A solid 11 hours after departing from Hampi, our train rumbled into the Mysore station painfully slowly. The city consists of more than a million people, but it felt like far fewer as we wandered through eucalyptus-lined suburban streets on a tranquil Sunday morning. Not entirely satiated from a makeshift breakfast of peanuts and bananas, we took a rickshaw into town and were some of the first patrons of the day at RRR hotel (oddly enough, hotel sometimes means restaurant in India).
Waiters sporting all-grey uniforms slopped heaps of curries, sauces and rice atop my banana leaf plate, quickly turning me into the happiest man in Mysore. The tables around us slowly filled with locals while I dug into the spicy and mouth-watering fare.
Stefje sweated for a solid 10 minutes, trying to extinguish the fire in her mouth with yogurt while I bravely encouraged the waiters to keep pouring delectable dhal curry that I soaked up like a vacuum cleaner.
Soon we were back on our feet, walking off the heavy meal by exploring the city center. The Devaraja Market was the place to be this lovely Sunday, with an overwhelming mass of humanity crammed into narrow, tarp-covered walkways. On either side, the sounds and smells accosted my senses. Gorgeous pigments were piled high in a diverse range of vibrant colors.
Sellers hawked vegetables, coconuts and random household wares with cacophonous shouting. The smell of flowers was delightfully overwhelming, as women and men alike fashioned delicate offerings for the temples.
Only 15 minutes after entering I was eager to depart, as the chaos went straight to my head. The main streets of the city center offered many juxtapositions between old and new. Some buildings sported floor to ceiling glass windows to display popular modern clothing brands, whereas others were in various states of decay. Most women were dressed in bright and multi-colored sari dresses, but others opted for jeans and t-shirts. Many local eateries were small and jam-packed with locals devouring plates of biryani, but it wasn’t hard to find KFC, McDonalds or Domino’s either.
Our long walk eventually led us from the immense noises of the city center to the calmer suburbs, where cows grazed on the sidewalk and birds chirped from the trees.
Monday morning rose bright and early and we were soon on our way to the famous Mysore palace. A stupendous compilation of structures laid out over an area the size of 18 cricket fields, high outer walls and arching entrances gave way to manicured gardens that lead to the regal main building. Adorned with red cupolas and stained glass roofing that glittered in the sunlight, the entire structure seems designed to impress onlookers and frighten challengers.
Following a fire which destroyed the previous wooden palace this building was constructed between 1897 and 1912 by a British architect. In an ode to the numerous cultures that were prevalent in shaping India’s history, it oddly includes features from Christianity, Hinduism and Islam. The islamic arches were especially eye-catching, curving symmetrically upwards in long passageways.
Once inside, we were simply bowled over by opulence. The octagonal marriage hall was one of the main rooms on the ground floor, supported by bright green pillars which shone with brilliance.
This was also our introduction to the domestic tourists who we would be engulfed by for much of the experience. Hailing from India’s modern and expanding upper middle class, the focus amongst these patrons was solely on taking selfies and definitely not on understanding the history or admiring the architecture. Sadly, we observed more than a few who spent more time staring through the their camera phones than using their own two eyes.
A walk along the outer ring of the room brought us eye to eye with a series of 26 paintings that depicted a single procession in Mysore. The detail was impressive, ranging from long lost local styles and elephant headdresses to even which instruments were prominent in the military marching band.
Beneath our feet and above our heads, the entire tour was a constant reminder of the skill and craftsmanship involved in creating a building of such repose. Every single pillar was extensively carved, every single archway designed with unique details, and every single door told an entire epic’s worth of stories about the people of Mysore.
Our path led along the cool and colorful tiles to an outdoor wrestling courtyard highlighted by two stone sculptures of snarling lions. The scene looked perfectly prepared for the next trial by combat from Game of Thrones.
Onwards and upwards we went, passing by eery paintings of the royal family, incredible silver and sandalwood carved boxes which were used to send messages to the king, and a grand set of chairs so ornately designed that honestly they looked like an absolute hassle to sit in.
As if we weren’t fully impressed by the riches present, the next stop was a grand open-air chamber. Beneath a nine-arch entryway looking out over the palace’s gardens, we strolled right by where the king of Mysore would address his populace from, staring in awe at the collection of pillars behind us with semi-precious stones inlaid at their bases.
Yet the tour wisely saved the best for last. The private chambers of the king were even more impressive: cast-iron pillars were painted in gold, creating the feeling that we were truly in the presence of royalty.
Thoroughly impressed by the grandeur of it all, we slowly left the palace behind us, our minds buzzing with ideas about what it must have been like to live in or visit such a destination during the height of the Mysore kingdom.
In the afternoon our ears and minds craved some quieter pastures, so we set off for Karanji Lake. This protected nature area within the center of town is part botanical garden, part bird sanctuary, and full on lovers lane.
Amidst towering palms and dense brush, young couples strolled hand in hand far away from the prying eyes of their parents. Clearly we had stumbled upon the prime destination in the city for hopeless romantics, so we did our best to fit in!
Curious as to what the local population does for fun, our last stop in Mysore was a nearby shopping mall. Many well-known brands like Samsung and Nike were represented, but we also found plenty of stylish local offerings as we explored the posh interior. The visit was capped with an iced coffee on the outdoor patio; it seemed like an excellent choice until a pack of monkeys decided to terrorize our milk jug. It was a fitting end to our visit in Mysore, one last stark contrast between modern urban amenities and old-school rural life.
On Tuesday we left Mysore via train for Bangalore, one of India’s largest cities and the tech hub of the country. The city was upon us long before we reached the station. While salesman sped through the aisles bearing chai tea, samosas and onion fritters, the outskirts of the city lazed by the window in wave after wave of ramshackle huts and heaps of plastic.
Although the city is home to over 10 million people, it still feels like a destination under construction. Huge complexes spanning entire city blocks are still just concrete and exposed wiring, and even the most upscale districts run parallel to construction projects. Yet perhaps these eminent signs of progress are the allure for the young Indian population. The streets bustle with young professionals, all sporting dress shirts and company badges.
Stefje and I started out visit by taking a long stroll through the city center just as evening began. Shopping streets mixed western brands with cheap knock-off options to form a combination that was distinctly Indian. Although our eyes were drawn to glitzy walls and modern office buildings that reminded us of home, street food carts and the insane pressures of constantly honking tuk-tuks made us remember we were definitely still in India.
Interested to see what Bangalore’s burgeoning craft beer scene has to offer, we stepped into a brewpub and were floored to open a menu that would do well anywhere in America. A hearty porter, fruity pale ale, and crisp hefeweizen were the post popular beers on tap amongst the local crowd, while the kitchen offered up treats like hearty nachos, sizzling fajitas and cajun fries. Even though we haven’t been traveling that long, the familiar options had me ecstatic.
Even more interesting than the beers though was the clientele. A steady stream of work groups and friends swarmed the bar area in impressive force, mostly speaking English, ordering finger food, and distinctly proving that America’s culture (and beer) are still aspirational goals in India, for better or worse.
Not to be outdone, we stepped into another happening bar for a nightcap. In an industrial-themed building the could have been mistaken for Williamsburg, we explored an intricate menu of increasingly fancy cocktails, furthering our belief that Bangalore is the bleeding edge of India’s strive for modernity.
As if to embrace the polar opposite of the night before, on Wednesday I went for breakfast at one of the standing room only fast food counters in our neighborhood. Surrounded by curious local old men who had just finished their morning Badminton sessions, I ordered up a masala dosa (a lentil-based pancake stuffed with potatoes) and unsuccessfully attempted to blend in.
Later in the day, Stefje and I tried to leave the urban jungle behind for some natural beauty. However, just getting around was an epic trial in patience. The strictly gender segregated bus meant we had to stand in different sections of the vehicle while it screeched and lurched through the city streets. Traffic in Bangalore is a breeding ground for chaos.
Lane lines are largely ignored, traffic signals are more of a suggestion than a rule, and honking is a means of self-preservation. Driving here requires nerves of steel, a complete disregard for the well-being of others and wicked fast response times. Even crossing the street could easily be classified as an Olympic sport. We did our best to just follow tightly behind locals, but on more than one occasion we ended up elevated on a tiny divider, perched precariously as trucks whizzed by on either side.
At the Lalbach botanical gardens we had to penetrate directly to the heart of the park for the incessant sounds of traffic to finally die away, but when they did we felt completely rejuvenated.
That evening we progressed on foot to the legendary VV Puram food street. Here our vocabularies expanded almost as fast as our waistline. Even though we had been exploring the menus of Indian restaurants for the last few weeks, there were plenty of new options. Chaat, a lentil stew topped with fresh vegetables beneath crunchy fried crackers, was a local favorite. Pav Bhaji, a bean and curry concoction served alongside white bread slathered in butter, had my arteries groaning. Kulfi, a long think stick of frozen yogurt injected with dried fruits and spices, was the perfect end to the meal. Unfortunately, we also walked away from the night with the belief that there are only two food groups for street food in India: fried or sugary.
Only two days after our arrival in Bangalore, we were eager to leave the city behind. For many Indians it serves as an important glimpse of cosmopolitan life, but the insane traffic and endless sprawl had us aching for quieter pastures. The next day we hopped on a bus to Kochin, where a fresh sea breeze served as the perfect antidote for the urban ruckus.