Before leaving Chennakeshava, Annie, who is one of our local postmasters at home in NH, finds a big red post box on a humongous banyan tree outside the temple walls. I can’t resist including a photo of her happy grin (see below). As we exit the temple grounds, a small swarm of shopkeepers draw us into their lairs with promises of good prices. One shop has tribal jewelry, beautiful brass statuary, and singing bowls. Annie immediately finds a cool necklace, but I don’t make it past the bowls. I sing every one, listening for the depth and tone of the bowl. I pare it down to two beauties. I ask how much. $40… At home it would be closer to $200. I walk away with one, and Brendan takes the other. They are amazing! (insert happy faces).
By the time we make it to our hotel, it is dark, and we are pretty hungry after our marathon adventure drive from Bengalaru to Mysore; and it is still only my first day in India!! Once we are settled, we walk a short ways to a Chinese restaurant and share a few dishes. It’s nothing to write home about, but our bellies are full and our eyes are tired. I crawl into bed and listen to the far-off street sounds: dogs bark; men talk in the bar attached to our hotel; an array of horns squawk. I drift off to sleep in a Mysore City lullaby.
I wake once in the night and remember where I am, so far away from home in a strange bed in a city I don’t know. The first of several forecasted snowstorms has hit little Sandwich, NH. Puddy and Declan are probably outside shoveling.
By 8:30 we are walking into town in search of breakfast. We find it at “A2B,” and each orders ghee masala dosas and chai. The dosas are enormous, and the chai is yummy. The whole thing costs about a dollar apiece! Fueled up and ready to wander, we set out for Mysore Palace, the treasure of the city. We end up at the back entrance, and are told we must walk around to the other side, which is no short stroll. A tuk tuk driver sees us discussing, approaches and asks if he can take us for a shopping tour to the government handicraft outlet, an indoor market, and an essential oil shop, then back to the proper entrance of the palace later on when it won’t be as busy. Oh, and he says he will do all of this for 60 rupees, AND wait for us while we shop at no extra cost (btw, 60 rupees is just under a dollar). We quickly agree, climb aboard, and off we go to see what the shops have to offer. Shaufi gives us a heads up about wandering out of the main markets where the “mafia” will lead you down side streets away from traffic and then rob you. Thankfully Brendan is a tall man who towers over every other person we have met here. We feel safe in our threesome.
First stop is a two story building with silks and scarves on the first floor and everything from sandalwood statues, essential oils, and soap to bronze castings, wooden tables with beautiful inlays, and jewelry. We enjoy the look around, and Annie buys some incense, much to the disappointment of the clerk who really wants to sell us more expensive items. Heading back downstairs, we must run the gauntlet of silk, cashmere, and sari sellers who literally stand in our path and ask “you try, Maam,” as we look at each other and make a collective getaway! Into the little rickshaw we go, blending into the busy street with so many other tuk tuks as Shaufi chauffeurs us to the next stop. The lights are off as we climb the steps and enter the store. I wonder if it is even open, but then there is movement and the lights come on, illuminating five or so men who emerge from their siesta and spring into action to sell us whatever peaks our interest. First, jewelry. I find a tiny silver Ganesh pendant, his detailed trunk hanging in a perfect curve (I admit, I have a thing for Ganesh). Annie finds a unique silver Om pendant with a lotus flower and a peacock which is both delicate and strong–just like her, I think. Brendan is at the back of the shop looking at silk rugs in his bare feet.. By the time we leave we each have a yoga mat rug ($4 vs. the expensive silks), our jewels, and the touch of cashmere scarves on our necks. It is just too hot to buy one today.
The last shop on the list is my favorite: Yam Herbals. Sandal, jasmine, and spices draw our noses in, and we step in to a hallway where a diminutive old lady rolls sandalwood incense sticks by hand. They say she can roll 3,000 sticks a day, and then they dry for a week to cure before they are ready to burn.
Ali greets us quietly. I would guess he is forty or so and is the grandson of the man who began his current business in essential oils and sandalwood incense. He invites us to come sit and try oils, so we enter through yet another door to a little green room with writing, quotes, and art all over the walls. It is a hippie heaven with low couches and glass bottles lined up on a table. Brendan expects we are going to be offered a joint any minute now, but instead we are asked if we would like chai, and we all accept, even though we have no idea if we are going to be drugged and have our wallets stolen.
Ali serves the most delicious chai, and we sit low to the ground and try oils. First white jasmine, which is just like the fresh flowers you can buy at the market–heaven! Then rose, black jasmine, orange, frankincense, lemongrass, and many many others…finally the one I have been waiting for: sandalwood, the most expensive of all the oils. Each dab of a new oil comes with a description of its powers and uses; it is a most excellent lesson, and I am already making a list to purchase. I have been told about the preciousness of certain oils, and how rare true old wood sandal has become. Only one other time have I smelled sandalwood like this with my friend Johann last year during Ayurveda school. This is a sweet reminder of its potency as a heart elixir, and I am happy to spend the money for just a small container. I also buy jasmine, jacaranda, and patchouli. Brendan and I write graffiti on the green wall, and we leave the shop happy and smelling like a dream the rest of the day.
By the time our tuk tuk drops us back to the palace it is well past two, and it is hot under a sky with not a cloud in sight. We ask Shaufi if he can tuk tuk us to Chamundi Hill in the morning, and he happily accepts. We set a time, he thanks us for hiring him, and we head to the palace gates. It costs $200 rupees to get in (about $3), and just walking through the gate is a marvel worth the fee: women stroll in saris; old men sell post cards; families walk, arms linked. There are photographers waiting to take your picture in front of the palace, and a little lady sits on a curb stringing jasmine. Brendan buys Annie and I each a strand for our hair. As we walk toward the palace, we can see colored flags flying on all of the lamp posts and a sea of blue chairs facing a monstrous movie screen. We find out later that this week is the Bengalaru Film Festival, and one of the festival locations is Mysore Palace. Stay tuned for nighttime pics of the palace and the screen all lit up in my next entry!
We opt for a guided tour with a charming man who tells us all about the palace, the royal family, the beautiful collections of gold, artifacts, paintings, and the history of the building. The palette of colors is that of a peacock: turquoise, pink, red and gold gild the archways, columns, and ceilings. It is forbidden to take photos inside, as a section of the palace has temple status for surviving a fire in which most of the buildings burned to the ground. I manage to snap this before our guide barks at another woman nearby taking pictures. He even marches over, takes her phone and erases the photos!! After this my phone stays off for the tour.
The guide comes back to us and continues our tour. We walk past two completely preserved elephant heads that were one of the king’s favorite animals; they are massive! Our guide stops to tell us about characters in a few paintings, then he asks us to walk by, keeping eye contact with the subjects. Not only do the eyes follow you, like the Mona Lisa, but the entire body and arrangement of the painting shifts to your viewing position; it is so intriguing that Annie and I walk back and forth and back and forth–kinda creepy but fun!
It is a gorgeous tour, and we exit into the full sunlight where people mill about happily on this midweek afternoon. Everywhere we go, people ask us to take selfies with them, an entire family lines up and asks Annie and I us to join their portraits, and this pack of young men were being photographed (bachelor party?) I can’t help but sneak in to snap a pic, and they all pose willingly:
Yet another temple inside the palace gates rises into the magnificent blue sky, and we stop to gaze. To my side as I stare up at the peaks of the temple is a sign that reads “Joy Rides: Tickets Available.” Hmmmm… We are tempted, but continue walking around the back side of the palace where a small herd of faded yellow cows walks in a line toward an open gate leading into a patch of grass.
At first the animal activist rises up in me–why would anyone paint a cow bright yellow? Multi colored and spotted cows have yellow patches, and some have painted horns. I learn that in mid January every year there is a festival called Pongal, celebrating the rice harvest and all of the cows that make the harvest possible. In honor of this sacred animal, the owners wash all of the cows in turmeric, which stains their coats for weeks to come. Their yellow bodies blend into yellow blossoms, yellow sunshine, the yellow paint of the palace and surrounding temples…
Our plan for the afternoon and evening is to take the bus to Brindavan Gardens about 12 miles outside the city, so we walk to the depot where dozens of busses are waiting to go in every direction. Annie and I find the 304 bus to Brindavan, but before we can get our tickets, a taxi man asks where we want to go, assuring the bus will take too long and be overly crowded. For a little over a thousand rupees he will get us there and back, dropping us to our hotel door. We accept, and the adventure continues as we weave into the streets, trusting yet another driver who is happy to lead us by the nose.
The Gardens are exquisite, in full bloom with every color you can imagine. Fountains shoot up into the sunlight which is dropping quickly toward the Krishna Raja Sagar Dam, which borders the gardens on one side. We seem to have a way of arriving to places an hour or two before sunset, but none of us are disappointed; it is the prettiest time of day here.
The gardens get busier in the evening, not only because it is cooler, but because every night at 6:30, just as the sun goes behind the dam, there is a “dancing fountain” light show. The place is full of school groups, lovers, and one large colorful flock of college girls, who seem to float from one area of the garden to another, as pretty as the flowers they smell and pose in front of; I catch up to them as one of their teachers arranges them on a set of steps to be photographed:
My interest in them leads to a hundred selfies (Indian young people are REALLY into selfies), and we spend nearly a half hour talking with these beautiful girls about their studies and future plans. At 6 o’clock, they begin to head to the place where the light show will be, and we wander slowly the same way, people watching and enjoying the pink evening light. The flowers might be pretty, but this is what people really come here to see:
Brendan, Annie and I are intrigued by the fascination of this little show… it was built up to such heights by the locals, and here we sit in an amphitheater in the dark with hundreds of Indians, looking down on what would easily be dwarfed by any simple fireworks show. But is so special in its simplicity. Indian music plays over the speakers as the fountains “dance” in time to the beat. The crowd hoots, sings, and many whistle loudly when a pop song comes on. There are so many people filming the show, that their cameras look like spotlights behind the fountains.
When it’s over a half hour later, we stroll with the crowd back to our taxi driver, who whisks us onto the back road and through the city to our hotel. We arrive only to realize we haven’t eaten anything since our dosa breakfast at 10 am. Too tired to go out in search of another meal, we eat at the attached restaurant. It is late, all three of us are beat, and the service is slow despite there being only one other party eating. My eyes are literally closing at the table. I eat only so I don’t wake up hungry in the middle of the night, and we remind each other to set an alarm for our early morning rendezvous with Shaufi, who will take us to Chamundi Hill in his tuk tuk.