My Travel Map

My Travel Map

23 October 2012

Mysuru, India

Finally, a post on India.  I first traveled to India in 2006, but I didn't take many pictures.  My first experience with the country was the monstrously enormous mega-cities of Mumbai and Delhi, and I was immediately overwhelmed (quite literally in the customs line/mob in Mumbai International Airport).  See that post (coming soon) for those details... this was its own trip.  My second time to India was much less overwhelming, much more enlightening, but just as emotional.  India is as its national tourism agency touts, incredible, but it is also indescribable... so much bad, so much good, all sharing the same space and time.  It seems enigmatic, but there it is right in front of you, punching you in the face while at the same time offering you a helping hand.  I love India.  I hate India.  I can't wait to return.

The picture above is one of my favorite from the trip.  This kid was just happy... that was hands down the best part.  Next, the way the flowers just contrast so extremely with the litter-covered dirt and the burlap sack and even the red and white stripes on the wall.  Beauty and ugliness.  I guess it is like a half full or half empty question... the reaction to such a scene really depends on the personality of the observer.  To me, the child's smile and the flowers' colors just entirely transform what would normally be a bland, mildly depressing scene.

I've said this a hundred times on here, but pictures just don't do justice for the real thing.  One might capture something special with just the right timing, lighting, and composition, but it still never makes up for being immersed in an event, place, or situation.  This is the problem that must drive photo-journalists to excel and what really separates the excellent from the mediocre in that field.  Anyway, I'm going to put some pictures up here and hope that something, anything sticks in terms of what India is like.  Though I think that is wishful thinking on my part.  My pictures can't reproduce the smells, the sounds, or the sticky, often heavy feeling of the air or the relief of a fresh, cool breeze.  They can't reproduce the incredible tastes of the food.  What these pictures can offer you is a small sampling through tiny windows into India... watching a circus through pin holes in a massive circus tent... only offering inadequate glimpses of the real thing.  I honestly feel that India can only really be experienced in person, where it can slam you in the face full force and rock you to your core.

So, I've tried for pictures like this one above: just a woman, selling flowers in front of a wall by the road.  The colors of her sari are dulled by the brilliant yellow of her wares.  Garbage littering her feet and the base of the wall, which is covered with the remnants of posters advertising the last few weeks of big hits at the theater.  Indians love their movies, which offer an escape to fantasy worlds or, alternatively, a glimpse at horrors worse than what many of them either see or live every day.

Rickshaws and cows, the usual traffic hazards.  I'm not joking.  There were a lot more cows in "small-town" Mysuru than what I saw on the streets of big Mumbai and Delhi.  They have pretty much free-reign since they are holy animals in the Hindu faith, which dominates Indian religions.  Rickshaws are the (usually) short-range taxis of India (and throughout Southeast Asia too), offering commuters an no-holds-barred thrill ride through city streets, alleys, and sidewalks to their destination, all for a reasonable price (if negotiated properly up front).  Their driving makes the craziest New York taxi drive seem like a timid 16-year old with only a driving permit.  They know the dimensions of their small, loud vehicles to the micrometer and often test that limit.  If you decide to walk around a lot on Indian warned... or better yet, just hop in the nearest rickshaw and get a more exciting tour.

If you do decide to take a rickshaw (which I highly recommend by the way for most longer trips around town), this wont get used.  With rickshaws, you bargain first and pay last.  For the least hassle and guaranteed direct, point-to-point trip, you can go to an official rickshaw stand and get a ticket to ride, which will ensure you pay the actual, fair rate.  It is much easier (though never pay for convenience) to just hail a rickshaw on the street.  They are everywhere... you never need to wait more than 20 seconds or so.  However, a lot of the drivers aren't officially licensed to work as rickshaw drivers... these are probably the ones who will hound you on the streets, seemingly begging you to take a ride or even worse, trying to hit you with a scam.  Many of the rickshaw drivers (and pedestrians in markets for that matter) are working for commission on the side at local businesses, and they will offer you "free tours" to see various "local specialties".  In Mysuru, the popular ones are the Muslim (or English, European, local, Northern, Southern, etc.) Market, the "festival...only going on this afternoon", sandalwood factories, oil extract shops, bidi (hand-rolled cigarette) shops, and incense shops.  Really, they are trying to get you to these "shops" to get hassled by the owner to buy some of their goods at outrageous prices, a small percentage of which goes back to your "free tour" operator, the rickshaw driver.  Honestly, though, this is just another way people are successfully extracting foreign money from foreigners, and I had no problems with anyone being forceful, rude, or mean about it.  Knowing how the scams worked, I even took one of my rickshaw drivers up on the "free tour" offer one afternoon to see one of these bidi shops and an oil and incense "factory".  I didn't buy anything but enjoyed the quite legitimate tour around town (the driver made some stops at places I never would have found just wandering around on foot), learning new things from discussions with the driver and shop owners, and watching the old men squatting on the concrete floor in the bidi shop rolling cigarette after cigarette with incredible dexterity and speed.  I got this afternoon's worth of entertainment for only a few dollars, paid after I got dropped back to the place I was staying.  As the driver himself said, if you're happy, and I'm happy, then karma is good and it is good business.  I couldn't agree more.  

Parked rickshaws and people walking around.  The streets never seemed empty in Mysuru... with so many people, it is probably damn near statistically impossible.   This photo was taken from what turned out to be my favorite place to eat in town: Hotel New Shilpshri restaurant.  The place isn't a hotel, just a restaurant, but a lot of the nicer restaurants use "hotel" in their name to designate the "higher" status.  This place was delicious though.  It had a nice mix of north and south Indian dishes, and the real winner was anything from their tandoori oven, particularly the chicken, or any of the masala dishes.  So good, and great prices too.  If you spent $10 on food and drink, you'd be lucky to stagger/roll your way down the narrow, decrepit entry stairway there, as you'd most definitely be grotesquely stuffed and outrageously drunk.  So I mentioned the stairs, don't be put off by those.  Climb up (hopefully not putting a foot through one of the stairs in the process) and turn left out onto the best feature of the place: a roof top patio overlooking Gandhi Square.  It was just so relaxing to sit above the insanity and chaos below and enjoy the view over a cold Kingfisher beer and some great, local food.  The tables were even candlelit at night...priceless...truly priceless.

An unusual break in the traffic...
Mysuru is one of the cleanest cities in India, which says a lot about how filthy the cities are there.  At first, I wondered if the massive piles of garbage, being picked over by cows and dogs, were just a permanent feature on some streets.  Then, one morning, they had all disappeared, leaving only a stained mark on the street or alley where they had been the night before.  So that told me that there was a working trash collection and removal system.  Still, the trash situation is pretty bad, even in "clean" Mysuru.  I just can't comprehend how so many people are so complacent about littering and filth in their public places.  It's really disgusting overall...definitely one of the things I do not like about India.

Indian cities are crowded...congested, and quite often gridlocked.  People, animals, bicycles, carts, cars, buses, trucks, and motorcycles all share the same road spaces and "walkways".  Amazingly, it all works somehow...most of the time.  Bengaluru (Bangalore) is a counterpoint to that statement, however.  It has seen incredibly rapid growth in the past decade or so, and the city, ruled over by its corrupt bureaucracy, has not kept up in terms of infrastructure.  It took us over 5 hours to travel the 143 kilometers from Bengaluru to Mysuru, and the majority of that time was spent stopped dead in paralyzing traffic in the urban sprawl that is Bengaluru.  Despite the signs pleading for drivers to follow driving courtesy and lane rules, the streets are a mess.  Drivers fill in any gap they can, and at the first sign of a traffic jam, it all turns cut throat, with vehicles of all sorts cutting others off and filling opposing lanes and shoulders.  Of course, all of this just makes the problem worse.  At one point, we were stuck for over an hour in a stop and go traffic jam... we got to a point and realized it all resulted from one traffic light, which was operating normally.  We spent another 30+ minutes in a miles long traffic jam caused by a railroad crossing.  Bengaluru's locals are definitely not happy with the situation either.  I had an interesting discussion with a local about the "curse" of the IT boom.  It has made many people in the city very wealthy by Indian standards by providing them with Western standard, middle class jobs, but with that has come the explosive growth and price inflation.  Indians in Bengaluru without access to the IT money tap now find themselves unable to afford many basic things, including basic food and housing.  And everyone is suffering in the traffic, since the government, even with the "help" of the IT giants (though it would be nice to see how much of those "help" funds end up in the pockets of high-up government officials), is way too slow in implementing better roads and mass transportation systems.     

Another plight of Indian cities is the seemingly perpetual state of half-finished construction... sidewalks, public spaces, roads, and buildings, with everything only partially done and the works sites always abandoned.  It must be really frustrating for those

The sidewalks were particularly'll find yourself walking on a nice patch of freshly tiled side walk and then the tiles get all out of place, like some miniature, but devastating earthquake has struck just that 5 meter stretch of walkway.  Then the tiles start to disappear, one by one hear and there followed by more, and more.  Eventually, you just hit plain dirt with piles of paving tiles sitting beside it, still wrapped up the way they were when they were dropped off by the delivery truck.

OK, enough about things I didn't like, now onto something I did enjoy, the market.  I mentioned the rickshaw driver scam above, and you should not buy anything at any of those shops.  However, if you want to buy something for true-market cost, go to the actual market (just get a guide book...legitimate markets are always listed) or a government store.  Markets are a great way to get in touch with a place, and in particular the tastes of its people.  Indian markets are particularly rich, with an assault of good smells, tempting foods, and vibrant colors, which so nicely offset the filth and grime of the streets.

Being social places, markets are also such a great place for people watching and interacting with locals.  One of the things I love about India are saris.  Women wear these incredibly colorful, toga-like outfits, many with awesomely intricate patterns.

Inside Mysuru's Devaraja Market.  It's a big market, but not terrifyingly so (like the Basurto Market in Cartagena, Colombia for example).  It's laid out in a grid, not some labyrinth of passageways, and it is well-lit and spatially open.  Inside, many of the sellers have produce, but you can also find booksellers, dyes, spices, hand-crafts, and Mysuru's famous scented oils.  Mysore is known as the "Sandalwood City," and there is plenty of evidence for why that is.  You see plenty of cut sandalwood in stacks throughout town, the rich scent filling the air all around.  Sandalwood oil is on sale everywhere, and you can probably get it here cheaper than just about anywhere else in the world.  You also see sandalwood crafts, like jewelry boxes, decorated fans, carvings, games, and puzzles.

Of course, you don't need to limit yourself to the market, as there are street vendors everywhere.  Here is a normal, relatively uncrowded street scene.

I just loved these beautifully stacked piles of colored dye. As any local seller will be eager to show you, all that is needed is a little bit of water and some powdered dye, and you have yourself some paint for "henna" (you'll probably end up with the Om symbol painted on the back of your hand at some point).  I'm pretty sure these dyes are used for a lot more than just body painting though... whatever it is, the stacks and bright colors are just incredible.

Oh yes, and flowers...plenty of flowers for sale.  You can use them as offerings to your god of choice or decoration.  This scene stopped me dead in my tracks.  The color of the flowers was just so electric and brilliant surrounded by the dull colors of the sidewalk, motorcycles, street, buildings, and overcast sky.  It's scenes like this that make you appreciate everything...the contrasts, sharp, intense contrasts.  India is full of them.

Durian, the stinky fruit.  Durian is apparently very popular in South India.  There were street vendors like this all over, and we saw plenty of buyers enjoying their goods.  I also saw many durian trees for the first time.  I was shocked by the fact that these massive, heavy fruits just hung by one vine from what looks like a pretty skinny tree.  The fruit itself is something else... it is infamously stinky.  The smell is like a mild, sweetly foul rot mixed with damp feet that have just come out after a days worth of festering in dirty socks and waterproof shoes.  I mean seriously, these things are illegal to open up in public in some parts of Southeast Asia!  Amazingly, by some miracle of nature, it actually tastes remarkably pleasant though, kind of like a mild custard.

I found myself walking through Gandhi Square (square shaped plaza, but dominated by a traffic circle, in the middle of which stands this statue of the world-famous leader) many, many times while I was staying in Mysuru.  The RRR "hotel" and Hotel New Shilpshri were both very close to here, and I ate at each several times.  RRR offered the more standard, dirt-cheap but delicious "thalis" menu, consisting of a platter of food (northern style) or rice and mix of foods on a banana leaf (southern style).  The food in India is soooooo good!  Many Westerners find the onslaught of spices overwhelming, both on their palate and digestive system.  I love it though...the flavors are so intense, and in Southern India, they really like their spiciness too, which is a big plus for me.

Young school kids.  Each school had a different uniform, it was pretty adorable with the little ones like these.

Miraculously, I did end up arriving on a real festival day, so I took the opportunity to go check out the celebration.  Mysuru is overlooked by Chamundi Hill, which is a Hindu holy site.  On the hill, legend has it that the goddess Chamundi (or Durga) slew a demon buffalo, Mahishasura.  To commemorate this, a temple to Chamundi was built in the 12th century on the hill's summit (it really is a pretty big hill).

To only say it was pretty busy would be a huge understatement.  The stairs up the hill were outright inundated with people.  It was a fluid of humanity, defying physics and working its way uphill, drawn by the force of religious devotion, belief, and the temple at the top.  This shot was taken at the bottom of the hill, looking towards the entrance gate to the stairway.  I mean, just look at all these people, and this continued, just as dense all along the road coming in and all the way up the more than a thousand  stairs to the top.

Many entrepreneurial folks set up shop at the bottom, selling offerings in the form of incense, cocunuts, bananas, and flowers.  Also, plenty of the yellow and red dye-powder, the need for which became apparent immediately once I saw the stairs...


The devoted climb the 1500+ stairs barefoot, painting each step with a smudge of red or yellow dye.  It is obviously a slow process and has to be killer on the lower back.  This picture was not taken on the festival day.  To climb the stairs at my own pace, free from the surge of humanity that would have breached all forms of personal space on the festival day, I returned during the week to climb the stairs to the top.  Indian devotees exemplify hard work and personal sacrifice to their respective religions.  Pilgrimages are common, and often the pilgrims walk across large swaths of the massive country barefoot accepting only what is offered to them by others for food and drink.  Precious money is spent on offerings to the gods and as donations in support of temples and priests.  The sacrifice is epitomized by ascetics, who give up just about everything except their life, a loin cloth, and a rice bowl to attain a deeper understanding of their faith and the world around them.  Its incredibly impressive and quite humbling to see such devotion first hand.

The temple to Chamundi at the top is quite spectacular...this is the apex of the intricately detailed exterior.  Inside, there is a solid gold statue of the namesake goddess.  Once per year, the statue is actually taken out and paraded by elephant around Mysuru... that would be something cool to see!

The massive (5 meters high) statue of Nandi on the path up Chamundi Hill.  This holy relic was carved out of a single piece of black granite in the 17th century.  It is a cow, a holy animal in the Hindu faith, and devotees can leave offerings for it, most in the form of flowers and bells.  There is a continual procession of the faithful around the statue, in the clockwise direction if looking down on the site.   There is even a priest devoted entirely to maintaining the site and further decorating the statue (with additional garlands and the nice colored scarf).  Considering that there are 10's of thousands?  100's of thousands?  millions?  of such holy sites around India, it is incredible that there are still so many worshipers at each... just goes to show yet again how very many people there are in India.

A real holy cow (just a cow actually) foraging for garbage.  There were several cows like this one just wandering through the crowd of people and taking full advantage of the littering nature of many Indians to scrounge for delectable leftovers.  The bell chained around the neck and the decorations on top of the horns are little touches to mark this animal as sacred.  Respect for all life is a central part of Hinduism, and indeed, many Hindus are vegetarian (one of several reasons why there are so many vegetarian, "veg" restaurants and options on menus).  The cow, though is especially sacred amongst animals.  Even carnivorous Hindus don't ever eat beef.  The reasons for this are not really known as far as I can theory is because the Hindu high-god Krishna once incarnated himself as a cowherd and is known as the "protector of cows".  Another theory is based on ancient scriptures that proclaim cows as the mothers of civilization, who nourish all people with their milk.

There are a lot of people in India, and they are very religious.  This was the motorcycle parking lot at the base of the hill on festival day.  Motorcycles are a very efficient, though highly dangerous, way of getting around urban India.  As with the rickshaw and car drivers, anything goes on the road with motorcycles too.  Helmets are required by law, but you still see plenty driving around without them and plenty more with very, very poor excuses for helmets (not quick kitchen pots and pans, but pretty close).

Religion is everywhere in India.  Even on the way up to Chamundi Temple, there are a variety of other temples and holy sites.  As a visitor, the Hindu holy sites are great too, because they are so welcoming to outsiders.  I was invited into several as a guest (small donation, like 10-20 rupees...25-50 cents... expected of course) and had some great conversations with the caretakers or holy men working there.  There are so many Hindu temples because there are so many Hindu gods.  There are three main deities: Brahma ("the creator"), Vishnu ("the preserver"... also very popular as two of his incarnations, Rama and Vishnu), and Shiva ("the destroyer").  For whatever reason, Brahma has fallen out of popular favor, and many of the existing temples are to Vishnu or Shiva.  Other popular gods include Ganesh (the very popular elephant headed god, invoked before any undertaking, except funerals), Hanuman (also very popular monkey god), Durga (a fierce, female deity), Lakshmi (the beautiful consort of Vishnu), Saraswati (the most beautiful, consort of Brahma), and the destructive Shani (see below).

There are temples and old.  Age is a funny thing in India... it is an ancient civilization and 1000 year old buildings are pretty run of the mill.

Hindu temples often showcase these pyramidal panoplies of various gods and incarnations.  Many also include famous or popular scenes from the Hindu holy scriptures, the Vedas.  My favorites are those like the one shown above, where the figures and ornamentation are painted...they are absolutely beautiful structures.

While Hinduism is the dominant religion (claiming an incredible 80% of the population), there are many, many active religions in India.  Here, a Buddhist monk is strolling down the sidewalk.  Other major religions include Islam, Christianity, Jainism, Sikhism, and Zoroastrianism.  One of the things I love about India is that it is a secular country with separation of church and state and freedom to practice any religion (seemingly much better than you get in the US too!).  Despite this, there are still some religious tensions and clashes from time to time, particularly between the majority Hindus and next runners up, the Muslims.  However, overall, it is incredible how peaceful the followers of all of these faiths are and how mixed they are in the population.

The two dominant religions, Hinduism and Islam, are present nationwide.  Interestingly, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and India were all lumped together into the same colony under the British Empire, but Pakistan and Bangladesh split off as Muslim countries after the British left.  Back to India, Buddhism is popular, particularly up north, while Christianity dominates more in the south.  Mysore has a lovely, relatively new Christian cathedral.  One of my rickshaw drivers asked me if I'd ever seen a bigger cathedral, and I had to admit that I have seen some very big ones in Europe.  This one is pretty grand though, and it dominates the city skyline from afar.

Religion makes its mark everywhere...even on commercial trucks.  The trucks are very colorfully decorated with bright paint jobs and intricate details.  The demon face and conch shell on the bumper here are both religious (Hindu).  I think the demon is Shani (see) and the conch is a common symbol for Vishnu.

A nice example of a truck's awesome paint jobs.  Each one was different, though there were many common features.  One of these was the face of the destructive god, Shani.  Shani's face (a dark face with horns and fangs and a bright red tongue sticking out) is invoked to prevent things from breaking or going wrong... I saw it most often on truck axles and at construction sites.

This is one of the two temples flanking the main entrance to Mysore's famous raja's palace. This "holy cow" was also quite nice to pose in front of the temple.

The intricately detailed, tiered tower on top of the temple.  One of these two temples is to Lakshmi, the goddess.... I'm pretty sure it is the one pictured below...meaning that the one above is the Shveta Varaha Swami temple.

And the twin temple across the landscaped palace grounds.  That side of the complex was quite lovely actually, with several of those massive, old trees and a pleasant garden area, which was both quiet and shady (two very much appreciated qualities!).

A pleasantly painted Ganesh in a doorway.  Remember, Ganesh is invoked at any undertaking, so he is a popular figure at entrance ways.

Mysore's Palace.  This is actually still owned by and serves as the official residence of the Wodeyar family, Mysore's royal family.  It is an impressive structure, and it is quite beautiful inside.  Unfortunately, they do not allow photography inside.  Looking at it from this direction, the dark interior is actually a massive, multilevel court area.  There are tiered seats and standing room areas on the second floor, above which the Maharaja would preside over his court.  The peons and lower courtesans would be on the ground floor below.  You can see this better in the picture below, plus some finer detail of the palace.


The palace is still under 200 years relatively very new by Indian standards.  You can't say the same thing for the guns that the security guards had on display.  These things were quite literally antique hunting rifles. Pretty bizarre.  Anyway, this palace is incredibly huge, and it is crazy to think that it is still owned by this "royal family."  The family, which has ruled over Mysore since 1399, is incredibly wealthy, and controls much in the local area, tied in to both the government and economy.

It really is a beautiful palace, and it is nice that it is open to the public.  Inside, you really do feel at times the power of being in such a foreign court.  It is easy to imagine yourself being some foreign dignitary, with pressing business for the immensely wealthy and powerful raja.

The palace may be beautiful, but it is just another glaring example of the immense divide between rich and poor in India.  Here a local woman is walking (her?) two cows through the palace grounds.  How is it fair that a family be so rich when so many others just on the other side of the palace walls are so very, very poor.  It simply isn't fair; it is the way things are.  Hinduism embraces this "the way things are" philosophy and explains such disparity through the concepts of karma and the caste system... but I definitely don't buy into that.  It's simply not fair; it's life.  It's India.