A mélange of cultures and technologies, brutal worship and courteous apes, vibrant markets and kingly dining.
Today we rose at 4:30 am for a 22-hour day trip to Mysore, the region’s historical capital 140 km south-west of Bangalore (see photos). As we consumed cartons of Appy apple juice, the panorama unfolded outside the bus. Mosque minarets were silhouetted against the dawn. Workers clambered over lopsided bamboo scaffolding on construction sites. Many buildings had lower floors completed and occupied, concrete-and-steel pillars sticking up on flat unfinished roofs. (I heard this both avoids tax and allows for family growth.) Multi-coloured clothes lines and saris hung several storeys to dry, splashing colour down grey walls. White-uniformed kids lined up in a dirt school yard. Unlike the Americans, blasé after Egypt, I was thrilled to see camels carrying loads.
In the West, new developments supersede the old: motor vehicles replace animal carts for transport, tractors replace bullocks for pulling ploughs, wheelbarrows replace shallow round trays on your head for shifting piles of earth. In India, as we saw out the window, the latest technology is tacked on without discarding the past. Nehru described the country as a palimpsest, a document of many histories and cultures written on top of each other, with none fully erased. In India: a Wounded Civilisation, V. S. Naipaul criticised the way India absorbs the new and avoids any challenge to change.
We had our first view of Mysore from Chamundi Hill. Here the goddess Chamundi slayed the evil demon Mahishasura. His statue stood in the parking lot, with flowing black locks and generous moustache above clenched teeth and fangs; his right arm wielded a fierce scimitar, the left grasped a long snake. The national ten-day Dussehra festival celebrates this victory of good over evil in South India, but in North India it commemorates the slaying of the demon Ravana by Lord Rama – legends often vary by region.
Filing through the temple, we glimpsed through receding gold and silver archways a tangled pile of floral garlands and jewellery that covered an idol. No pics, ‘cos “Photo of goddess phrobhited”. Outside the temple I was dwarfed by what seemed like a siege tower on wheels. A removable flight of steps lead up to an empty pagoda with red pendants dangling at the corners from silver bamboo staffs. It was topped by a cone festooned with white, green, red, orange, blue flags. At the front, rusty cables were coiled and twin white wooden horses reared up on their hind legs. The temple idol is taken out to see the world in this chariot, rolling on four shoulder-high, blood-red wooden wheels. In central East India, crazed devotees used to throw themselves beneath the wheels of such a wagon that carried the idol of Jagannath (a title of Krishna), to die in ecstasy at their god’s feet – hence our word juggernaut.
The hilltop swarmed with hawkers wearing necklaces and belts of sunglasses. Stalls sold plastic trinkets, flowers or coconuts to break as offerings, snacks and bottled Appy Fizz: “a cool drink to hang out with”. I was leading on a parapet to photograph heaped coconut husks below when I felt a gentle tap on my shoulder. I turned to say “No!” to the beggar or hawker and saw a polite monkey, who then continued along the wall.
Then we drove past colonial English buildings to the Maharaja’s Palace, rebuilt in 1912 after it burnt down in 1897. It reminded me of European palaces, but with Indian and Muslim architecture. A coat of arms bore a mythological Indian creature and Hindu temples punctuated the stone walls surrounding rose gardens and parade ground. Apparently the royal bodyguards were paid a special allowance to keep their moustaches in good trim.
Inside were marbled floors from Italy, English mosaic tiles and a grandfather clock presented in 1860 by Queen Victoria, stained glass and cast iron pillars from Glasgow, and a collection of Continental souvenirs: Parisian statues, Belgian crystal, Venetian glass, along with Japanese porcelain vases. Inlaid ivory doors and carved teak ceilings, royal family portraits, elephant heads from local hunting and tables with animal hoof legs. In the car park outside, paper cones of roasted peanuts were sold from bicycles, vendors of wooden flutes played the Titanic theme song and Yankee-doodle. I negotiated two flutes for 100R through the window as our bus pulled off.
India is a fantastic country, if (and only if) you are rich. In Mysore I experienced the most brutal contrast yet. Sweating through the sun and flies, we pushed past a pair of handless arm-stumps wanting food, safely up the steps into our bus. A few minutes’ drive later, a uniformed footman saluted and opened a barrel-shaped door into a short basement tunnel, cool ice beneath the glass floor, which led to a softly lit, luxury theme restaurant. Some tables were inside classic cars; my seat was a motorbike! Waiters wore American cowboy hats and leather vests. Maybe I’m an uncouth kiwi, but I do find it a bit much when an attendant (in the already overcrowded bathroom) insists on pulling paper towels from the dispenser for me.
After lunch three of us rickshawed to the Devaraja market. Neat pyramids of apples, oranges, limes and coconuts; dangling brown and black wooden beads like rosaries; dazzling bangles; sacks overflowing with grains, spices, peppers; white, yellow, orange coiled flower wreaths; the smell of sandalwood and incense. And a psychedelic painter’s palette of tikka or kumkum powder cones, scooped from square tins into scales and sold in paper cubes tied with string. It’s used for cosmetic and religious forehead marking – different Hindu sects have different patterns.
Dragging the girls away from counters swimming with silks, we checked out the zoo. More animals were cooped up behind bars than NZ zoos, but many roamed open fields behind ditches. A sign warned “Please don’t cross the barricade. Survivors will be prosecuted.” The white tiger was new for me, but most entertaining were the baby monkeys chasing, springing, wrestling around outside any enclosure. On the way back, the sun set behind green rice fields separated by muddy flooded paths, as a few farmers and a V-flock of birds straggled home.