Saturday, November 28, 2009


After so many night trains, it’s always nice to take one in the daylight. As you get into northwestern Tamil-Nadu and cross the line into Karnataka, there are progressively more hills to see, some of them big, bald rocks jutting skyward out of the plain. Shatabdhi trains are very nice—you have A/C, they bring you a newspaper, some tea, and even a meal! There was a long stop in Bangalore, where it seemed like EVERYbody got off the train, and very few got back on. Bangalore certainly seems to be THE major destination for many travelers to this reason, especially the business types, as I might have guessed if I had stopped to think about it. So it was a nice quiet ride from there to Mysore, where I was immediately struck by the city’s beauty. The heavy traffic I’ve become accustomed to in Chennai was non-existent. The streets are lovely and tree-lined, and they do a nice job of keeping the place cleaned up (still not to Western standards, but sparkling compared to most places I’ve been in India).

I checked into the Green Hotel, an eco-friendly place that has converted a former palace (albeit a small one!) into a very nice hotel. There are only half a dozen (rather expensive) rooms in the “palace” itself, but there are plenty more in the adjacent garden house, a large, modern concrete structure. Rooms were simpler than I expected, but comfortable enough. No A/C, but it’s cooler in Mysore (thankfully!) and I never needed it. Spent Tuesday seeing the sights in Mysore, including the Jaganmohan Palace art gallery, the Maharajah’s Palace, St. Philomena Church, and Chamundi Hill with its temple, views of the city, and huge nandi. I also decided to splurge and have lunch at another former palace, built by the Maharajahs for the viceroy. It’s now a luxury hotel, and it was worth the splurge (expensive meal!) to see the inside of the place. They even had live musicians in the dining room! Best of all was the Maharajah’s palace, a very extensive, lavishly gaudy set of buildings in the middle of a large, walled campus with temples, shops, and a large central square. As with many tourist sites in India, foreigners pay a hefty admission fee, but there are occasional benefits. I was glad I turned down the guide who asked if I wanted assistance when I got to the palace itself and discovered that audio tours were free for foreigners! It was similar to the device we used at Westminster Abbey last March—put on the headset, punch in the number for each stop on the tour, and the device tells you all about it … in a very stiff British accent (maybe the same fellow who narrated the Westminster Abbey audio tour!). Some of the rooms inside the palace are really spectacular, the wedding hall, for instance, and the 30-odd murals that line many walls depict the Dassara festival that takes place every September/October (I couldn’t go because I was giving that paper in Tiruchi). Sadly, no pictures were allowed inside the palace buildings, but I was able to take a lot of photos out on the palace grounds.

On Wednesday it was off to Srirangapatna to see the sites related to time of Haider Ali and his son Tipu Sultan, Muslim rulers who displaced the Mysore maharajahs for 20-odd years in the late 1700s, and who provided perhaps the only serious resistance to the British in that century. They won quite a few battles against the Brits, forcing big concessions from them until Tipu Sultan was defeated himself (and killed in battle). Their island fortress in the middle of the Kaveri River stands in ruins now with remnants of the walls standing along many river banks. Within the fort walls you can see the mosque they built, the old Hindu temple, the water gate where the British managed to sneak into the fort undetected, and a couple of old prisons. Outside the walls are the tomb Tipu Sultan built for his father and mother (and where he himself is buried) and a little shrine at the southwesternmost tip of the island where the river is reunited and flows on through Tamil-Nadu (and Thanjavur!) to the Bay of Bengal. Most interesting of all is Tipu Sultan’s summer palace, where painted murals depict several battles and their defeat of the British! One in particular shows the British completely surrounded by the Indians (and French!). The Brits have looks of fear in their eyes, the British commander is sitting in a palanquin biting his nails, and even the horses look fearful! After a reasonably priced buffet lunch at another nice hotel, the Metropole (where they were playing Shostakovich in the background—who’d a thunk!?!), I took in a little-known museum on the Mysore University campus. It’s a museum of folk art, the Jayalakshmi Vilas, and it has an incredibly extensive collection of things from all over Karnataka and beyond. Since it’s a university collection, however, there’s not a lot of funding to provide museum-quality displays. Some things are very well labeled and/or very well displayed—the leather shadow puppets that are mounted and backlit to reveal an incredible riot of colors and patterns, for instance—but most of the signage was in the Kannada language only, and in many rooms, display items were clustered together right out in the middle of the floor, and many unframed paintings were lined up along a wall and resting on the floor. In spite of that, this is one of the very best collections of folk art I’ve seen in south India. Good stuff. Too bad nobody seems to know about it; judging by the guest book, I was the first visitor in the last 5 or 6 days!

I also did some shopping and vowed to visit only the government-run shops, but I ran into trouble with a driver who wanted to take me to every place but the one I really wanted to see (especially since they get a cut if you buy from certain shops). There’s a government emporium called Cauvery Arts & Crafts, but he took me to a place called Kauvery. It seemed like it was in the wrong part of town, so I asked if this was Sayyaji Rao Rd. He said he thought it was, and the doorman at the shop was happy to lie and say it was. I saw a sign inside that said something about the government of Karnataka, so I stopped being so suspicious and looked around. I should have continued to be suspicious, since the service was waaay too attentive for a government shop. The driver then took me to a couple of other locations of the same shop around town (none of which were on Sayyaji Rao Rd.). I ended up with a souvenir and a couple of souvenirs Christmas gifts, but it wasn’t till the end of the second day that we crossed the real Sayyaji Rao Rd., and there in big letters was the sign for the real Cauvery Emporium! The driver sheepishly asked if I wanted to stop, but by then I had to get to the university museum or not see it at all. Oh, well … grrr! At least he managed to find me a really good bookstore with Indian classical CDs and DVDs!!