Christmas and New Year – Mysore and Kerala

From Hampi we rode to Mysore and checked into the splendid ‘Green Hotel’ over Christmas. A tad over our usual budget the old hotel, which had formerly been a princess’s palace and then a movie studio, offered charming accommodation for the holidays with the bonus that some of the profits are shared with a number of local charities. Our room was in an annexed veranda overlooking a beautiful green garden, where we supped on cold beer in the evening and dined al-fresco on fine vegetable curries. At the end of each day we were lullabied to sleep by a somnolent chorus-line of crickets and frogs.

Mysore itself was an easy-going city, the streets a little wider, the traffic a little less crazy than other cities in India. On Christmas day we hired a Tuk-Tuk and driver to tour the sights. First stop was the Mysore Palace; official residence and seat of the Maharajas who ruled Mysore from 1350 to 1950. The palace was designed by the British Architect Henry Irwin and completed in 1912. It is a splendidly striking Victorian edifice festooned in spiky Moghul domes and scalloped archways all surrounded by a large park with more peaceful pavilions and temples that easily swallowed up the large crowd of visitors. Mysore Palace is most spectacular at night when the entire shape and form of the building and surrounding complexes are illuminated by means of 93,000 electric light bulbs. The switch-on happens only on Sundays and public holidays and the following Sunday we joined the throng, waiting in child-like anticipation for the lights to come on and then adding to the collective ‘OOOOOOH…’ when the switch was thrown.

Life in the cavernous markets of Mysore was very laid back and a great place for just hanging out and people watching as folk went about their daily business, haggling and negotiating deals and best prices. We lingered in the shade awestruck by the little women selling flowers for temple worship taking delight in watching nimble fingers endlessly thread flower after flower to make metres of beautiful garlands that could then be cut to fit. Each stall shone as a riot of colour from the beautiful yellows, whites and reds of the decorative flowers to the mini-mountains of outrageously garish gulal-powder used for religious celebration. In the fruit market cannonball stacks of apples and oranges competed with explosions of miniature bananas and finger-length green chilies all scattered amongst heaps of golden ginger root.

From Mysore we explored nearby Seringapatam, scene of one of the Duke of Wellington’s earliest battles, when in 1799 a combined British / Sepoy Army stormed the fortress here and conquered the city in a move to oust the unlucky Tipu Sultan on the grounds that he’d been getting just a tad too friendly with the French. The fortress is located on an island where three rivers meet and had to be conquered before the monsoon arrived to swell the rivers and render them impassable. A breach was made in the low thick walls and an all-out assault launched that broached the city defenses. Tipu Sultan was killed in the ensuing street fighting. We rode to the fortress but then hired a Tuk-Tuk driver to take us around the principal sites including the breach in the wall, the place were Tipu Sultan was killed and finally out to the impressive Tipu Sultan Gumbaz, the splendid mausoleum where he is buried with his parents.

From historical wonders to natural marvels, as we left Mysore and rode to Wayanad exchanging Karnataka State for the jungle highlands of Kerala. The road would take us through Muthanga National Park, a wildlife reserve where the roads are closed each evening from 6pm to 6am so that the park can return to the preserve of it’s natural large grey owners for this is wild elephant country. So far we had seen the tame and docile temple elephant at Hampi but if you want to understand why we were just a little wary on setting out today please check the following link on You-Tube to see what happens when a motorcyclist risks an encounter with a wild elephant…YOU TUBE VIDEO LINK.

Once in the park, there were warnings everywhere not to stop for picnics and not to use horns or lights. We did make a brief stop on a quiet section of forest-lined road to photograph some huge termite mounds but in the surrounding grass we saw some hefty sized elephant poo. While the huge balls of scat didn’t contain any motorcycle parts the sight nevertheless encouraged us to get quickly back on the bikes and keep moving.

Wayanad is reckoned to be the prettiest part of Kerala and we would whole-heartedly agree with that; the place is a luscious tropical wonderland. We stopped for a few nights in the little town of Meppadi in hill country draped on all sides by orderly tea and coffee plantations. From here we spent a day exploring the surrounding greenery and ancient Neolithic engravings at Edakkal Caves. From Wayanad there is an amazing descent down to the coastal plains via a series of ghats or hairpin bends – the Wayanad Churam. It’s a beautiful road with god-like views over the jungly Malabar plains all the way to the sea but it was here that ‘Kerala madness’ set in as we witnessed some of the most dangerous driving in India that by the end of the day left both of us slightly unnerved.

It started on the Churam itself when we were tailgating a couple of cars on the hairpins. There were very few places to pass on this narrow winding road so we settled in to follow the leader until the road descended and flattened out a little. All of a sudden, as we braked once more for a tight downhill hairpin, a huge pink bus came haring past us on the other side of the road at top speed to overtake us and then the two cars, who were by now mid- hairpin. It was one of the most idiotic, reckless pieces of driving we’d ever seen and if there had been anything coming the other way it would all have ended in a pile up as the bus had nowhere to go other than to plough into the oncoming vehicles or pull over to side-swipe both cars and our bikes.

An hour or so later, at the coast, we approached a bridge on the main north-south highway. Again the road was narrow, with a lot of oncoming traffic, so we tucked in behind a huge empty dump truck that was bouncing along to wait until we were over the bridge to get past. We were blown out of our saddles by an air horn as another lunatic bus announced his intention to pass everyone, including the truck, in a bid to get to the bridge first. It was a pure suicide run and we had front row seats as the truck, horn also now blaring, accelerated making his own bid for the bridge. The problem was that the road narrowed even further at the bridge and there was no way both could pass side by side. We had visions of them plugging the access to the bridge in a horrible pile up but then the truck driver ceded defeat in a flurry of brake lights and dust from locked rear wheels as the maniac bus went hurtling past. It was reckless driving of an insanity level that back home would get you a lifetime ban and probably jail time but we are now seeing examples of this on an all too frequent basis.

We had a calming New Years Eve in a town with no booze so had to settle for dinner and an early night. Kerala has moved towards becoming a dry state such that you can only get alcohol (beer and wine mostly) in some of the larger hotels. They wish to promote the state as a ‘health and well-being’ travel destination but we read in the local papers how the alcohol restrictions are really damaging the tourist industry with hotel bookings reportedly down 40% in some areas.

New Years Day saw us arrive in the delightful little town of Tirur to visit the home of one of my work colleagues, Dr. Rad Kadengal. Rad had been very supportive of our plans to travel to India and provided sponsorship for our Indian visa applications; now we would spend an evening with his delightful family. We spent the afternoon with Rad’s brother-in-law Sunil and nephews Manu and Rithwik, looking at a recent farm acquisition Sunil had made. It was a hike through paddy-fields into a patch of what looked like raw jungle that was actually a natural larder full of coconut, banana and cashew nut trees with wild peppercorn, an abundance of ginger and a crop of betel nuts. We chewed on some bright orange peppercorns straight off the vine, a totally invigorating experience as the corns exploded to release both heat but also a delicious and unexpected sweetness.

We also picked up some Karimpana, also known as ice apple or palm fruit. Karimpana has the appearance of a small browny-green coconut and the roadside vendor hacked the shell open with a curved machete and hacked out three egg-sized, rind-covered fruits from within. Later we peeled the rind off these at home to reveal a translucent succulent fruit within, a real delight as it’s not everyday you are presented with a strange never-before-seen food item; even better when it proves to be utterly delicious.

That evening there was to be a Puja at the house and we were privileged to witness the occasion with the family. First we were dressed appropriately for the occasion, Mags in a beautiful white sari and for me, a Mundu, a wraparound sarong worn by men on the Malabar Coast. The Puja is an annual blessing on the household and was performed by two highly respected Brahmins who, we were instructed, no one was to touch lest we pollute them. Once they were ready, everyone filed in along one wall of the little dining area. A space on the tiled floor had been cleared and an elaborate pattern traced out in vivid white, yellow, red, grey and purple Gulal powders upon which heaps of tender leaves and little red flowers were heaped. This centerpiece was surrounded by a number of heavy ornamental brass oil lamps and in and around the arrangement were smaller incense burners and candles all adding up to a beautiful if smoky illumination for the ceremony that began.

The taller of the two Brahmins was seated on the far side of the display, uttering a low volume chant while making signs and motions with his hands in the air, like he was turning dials and flicking banks of switches as part of some pre-flight check in the cockpit of a phantom aeroplane. He wore a priestly Mundu but was bare-chested and had three white ash streaks across his forehead and on each forearm. His sidekick, a tiny little man equally attired, moved around the floor display on spindly legs repositioning objects and fine-tuning to the arrangement. He then collected some of the powders onto a banana leaf, which was blessed by the main man before delivery to the collected family, quickly dropping the leaf on the table and then springing back, lest someone should touch him. The leaf was passed around and everyone had a finger dip into the powders to add Bindi dots to their forehead.

Finally we paid the Brahmins by each putting a banknote onto a piece of banana leaf and sliding it across the floor. When we had retreated the little guy sprang forward to collect and pass the money to the main man. The entire procedure took place after sunset and lasted around half an hour although the two gentlemen had been setting up and preparing in the kitchen all afternoon.   They would return at 5:30am to repeat the blessing before sunrise and then the house would be good for another year.

After the evening blessing we sat down to a magnificent feast of vegetarian food, a variety of really tasty curries and chutneys. We thanked Rad’s sisters and Mum for cooking up this delicious repast and were amazed to learn that it was all prepared by the two Brahmin gentlemen as part of the ceremony. Sadly we could only spend a single day with the Kadengals but it was a truly memorable day on our roadtrip and a real pleasure to get so close to an Indian family during such a time of celebration. We spent an entire day in a state of surprise and delight with some of the warmest and happiest people we have had the privilege to meet in all our travels. But we have been lingering on this southern coast for far too long and need to be moving South…

The images for this blog can be accessed by clicking the link to the following gallery: Mysore & Kerala

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