all three of those things.

We took the train back and forth (see Our first Indian Train ride), visited the temple of the Goddess Chamundeshwara (See Chamundi Hill), took a tour of the central core (see Royal Mysore Walks), attended the Jamboo Savari and Bannimantap Torch Light parade (see Mysuru Dasara Events), had wonderful meals (see Kamat, Southern Star, and Tiger Trail), and visited the Mysore Palace where we got up close and personal with elephants (!) (see Mysore Palace).

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

We also visited the famous Mysore Zoo where we were most excited to see giraffes, hippos, rhinos, and a baby elephant sheltering between his (her?) mother’s legs. We were a bit overwhelmed by the crowds at the zoo, but managed to find some quiet spaces where, bafflingly, no one else seemed to go. The crowds seemed to instead cluster densely around the reptile houses where people waited in long lines instead of taking a turn to the unvisited arbor lined promenade where they could watch the baby elephant. Strange, but definitely our gain.

DSCF0419From there, we found a  brief air-conditioned respite at the lovely bar in the Radisson Blu before heading for a walk around Karanji Lake, a beautiful, quiet, forested bird sanctuary that we sincerely hope is the model for the renovation of Lake Yelahanka near us. Again, lots of people were there.

 

Our next visit to Mysore will definitely be timed for a less crowded experience, but oh, how we loved it!

Chamundi Hill

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).

Review: Tiger Trail

Our first night on our vacation, we had snacks for dinner on the train. Our first night in Mysore, we had snacks for dinner during the tour. On our second night in Mysore, we had snacks and hotel sandwiches for dinner while waiting for the festivities to begin at Bannimantap Grounds. On our last night in Mysore, we went for fancy dinner at Tiger Trail, specializing in North Indian food.

Tiger Trail is in the hotel right next door to the Southern Star where we stayed, but has an entirely different feel. This heritage hotel was built in the 1920s by the maharaja as a guest house for distinguished British guests. It was built to impress, and we definitely responded appropriately. We also had plenty of time to explore since we weren’t sure what time our reservation was so showed up at 7, knowing that we might not have a table until 7:30. In fact, the restaurant was still being set up at the time, and doesn’t open until 7:30. No problem – there’s a bar right next door where we could have a lovely glass of French burgundy while we waited.

In an ideal world, we would have been seated outside in the gorgeous grounds next to the outdoor kitchen. In the real world, with a sudden ill-timed downpour, we were happy to be inside near the window. We were also all alone in the dining room for at least half an hour. We’ve noticed before that dinner time is later here, but didn’t take that into account when planning.

The waiters were charming and helpful, and clearly wanted to order for us. This seems to be a frequent issue when dining in nicer restaurants, and we’re learning that we have to clearly express our desire to order for ourselves or we end up with enough food for a ravenous family of four. We attempted to order a bottle of montepulciano d’abruzzo which would have been practically our first non-Indian bottle of wine since the move, but they were out of it. Although they suggested Australian alternatives, we opted for ournew standby, Sula cab/shiraz. Our waiter couldn’t resist throwing in one extra starter, which Melissa thoroughly enjoyed: cucumber rounds topped with chopped tomato, grated carrot, peanuts, crispy vermicelli, and a delicious green chutney. Tom enjoyed it, too, but for the cucumber. That was followed by three tandoori grilled types of paneer: one with spicy tomato, one with cream, and one with mint, all served with some roasted peppers and onions. It was all lovely, and we agreed that the tomato one was our favorite. Then came the main course: saag paneer and chana pindi served with garlic naan and paratha (we let the waiter choose our breads). While everything was lovely, it was also clearly spiced for a delicate foreign palate. Not surprising, but we kind of wish we’d said that we enjoy some spice. For dessert, we ordered the payasam, a South Indian name for kheer, or rice pudding. This version was served chilled in a little clay pot and was a perfect end to the meal.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Overall, we had lovely service and a delicious meal in a beautiful setting, but didn’t leave feeling so loyal that we wouldn’t choose a different place to try next time we’re in town.

Review: Southern Star hotel

The Southern Star hotel is a 4-star hotel in Mysore that had two important things going for it: it is only a 10-minute walk from the train station (which felt important when arriving after 9 pm in a strange city) and it’s very close to the DC Office where we had to pick up our Gold Cards first thing on our first morning. It also had good reviews on tripadvisor with many mentions of both cleanliness and good food – two essentials, as far as we’re concerned.

Our fifth floor room was quite nice, definitely clean, and had a delightfully powerful shower. It also had a comfortable mattress that actually allowed us to sleep in one morning! If you know us, you know what a big deal that is. Of particular note were Kumar and Pooya, the concierges who were there with a smile and a genuine desire to help every single time we popped up in front of their desk. It was a great comfort to feel like we had people to turn to for any questions we might have while exploring this new city. (It was a little disturbing to realize this was true both early in the morning and late at night. At some point we’ll write about the work days people face in this economy.)

Also of note: the breakfast.

Hotel breakfasts included in the price of the room can sometimes be iffy. We would not have been surprised to find dry cereal and boring pastries and fruit as the only offering, in which case we might have sought breakfast elsewhere. As it was, we looked forward to breakfast each of our four mornings there. It was great. Yes, there was dry cereal and boring pastries next to toast and fruit, but there was also a varied array of delicious Indian breakfast foods every day. We had a different sweet pudding each day, different kinds of idli (steamed rice dumplings made plain or with lentils or veggies), different kinds of paratha (wheat flat breads stuffed with onions or cauliflower or potato), dosas (fermented rice and dal flatbreads with tasty things cooked in or on top), sambar (a sort of spicy tomato broth with veggies to put on your idli or other things), vada (delicious little savory lentil donuts), coconut chutney, different preparations of potatoes, and masala omelettes. We could have requested our own masala dosa or visited the made-to-order omelette station, but were so happy with what was in front of us each day that we just didn’t bother. This was all accompanied by sweetened milky tea or coffee – the only thing Tom could have done without, as a fan on unsweetened black coffee.

We hope this is a sign that Indian hotel breakfasts are different from American hotel breakfasts. If other hotels don’t match up, we’ll be back to the Southern Star!

Review: Kamat Lokarchi Pure Veg Garden Restaurant

You know those times where you just kind of stumble upon great food? We did that at the end of our walk down Chamundi Hill. We hadn’t planned to walk so far, so we went and got ourselves a little dehydrated, and we were looking for somewhere to get some water. Google maps had one restaurant relatively close along the way, and seeing as how we were also super hungry, we thought we’d stop in for a bite. It was to be our first truly Indian family restaurant that we hadn’t researched before our experience. We were so glad we did.

We really had three important observations:

1.  The service was fantastic. As with so many places, our servers and a gentleman we took to be a proprietor or manager were crazy eager to please. Unlike so many other places, they also gave us space to talk about what we wanted to order without pressuring us uncomfortably.

2.  Almost all “Indian food” in the States is North Indian food, so that was the food with which we were familiar. We have been so intent on trying new things, we have tended to steer away from the North Indian food. We just wanted something familiar in that moment, so we ordered a North Indian Thali, with familiar dishes such as channa masala, saag paneer, biryani, raita, and some other bits of deliciousness. It was delicious. However, seeing as how everybody else was ordering it, they clearly specialize in traditional South Indian meals like the one we described on Onam, served on banana leaves and with folks circulating with metal pails full of food. Next time we might have to go that direction.

3.  We were reminded of how wonderful it can be to simply take a chance on a place we walk by that might look tasty. We have tried to maximize our deliciousness factor by researching good food before going places. It has yielded great food, mediocre food, and a couple of clunkers. Sometimes, you just have to roll the dice.

 

Mysore Palace (and elephants!)

Mysore Palace is a must visit while in town. We knew the crowds would be difficult, but hoped that waiting until Monday morning to go would make it a bit easier. We’d learned the day before that our Gold Cards were no longer any use, but also knew it would be worth the price of admission. The palace opens at 10, so we got there a little before and were amazed to see that there weren’t as many people waiting as anticipated. Kainath, our tour guide from Friday night, had told us we’d have the place to ourselves on Monday morning and we wondered if that might feel true. It didn’t.

There was a bit of a crush to get in. There’s no such thing as an orderly line here ever – everyone just pushes their bodies into the available space, no matter that you’re all just trying to get through the same archway and it would be no slower to walk through it without pushing. Once through, we saw that there really were quite a few people there and decided to try to go quickly to the tour of the inside of the palace, then take our time with the exterior. As is so often the case, we couldn’t wear our shoes inside and had to check them, which turned out to be a bit of a nightmare.

The shoe check was a 30 foot counter with two men behind it. The first section was for getting a numbered shoe bag, which we missed as we tried to make our way into the line for shoe drop. Keep in mind that there is no such thing as an orderly line so people are constantly running up and pushing themselves into tiny spaces at the counter, rather than waiting their turn. Also, keep in mind that there are only two men there to deal with over 100 people trying to drop off shoes. Happily, a woman noticed our lack of shoe bag and handed us one she didn’t need. Tom pushed forward while Melissa moved out of the crush to wait. During Tom’s 15 minutes standing at the counter, he was pushed, ignored, and witnessed an argument between the two men working there that brought the little progress they were making to a complete stop. Melissa spent that time fending off a group of 20-something  men who were desperate for photos and finally just started photographing her until she walked away trying not to draw a crowd.

With that bit of trauma behind us, we entered the palace. While much of the palace is not open for viewing, what was open was incredible. Every single inch of the palace is carved, painted, and decorated, from the floor to the ceiling. It was awe-inspiring. And it was a little frustrating to be constantly moved along by the hundreds of other visitors, but in every room we wanted to, we found some space to take it in.

After leaving the palace and going through the stress of retrieving our shoes, our intention was to find some outdoor spaces that everyone else wasn’t crowding into. But we were thoroughly distracted by the camel and elephant rides, just like everyone else. We didn’t go on a ride, but really enjoyed watching.img_2168-1img_2169-1

 

 

 

 

 

We then headed off to admire the beautiful grounds and discovered the elephant area! All of the elephants from the parade and a bunch more besides were clustered in a section of the grounds, some getting baths, some walking with their mahouts, and many more standing in place enjoying a meal. It was a bit sad to see the stationary elephants chained and made us more excited about the chance to see them in their native habitats at some point. It was also a bit troubling to see the hastily constructed, windowless, metal buildings that house the elephant keepers and their families. We can’t imagine how hot it must be in there, which probably explained why everyone was out and about, with kids running everywhere.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The grounds and temple were lovely, but marred by all of the structures built for the previous day’s festivities. For that reason, and because of a desire to experience it all without crowds, we will definitely be returning to Mysore and its lovely palace.

Our First Train Ride

We’ve heard lots of intimidating stories about Indian train travel and seen the trains speeding by with people practically falling out the doors and windows of the second class cars that confirmed those stories. Yet we also knew that an Indian train experience was a must, so we decided to get our feet wet on the relatively short trip to Mysore: just under three hours from downtown Bengaluru on the way, and only two hours on the express train home. While we could have opted for a first class car which would have given us our own little room, that didn’t seem so interesting. We also could have selected second class for an authentic experience, but that seemed a bit scary. We chose the AC Chair Car, which has assigned seats, no standing, and air conditioning (as you might have guessed).

20170928_185934-1444391003.jpg
The bustle of the chair car.

When we got to the station about an hour before our train, we were feeling pretty uncertain of what to do. Our tickets weren’t what we would identify as tickets – they were just printed confirmation of the ticket purchase that didn’t state the type of ticket purchased or provide any other clear guidance. There were lots of people gathering on the platform, and we were concerned that if we didn’t act quickly, we might not get seats together. As the train pulled in to the station, we saw cars that said “Chair Car” on the outside. With nothing else to go on, we hustled ourselves onto the nearest chair car and got ourselves seated on a bench seat with space for three to sit. We noticed fans above us rather than air conditioners, but thought maybe “air conditioner” was a euphemism for “fan”. With Tom by the window, one of the last seats taken was the open space next to Melissa. We suspect that most men were reluctant to sit there, and the car was 2/3 male. Once all of the seats were filled, people just kept pressing on until every bit of space was occupied. At this point, we suspected we were in the wrong place, but we didn’t have time or confidence to do anything about it then. No one ever checked tickets, so there was no one official to ask. Despite the crush of people, the tone of the car was happy and friendly. Young men walked through constantly, hawking delicious-smelling food that people gleefully bought and ate. A woman standing in the aisle with her 8-year-old son asked the man next to Melissa to allow him to sit on his lap to eat his samosa. The man agreed, and the child didn’t get up again until the man was ready to get off. The woman then eased into the newly vacant seat and made small talk, including an invitation to her house, while noticeably encroaching on our space. While a bit annoyed by the crush, we were pleased to have Ranganathaswamy, a huge 10th century temple to Vishnu pointed out as we passed. Finally arriving at the Mysore train station, we were happy to find an easy exit and a short walk to our hotel for the weekend.

On the way home, we wanted to try to find our proper seats. While we were proud of managing and enjoying second class seating, we had paid for something else (260 rupees for the AC Chair Car rather than 75 rupees for Second Class) and wanted to experience that too. The problem was that we still just had these uninformative print-outs and no idea how to find out proper car. Problem solved when we spotted the ticket inspectors office. Melissa wandered in and sheepishly mumbled that we didn’t know how to find our car, and the ticket inspector graciously explained that the random-seeming numbers on our print-out actually indicated our car number and our seat numbers. We had actual seats waiting for us! The trip home was an entirely different experience in comfortable seats with plentiful leg room and powerful air conditioning. It was also different in terms of the human connection (people chatted with the people they knew) and the food (we were given water and mango juice, but no food vendors wandered through our car at all). For that short trip, the difference in price is just $1.15 vs. $3.97. We’d probably opt for the AC Chair Car again for a longer trip, but good to know that the second class option is entirely tolerable, if a little crowded and smelly.