We are sitting in the Shoppers Stop centre adjacent to our hotel in Mysore, sharing a McDonald’s burger and fries in the fourth floor food hall (all in the interest of research, you understand). It’s a bright, modern retail complex, rising from floor to floor by twin elevators, with a range of fashion, clothing, homeware and other shops, coffee bars and a fast food range that includes Taco Bell and KFC as well as Indian names. There’s a cinema and modern facilities. We could be back in Leicester.
It’s all quite different from our shopping experience earlier this morning, when we visited the famous Mysore market for the second time. Here, we felt as though we were part of something that hasn’t changed for centuries, with stall after stall of colourful fruit and vegetables, alongside the filth and grime of people subsisting on little. Amongst the noise and bustle we are urged to buy by the traders, although most here are respectful and don’t push hard. There is one though who, sensing a possible sale, pursues us through the market, all the while dropping his price to a fraction of the starting point. We are too polite to be blunt so we do the British thing of trying to ignore him. Even when we emerge back on to the main street he is still behind us, offering discounts at his uncle’s silk shop on the corner. We can’t fault his persistence but manage to resist.
Our day had begun earlier with a visit to the famous Mysore Palace. This being Sunday the crowds were already amassing as we entered the car park at around 10.30 am, and we braved the obligatory vendors and passed through the metal detector at the Palace entrance, pinging away merrily as it did with every other visitor. No-one took any notice.
We weren’t quite prepared for the next stage, when we realised that we were required to surrender our shoes and socks before entering the Palace. Our driver, Biju, obtained a carry bag from the busy desk and we deposited our footwear, hoping they had a good system for tracking the thousands of pairs in their care. They did.
We dutifully joined the river of people as we meandered through the Palace barefoot, it’s splendour still evident despite the passing of time. Six million visitors come here every year, making the Palace second only to the Taj Mahal in popularity. They come to see a hugely opulent monument to the wealth and power of the King of Mysore, and it’s massive colonnaded halls, once used as meeting places for the ‘Durbars’ – members of the Royal Court – are rich in colour and fine painted detail. The long front facade of the Palace is laid out with tiered rows and galleries like a giant grandstand, and paintings display representations of the gatherings, ceremonies and processions that have taken place here in the large area laid out before us, watched by Royals and dignitaries. It must have been an amazing sight.
Mysore has a long and chequered history, and it is easy to see why the building draws so many visitors, playing as it does a significant role in the history, culture and religion of the people.
In the afternoon, after our market visit, Biju drives us up the winding road to the Chamundi Temple, or Chamundeshwari Temple to give it it’s proper name. This is one of the ten most sacred hills in India, and is a place of huge significance to the thousands of Hindus who visit. A recently built multistorey car park indicates the popularity of the place, although like most of India it seems half finished as we walk out over newly paved paths mixed with dirt track, piles of blocks stacked alongside waiting to be laid.
There’s a line of souvenir shops and stalls, most selling Hindu religious items, mementos and offerings to be made once inside the Temple. As non-Hindus we aren’t allowed in, but the long queues snaking around the building suggest worshippers could be here for some time.
We return back down the hill and stop at the roadside to enjoy the view over Mysore and the plains beyond. Despite having twice the population of Leicester, Mysore is a small city in Indian terms, and we are struck by how much green there is below. Our hotel and Mysore racecourse immediately below us, and the Palace near the city centre are obvious landmarks.
Later in the evening we are back in the Palace grounds to witness the turning on of the lights. Apparently the city was one of the first to install electricity, and the King arranged for nearly 100,000 bulbs to be strung around the Palace and its adjacent walls and buildings. In true Royal opulent tradition, the original bulbs used silver filaments, but these proved too tempting to light fingered visitors. Nowadays all of the bulbs are made by a local company using a special screw fitting that is incompatible with standard Indian lights. Most of the bulbs seem to have remained in place, and they are switched on for 45 minutes every Sunday evening. A brass band plays stirring music on the Palace forecourt, and thousands of visitors come to see the show. It’s all very good-natured, and there is a collective chorus of delight as the lights come on. It’s quite a spectacle.
As we wend our way through the throng enjoying the atmosphere, we are accosted by a young man. “I have very good offer for you” he promises. Sue does a double-take and says, “Oh, it’s you!” She’s recognised our persistent vendor from the market. He is taken by surprise and gives us a big sheepish grin before moving on. We think he’s finally got the message.
We retire for the evening after a day of contrasts and having had a sumptuous taste of this fascinating place. Tomorrow, the jungle!