Mysore, the Garden City

The night train to Bangalore left on time and I had a lower berth with good access to the (exceptionally clean) toilets, which was about all I was capable of registering by that time. I slept intermittently and woke in time for a beautiful dawn. The windows may be pretty grimy on Indian trains but, if you chose to, you can stand in the open door at the end of each carriage watching the Indian countryside go by. No, it’s not very safe but you get used to it.

When we arrived I looked out to see a tall, grey haired man on the platform and more or less fell into his arms. Luckily it was the right chap because I was so poorly by that stage the next 24 hours passed without leaving much of an impression. The only reason for the Bangalore stop-over was for Grahame and I to be able to meet up so no sightseeing was planned. So none was missed. I gather it is one of the fastest growing cities in the world; one of the great Information Technology hubs of the future. The billboards advertising this fact were certainly big enough and the traffic was absolutely diabolical so it was with relief that we set off the next morning for the fabled city of Mysore.

This next part of the trip is to take place by car and we have already taken to our driver Mukesh who will be with us all the way across the State of Karnataka. He is extremely attentive to our needs, offers enthusiastic but sometimes completely inaccurate guidance on the historical sights and ensures that everything stops at 09.00am so that he can make his daily call to his mother.

Mysore is a green city, as you can see all too clearly if you take the steep twisting road to the hilltop Chamundeshwari temple, as so many Hindu devotees do. This is an exceptionally holy place and pilgrims often queue for many hours to make their offerings in the inner sanctum. There was a genuine reverence amongst the visitors which was indicated by a complete absence of mobile phones once the threshold had been passed. It didn’t seem to discourage a roaring trade in “selfie sticks” amongst the vendors outside though. There is a five meter statue of Nandi, the bull mount of Shiva, on the route down and the vendors here seem to have concentrated their efforts on providing tempting roadside snacks and sugar cane drinks for the weary pilgrims.

Instead of Nawabs or Nizams this city has had regular old Maharajas for more than six hundred years. The Wodeyar family claim to be the longest ruling dynasty in India having held onto power (more or less) since the 14th century. They have endured periods as vassals of the Harihara Empire, as puppets of the invading Sultans, under the suzerainty of the British and, finally, as a titular monarchy in the Republic of India. Oh, and let’s not forget the recent two year interregnum when XXVI died without issue and a twenty-two year old great nephew was dragged away from his studies in the United States to take on the mantle. I’m sorry if this all sounds a bit sour, I’m still having difficulty coming to terms with the obscene wealth of the Hyderabadis and my respect for Indian nobility is at a particularly low ebb.

Mysore Palace was designed for XXIV (I’m sorry not to use his full name, they seem to have kept adding more syllables with the centuries) by a British architect and completed in 1912. It is huge. And it has all the over-the-top tastelessness that can be imagined of a British Empire version of Indo-Saracenic with a generous sprinkling of Belle-Époque. The gilded pillars of its Durbar halls are picked out with hideous pinks and greens, there are solid silver doors and Hindu deities frolic with Italianate cherubs on the ceilings. But pay no attention to me, this is one of the most visited tourist destination in India after the Taj Mahal.

As well as the lovely gardens which are everywhere, Mysore is full of palaces and government buildings, galleries and grand hotels all built to resemble palaces but there are other aspects of the city to explore as well. This is the centre of India’s sandalwood production; there are wonderful silks, perfumes and sweets to delight the senses and as for the fruit market! The produce is so gorgeous it puts some of those Hyderabadi gemstones I was talking about to shame. We enjoyed browsing and even bought a few things notwithstanding our stated intention to completely bypass Christmas.

A sincere invitation from the hotel staff to arrange for us to attend Midnight Mass reminded me that the last time I went to Mass on Christmas Day was in Pakistan with Elisabeth in 2007 but this polite respect for cultural differences was not universally shared. The rampant commercialism of the standard Western “Holidays” has descended upon the people of India with all the marketing ferocity of a group of McDonald’s executives in an orphanage. Saccharine carols are piped out in shops and restaurants, Santa hats are everywhere (we even saw one on a Ganesha) and our hotel has suddenly been festooned in fairy lights. At least they don’t seem to leave them up for long here.

Attempting to swim against this tide we dressed in our colouful Indian finery. I wore the beautiful red and gold Khajuharo saree while Grahame chose his long green kurta (tunic) and we sampled the best Indian dishes at the celebratory poolside buffet. There are not so many Europeans staying at the Prince Sandesh but I reckon that many of the Indian families staying here are also visiting from the UK. They seem to be taking it in their stride.

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