There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Wednesday, 24 February 2016

Bangalore to Mysore: Part 1 of India's Deep South

The twenty hours of hard travelling required to reach Bangalore from Staffordshire left us sleep deprived and more than usually slow on the uptake.

Having availed ourselves of the new e-visa scheme and finding a very small queue we imagined we would be quickly out of the airport. Wrong! Foreigners entering India are now photographed and fingerprinted, and the fingerprint machines do not work. Three pictures are required, left hand, right hand then both thumbs, but each had to be done four or five times with much wiping of greasy screens and greasy palms between attempts.

An hour later, after much trying, failing and trying again for us and those few ahead of us in the ever-lengthening queue, we finally received our all-important stamp and proceeded to customs to hand over our conscientiously completed forms so they could be filed and forgotten. Then we walked unchecked into the concourse. There was no one there to greet us. After walking its length peering left and right, our fuzzy minds slowly realised that there was no one greeting anyone and there must be a reason for that. Forsaking the air-conditioning we pushed through the doors into the heat outside and found greeters by the hundred. Some meeting families, others friends, business contacts or tour groups and right in the middle was Thomas waving at us.

Us with Thomas, Bangalore Airport
Thomas M. had been our driver on our second south India trip in 2010 (just pre-blog). Finding him a safe driver, a congenial travelling companion and an all-round good guy we had kept in touch ever since and ensured he would be driving us on this trip, too. He was accompanied by a man sent by the by travel company to meet us, introduced us to our driver and do the translating. He was largely a spare part - we knew Thomas already and also knew that his largely self-taught English is better than that of many qualified 'English speaking guides', but he did take the photograph above.

Bangalore, now officially called Bengaluru, is one of India's fastest growing and wealthiest cities, its success based on the information technology and aerospace industries. The road from the new airport (2008) is well maintained and lined with colourful blooms, neatly trimmed hedges and manicured grass.

Success and growth bring problems, notably with traffic and pollution. Our drive may have started on some of the most kempt roads in India but we soon encountered more variable driving conditions as Thomas fought his way along busy highways to and then round the outer ring road. We followed a series of toll roads, many of them raised on concrete stilts, their outer margins patrolled by swooping kites who looked large and determined enough to carry off, if not us, perhaps a small Maruti or definitely a motorcyclist, maybe two, one in each talon.
Round the Bangalore outer ring road

We eventually made it past the city and into the flat land beyond, at first on a four lane dual carriageway then on an ordinary highway. This is sugar cane country and it was harvest time, workers in the fields slashing through the canes with their machetes. Dotted along the road were men with sugar crushing machines that quickly turn raw cane into a sweet yet surprisingly refreshing drink.

Cane Sugar Crusher (photo 2009 somewhere in Tamil Nadu)
Frequent piles of green ‘tender’ coconuts provided a different but equally refreshing drink. 'This year the coconuts of Karnatica are not good,' Thomas warned us, ‘and in Kerala they are all right by the coast, but there are very few inland.’ The trees have been affected by disease, and coconut milk and oil, without which Kerala’s distinctive cuisine cannot exist, have increased in price. 'People have had to use other oils for cooking, ' he added. 'Some say they do not like the taste.' He left it a bit vague as to exactly where he stood on this particular debate.

At lunch time we took a break in a branch of Coffee Day, a chain of bright, clean upmarket coffee shops we have used before (mainly in Lucknow) where a green tea and a chicken tikka sandwich proved some sort of restorative. We ate and chatted with Thomas about his family, one son now at university, the other well into his secondary education, and about changes in Kerala - the creeping prohibition of alcohol and the attendant corruption (while noting that Kerala is among the least corrupt states in India).

Thomas asked about changes we saw in the south since our last visit six years ago. It was difficult to say on such a short time, but I had noticed a sign beside the busy Express Way (by name if not speed) into Bangalore. 'Accidents do not happen' it read, 'they are caused.' Was the expression of such a strikingly un-Indian attitude a sign of real change or merely cosmetic?
Southern India
We eventually reached the city of Mysore, recently renamed Mysuru - some of these changes catch on more quickly than others - and by mid-afternoon we were in a comfortable hotel room. As we had been up all night - albeit a night five and a half hours shorter than most – we were soon asleep.

We visited Mysore six years ago with Thomas and had returned for a specific reason (next post) but were not planning to revisit the city's major sights, so here is a very brief run through of what we saw last time. First on any tourist’s itinerary is inevitably the Maharajah's Palace. This Indo-Saracenic flight of fancy was designed by an Englishman, Henry Irwin, and was built in 1912 to replace an earlier palace that had burned down and which, itself, had been far from the first on this site. I offer here a picture of the outside only, cameras were not allowed inside.

Maharajah's Palace, Mysore
What became the princely state of Mysore was ruled by the Wadiyar Maharajas from the 14th century until independence - with one significant 19th century interruption (next post). The current Maharajah still has an apartment within the palace, but in today's democratic India his is now only a courtesy title and with a freshly minted degree from MIT in Boston (Massachusetts not Lincolnshire!) he is hardly a medieval monarch.

Chamundi Hill offers fine views over the city...

Mysore from Chamundi Hill
 ...but the official reason why all visitors come here is that this is where the goddess Chamundi (also called Durga) slew the demon Mahishasura, an event from which the city takes is name. The temple on the top is 12th century and beside the temple square there is a 40m high gopura.

My back and the temple gopura, Chamundi Hill, Mysore
Pilgrims who climb the hill’s 1000+ steps pass a five metre high Nandi carved from a single piece of black granite that has sat there since 1659. The idle, who go up and down by car, can also see him. Often adorned with bells and garlands, he is an object of worship in his own right and has his own priest.

Lynne and Nandi, Chamundi Hill, Mysore
Back down in the city is Devaraja market where you can buy garlands - you can't get far in India without someone bunging some flowers round your neck (see this post’s first picture), and they have to buy them somewhere....
Garlands of flowers, Devaraja Market, Mysore

Vegetables, Devaraja Market, Mysore
You will never see a shinier aubergine

....including chillies. We asked the price of dried chillies and were told 100 rupees. We asked for 100 grams, an order that was treated with disdain for being so small, but 100g of dried chillies fills a sizeable bag. We also received 90 rupees change from our offered 100. Do people really buy dried chillies by the kilo?

Chillies, Devaraja Market, Mysore
To return to today; we did a little more than merely sleep, we managed a stroll down the road to St Philomena's Cathedral whose twin 55m towers - apparently modelled on Cologne cathedral - were a landmark we could see from the hotel. Built in 1840 in neo-Gothic style it stands strangely but rather proudly in what feels like not quite the right place.

St Philomena's, Mysore
We did little else that evening. We headed up to the bar for some much needed rehydration and once that was done we had had more than enough for that day.

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