Sunday, February 15, 2009

Mysore and Somnathpur, Karnataka.

So, although it's been a while now, here is a little update on our travels since Hampi. On Feb. 7th we left the land of boulders, Hampi, with (drum roll) an Overnight, 2nd Class, Non-AC Train to Bangalore. Another really interesting travel experience after our overnight bus from Goa to Hampi! 2nd Class Non-AC is what many Indians travel by for long distance trips. Ours was an 11 hour ride in one of the filthiest and loudest trains I've been on so far. At the same time, thanks to our lovely sheets, we were able to create a semblance of coziness. Unfortunately David's bunker was right by a window, which caused him to catch a minor cold. We got in noisy and trafficky Bangalore very early in the morning, and caught an over-crowded, rush-hour train to Mysore at 7.30am. Because we had reservations, we were able to get our seats (having to ask 3 people to get up). The train was PACKED! Again, more than any other train we've been on so far.

The trip to Mysore was made particularly interesting by 2 factors:
1) we were sorrounded by a cheerful group of 8 men in their late 20's who were on their way back from a pilgrimage to a site in the state of Andra Pradesh. David and I really enjoyed watching them relate: sitting on top of each other, playing around, rubbing the freshly shaven head of one of the larger fellows in the group. Their body language was so relaxed and familiar with each other: a lot of physical contact and playfulness. We have noticed this kind of intimacy before, strictly between members of the same gender, and have been wondering about how homosexuality or homoerotic behavior is understood in India. We know homosexuality is looked down upon very strictly... we wonder about how people here are defined as "gay/lesbian" by their communities...

2) At one of the stops on the way to Mysore, David and I noticed a very sad woman. She was young, maybe in her early 20's, and she was squatting by the railroad looking as though she might be crying. Eventually she got up from her squatting position to engage with a young man sitting nearby: it looked like she was trying to take a plastic bag with some objects in it from him. It became apparent that they were fighting- there was a lot of tension between them. Suddenly, the man hit her really hard in the face and then shoved her to the ground. He walked away for a minute as she lay on the ground, only to come back with a heavy rock held over his head. From a small distance, he threw the rock at her- it was clearly too heavy a rock to make it to where the woman was lying, but it was quite a shocking site nonetheless. The whole scene evolved quite slowly, and nobody around minded much. I felt a strong wave of anger surge inside of me, and I had to consciously restrain myself from screaming at the man from the train while he was holding the rock up. It was a very difficult scene to witness, one that left us asking ourselves many questions about human instincts and the power of education/mindfulness/awareness.

We got to Mysore around lunch time and spent the next 4 nights at the Maurya Hotel (not to be confused with the Maurya Palace Hotel :) right by the "great Maharaja's palace", one of the main attractions of Mysore. Although we eventually went to visit the palace (a gaudy and kitsch early 20th century building, the result of an unfortunate mix of British and Indian architecture) we were lucky enough to see it lit at night. We think that's really the best way to go - they light the whole place from 7-9pm every Sunday. Mysore took a while to grow on us - it was hard to make the transition from the quiet and pictoresque Hampi to the loud and polluted city. We did find a lot of pleasure in the Devaraja Market, the historical in the city. There are tons of images of this market online, but here are a couple that show you our own experience of it.

(Ready-to-go bundles of groceries for the fast-shoppers.)
(These are cubes of SUGAR! They are sold in small bits together with a light, puffy, rice snack. You can see the rice in the bottom right corner. The cubes looked like honey wax from a distance and the sugar is really delicious, coming from the many sugar cane plantations all around Mysore.)

(The most sensual and exhilarating part of the market are the two or three aisles in which flowers are sold. What you see here are spirals of threaded blossoms- mostly jasmine, so you can imagine the perfume- that people buy daily in huge amounts for pujas/prayers. Also, most of the women in Mysore wore garlands of jasmine in their hair.)

(David insited on buying me a garland so I could blend in better in the crowd. It was very romantic...)

(This sweets shop was just outside of the market. I thought the seller looked like a king of sweets, sitting as he was sorrounded by all these sugary snacks.)

In Mysore we also went to visit a "beedi factory". This was the factory:

We went there during the afternoon siesta, and were told that usually there are more people in the same room. Also, there are probably several places where the beedis are made all around the city. In any case, there was definitely an assembly line method going on, with the man on the left rolling the tobacco in the leaves, and the man on the right cutting out the leaves into rolling paper. We are trying to remember how many they wer able to make in a day, it was something like 2,000. The man on the right also lit one beedi after the other while working: he smoked about 30 a day. We were told it's good for the health...?

Apart from the market and some delicious food (more on that on a later post), David and I were not crazy about the city. Only on our last day there did we discover that we were staying in the commercial center of town. It's probably a completely different experience to live in the more residential areas of town, where many of the Yoga Institutes have their home (Mysore has a couple of very important yoga teachers and centers.) We found some relief from the general loudness and pollution at the Royal Orchid Metropole, a hotel built by the Maharaja's family back in the colonial days. We spent a couple of evenings there, experiencing a different side of India from our backpacker's usual. The courtyard of the hotel was very beautiful and surprisingly quiet, and they had the Best Curd (yoghurt) we have had so far, as well as wonderful tandoori dishes. It was also lovely that no matter how expensive for Indian styles, our dinners never went past $20 :-)

(At night, the mango tree at the back was lit with lovely lanterns. A really romantic setting.)

Luckly we didn't run away from the Mysore area too quickly (we did think about it at first, as we were getting adjusted to the noise and pollution.) Following the advice of our train companions, as well as our semi-professional hotel manager, we made our way to a couple of sites outside of the city. The first was Chamudi Hill, on top of which is a large temple dedicated to Durga. We went to the temple very early in the morning, taking a public bus, and then made our way down the hill along the 1,000 steps that devoted pilgrims use to reach the temple. After many donations, buying of flowers, and general religious behavior, we left the temple feeling a little weighed down by the several requests for money in the temple. To think that hundreds of people go up to Chamudi Hill every day making offerings much larger than ours! There was also a large group of tourists when we got there, surely good business for the temple. The whole thing is very reminiscent of the Catholic Church, in terms of all the money that's flowing. We did find something wonderful up on the hill: a 5 meter high Nandi placed along the stone steps about 3/4 of the way to the temple, maybe a sign to encourage the pilgrims that they've almost made it.

While in Mysore, David and I also learned about the Hoysala Empire, headed by yet another powerful dynasty in the history of India. Point of interest: the founder of the Hoysala Empire was a man originally named Bittedeva, apparently a devout Jain during the time when the Jain religion was very powerful in India. At the turn of the 12th century however, Jainism started to decline, just as the Hindu worship of Shiva and Vishnu became more prominent. Interestingly, through a timely conversion to Hinduism, right around that time Bittedeva became Vishnuvardhana. By associating himself with the new powerful n in the area as well as through many military conquests, Vishnuvardhana really established the Hoysalas in the whole Kernataka region. As a result of Vishnuvardhana's mixed religious loyalties, Kernataka has an important Hindu-Jain temple (in Sravanabelagola, about which I will write more later), in which a gigantic Jain Buddha and a Jain temple have been enclosed within the walls of a larger Hindu temple.

The Hoysalas are particularly well known for their patronage of the arts (apparently because of the interest of many different queens): from architecture to music, to dance and sculpture, and more. The Hoysala architecture is known worldwide for it's incredible sculpture and design. David and I had never seen images of the famous Hoysala temples around Mysore, so we made a short day trip to Somnathpur, 2 hours outside of the city, to check it out. It was AMAZING! We eventually made it to other Hoysala temples further North, but Somnathpur was the most complete and subtly sculpted, as well as the one in the quietest location. There is only one temple there, the Keshava temple. Below are some details from the building.

(All around the outside walls of the temple, elephants are sculpted at the bottom for stability and horses above them for speed. In other temples we saw lions between the horses and the elephants, for valor. The fourth layer from the bottom is dedicated to the recounting of stories. In Somnathpur these were extracts from the Ramayana and the Mahabarata, as well as images of courtly events.)

(These were just like the elephants in Disney's "Jungle Book". Really playful and dynamic in the way they've been carved!)

(We were told that temples are meant to provide a full spectrum of the elements of life. As a result you should find anything sculpted on them, from myths and gods (such as the Vishnu above), to everyday activities, not time and wrestling!! See below.)

The temples are carved out of a rock that is very soft when wet, but which hardens complitely when dry. Margot (David's mom) explained to us that in order to create such smooth carvings the artists were constantly wetting the stone while carving it. We spent about 2 hours looking at just this one temple, examining the Ramayana and Mahabarata stories carved on the walls, as well as many individual images. Below is an example of the total absorption of our observation (as well as a nice shot of my jasmine garland!)

Anyway, there is more to our traveling to tell in order to catch up to where we are now, but I have run out of time. I will update again very soon and, as always, look forward to your comments.

A presto,

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