We went to Mysore by train. Our first Indian railway station. Our first Indian train. The first thing we noted was that the trains are incredibly popular, and the bureaucracy is relatively efficient, which explains that there is a strong culture of making reservations. Without reservations, it is hard to get a seat. And since distances are big, nobody wants to travel without a seat.
Harsha told us that he’d get the tickets, and that we should be at the station about an hour before the train leaves. The explanation was obvious once we got there: Harsha had not organized tickets, we still had to get them. So Claudia and I waited in a corner of the station while Harsha queued and bought the tickets.
It was very early in the morning and already the railway station was packed. There were families sitting on the floor, as if they were camping, wrapped in their shawls, some of them just about to get up, some of the sleepers had wrapped their brown blankets all around them. They looked like excavated mummies that had dropped by the porter of an archeology expedition.
The train was old. Very old. It was running on Diesel, and painted in blue. They used wooden frames for the train windows. And iron bars in front of them. Every compartment had three old fans covered in cobwebs hanging on the ceiling. The compartments were different than in Switzerland. Here, I’ve seen the following arrangements:
People are seated in groups of four left and right of the aisle. The seating benches are as high as necessary, but no higher. When you step into the waggon, you can see over the heads of people to the far end. This is the most common pattern.
In first class, you get more ellbow room: People are seated in groups of four one one side and in pairs on the other side, facing each other. Again, you can see over the heads of people to the far end.
For Sleepers and the like usually have an aisle running down one side of the waggon and compartments sealed off from each other and from the aisle by thin walls. You usually cannot see into the compartments because the windows have curtains which the people inside usually draw hoping that newcomers will not come and sit with them.
In India, people are sitting in groups of six on one side and in pairs on the other side of the aisle. The compartments are separated by walls but open to the aisle. So people looking for a seat can walk down the aisle and just sit anywhere. Once you sit, you can’t see the other compartments anymore. Interesting design decisions.
It was a three hour ride from Bangalore to Mysore, and we got there somewhere between ten and eleven. Claudia and I were white, and carrying backpacks. We had auto-riksha drivers all over us when we stepped out into the sunlight. Harsha fended them off and walked to the prepaid stand. You pay Rs 1 extra and get a fair price in return. It cost about half of what the drivers had asked for at the station entrance said Harsha.
We stayed at Harsha’s uncle and aunt’s place. They are a very nice elderly couple; he’s retired but still teaching management and organisation in state institutions.
When we arrived, we got some breakfast before anything else, with papaya and a vegetable couscous. Harsha’s uncle wanted us to eat fruit before anything else because he had learnt that this was better for your digestion. I wonder whether that’s true.
Harsha’s uncle had organized a driver for us, and so Claudia, Harsha, and me were driven around Mysore. We saw the palace (see pictures), the museum behind the palace, and the gallery. I was not too impressed with any of them. What we were going to see several times again in India was the rapid decay of almost all buildings. There doesn’t seem to be enough money to maintain all the museums. And another thing that surprised me was that a lot of things kept in museums here is stuff that was actually imported from Europe in the days when the Europeans bought themselves into the hearts of the Indian rulers… So there’s chandeliers and watches from Europe, crumbling walls, dust and very little text to put things into context.
I really liked the main gate and the path leading up to the palace front, however. The palace front is open – basically there’s a big gaping hole in the building with a huge terrace overlooking the park up to the main gate, with an elevated seat for the Raja to sit and be admired. Unfortunately the pictures don’t really reveal this. If look at the picture of me and Claudia, you’ll see the big arches, and the big terrace behind the columns. (Picture of Mysore Palace elsewhere.)
Another thing we noticed while walking through the park was the incredible number of dragonflies in India. Here in Switzerland, dragonflies are rare. When there’s a lake there will be maybe two or three big ones, and several smaller ones. You’ll be surprised if you see one. In Mysore, all you had to do was look up at the sky and it seemed liked there was a dragonfly per square meter!
When we drove back home, we noticed that we had forgotten our video camera at the cloak room of the gallery – Jaganmohan Palace. The gallery had some very nice oil paintings in a far corner of the second floor. So we arrived at Harsha’s uncle’s place, did a U-turn, and headed straight back to the gallery. Luckily, the camera was still there, even though Harsha seemed pretty nervous. It sometimes seemed to me that the Indians were more afraid of being ripped off or robbed than we were.
I also found a link to Tipu Sultan, the “Tiger of Mysore”, in the BBC history section.
We also saw some Indian musical instruments in one of the museums. At the end of our trip I bought some CDs with Indian music to learn more about it.
When we came back, we slept for an hour, and then we left again, hoping to see the Mysore palace in all its night-time glory, since it is lit up every Sunday evening. (See the links to the pictures of Mysore palace above.) Since an ex-prime minister (or was it an ex-president?) of India had recently died, however, they did not illumate the palace that night. Aimlessly, we walked about, looking for something else to do, while fending off the postcard vendors.
In fact, these postcard vendors were everywhere. And we kept fending them off. When we returned from India, we hadn’t written a single postcard. Oh well.
We then saw a big sign alit in the night saying “Exhibition”. Harsha explained that it was some sort of local fair. We decided to go. We also noticed how Harsha hesitated, explaining how there were problably too many people for us there. Too crowded. We are very urban and we love crowds, we said. There are not enough people for us in Switzerland. This is when I started to suspect that Harsha had been born in the wrong country. He didn’t like crowds!
Inside, we soon discovered a little stage where people were playing classical Indian music. We took some chairs and listened. Unfortunately we had arrived for the last act. When we were about to turn back and head home, Harsha heard some more music from one of the loudspeakers and said that this was a play, and that this must mean that there was another stage on these fair grounds where that play was being played. At first we didn’t find it and I started suggesting that they were just broadcasting the music without actually having the play here. But Harsha insisted and we finally found it. Unfortunately, the play had just ended! Functionaries came on stage and started congratulating each other and it seemed that there was nothing more for us to see.
Disappointed, we got up and started to head home again. Just as we were about to leave, however, the music resumed. Looking back at the stage, we saw that they had resumed playing again! We returned to our seats, and watched some of it. But we didn’t understand the words, and there was not much else going on, so we left, and this time for good.
Sleep! Sweet Sleep!