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An epic BMW ride through southern India

The morning brought a wonderful light with the sunrise giving a unique golden glow as a result of having to pass through all the morning inversion dust of the Deccan. At low angle it’s akin to flying through a thin layer of fog and a dense khaki filter. It’s soft and acceptably cooler. By lunch time with the sun overhead the effect has diminished and conditions are harsh. The evening would predictably bring an ember glow courtesy of different dust from a distant peninsular.

In this fresh and nascent state, India can be dreamy and calm. Everybody is rested and replete, unwound, maybe with that great feeling of an ebbing endorphin glow. The alarm may have gone off but the spring is slack. Only through the day is this wound up and by three o’clock maximum frenetecism achieved. The spring fails and chaos rules for a few hours until all collapse in to the evening like toy town weasels. When not pressed to move on, these earlier hours are an equally good time for a walkabout.

We strolled through quieter streets in the general direction of the vegetable market. It didn’t matter that it was a maze off alleys, it was just fun witnessing the city wake up. Shops were removing their wooden shutters, no glass here, and proprietors hooked up their displays of cooking pots, farm and field tools, and incongruous small size Degas dresses for child party goers. If a Hindu shop, you might witness the owner lighting a devotional lamp next to a small deity of choice perched up on a shelf, or him waving incense around the shop to purify it and with particular attention to the till box for a good run of business.

The day starts slow and on a positive note without the tetchiness that we might associate with an overly rushed breakfast, race to the station and monotonous commute. Had you ever thought or calculated that for a forty year working life, a daily total commute of three hours is five years of your life thrown away? No wonder that life is fraught, we do no justice to our birthright. Indian cities maximise time, people live in them, and they are truly alive with all the varying pace and mood that life brings. They seethe and breathe and have an Achilles heal too.

Just as the Hindu pantheon represents the many characters of man in opposing traits, the Creator, the Preserver and the Destroyer, the Indian city could almost be described as a trinity. It’s like an apiary, hyperactive in the day,with each worker, drone or queen, knowing its place in the scheme of things. It could be described as a monolith which on closer scrutiny is found to really be many crystals fused by an igneous bond, the equivalent of sanctity in culture and creed. And like the monolith, formed of heat and stress, shaped by the multitude, it has by default a brittle nature and can crack under lateral stress. Although rare, communal rioting does occur between caste or creed, a violent eruption, and by its nature, must, thankfully, subside and cool. When night falls it rests and breathes deeply as a pachyderm or leviathan. You’d be surprised at how little light is on through the night. Darkness would appear to anaesthetize. With the dawn, a shot of Revivon, and the beast lumbers into life.

On this particular morning all was as it should be. The buffalo milk freshly simmered to make it keep until the next milking and new dust three in the chai vendors ‘sock’ made for a very good cupper. Later it does get rather globular and the tea base well stewed! A few cows were meandering and chewing on flower garlands discarded from the previous evening. Daisy was always a good name for a cow. My thoughts nearly turned to Jerseys in the fields of Milland and my favourite elixir if skimmed off the top of the stainless steel vat in the parlour, when we swung in to the vegetable market complex.

Covering an area of about six tennis courts, it was alleyed in grid format and covered by a vast corrugated iron roof supported by huge trusses and cast pillars too many to count. Although early it was packed with ladies doing what Indian ladies do, and when Indian ladies go to market it’s an excuse to display that new saree and a new bangle or two, or many, many more. Some of the ladies had rather sheepish girls in tow. They were often fine figured, and beautiful with flowers in their hair. Peeking at their midriff, easily discernible under the diagonal throw of their saree, you could judge that they had not had children. On some the faded patterns of henna mehendi was still visible on their hands and feet. They were new wives in tow with their mother in laws being shown the ropes of family economy. They alone were the most colourful sight I had seen to date. India has that rapacious quality of doing life large and this was one of them.

It was a sensory delight. The chatter of bargaining, the eastern smells of spice, jasmin, cattle cake and fresh vegetables, the colour not only of the women but on every turn on any alley a different produce was on sale by the dealers. Root row had carrots so orange, turnips so white and potatoes so perfect. Brassica alley had cabbages and cauliflower so morning fresh the dew still glistened from their hill country journey through the night. Huge pumpkins, weird and distorted gourds and a strange fibrous root ball approximating to an elephant terd were a real novelty for size, hue and texture. Heaps of onions, red, white and pickling vied with mounds of garlic. All looked in such incredible condition that it would have made a northern allotment holder wince with jealousy. It was all so good and a vegetarians dream store.

However all this apparently fine produce comes at a toxic price. India’s need to produce ever more for its burgeoning population has produced an inert soil which can only flourish with insatiable amounts of oil based fertilizer and crops from gram to gourds which are hooked on organo phosphates and DDT for their blemish free survival. Still, it was a photographers paradise and I could survive on chai, nicotine and chicken any day.

I did make two revelatory discoveries which are filed away in my brain along with other bizarre entries like tea and cashew production. India invented pop corn and rice crispies! A whole side alley was devoted to voluminous hessian sacks filled with the stuff. The crispies were not so golden brown as my snap, crackle and pop back home but crispies they were in an albino kind of way. The pop corn only needed some caramel and salt to be moorish. Here I think it was cattle food.

The highlight of the market for which it is notably famous, is the flower section. All the aromas of the vegetable, grain, gram and spice areas are completely obliterated by the heady scent of jasmin and roses, carnations and fresia. Mounds of flowers which have been picked in closed form during the very early hours have come down from the hills to end up as offerings in the many temples, to grace those long black locks, to be a petalled carpet on the conjugal bed, or a fragrant goodbye at a funeral cortège. They say that God loves a garden. I reckon he’s smiling down on Mysore market.

Mornings as all solitary bears will know, is breakfast time, and on the plains they do it particularly well. It’s not heavy like the puttu or idli of Kerala, but pleasantly light, moorish, and worth a second tray. It’s a difficult choice between masala dosa accompanied by coconut chamundi or puree set which also comes with chamundi. The solution is to take both, a lassi for probiotic, and coffee which always seems to come in a stainless cup too hot to hold and partially immersed in a deep stainless saucer holding a goodly balance of spillage. If it’s your first foray in to a street hotel, you will invariably curse the cup designed to conduct, and in tandem curse the drips falling on your fresh tea shirt or pants. Over reacting and slamming the cup down on the table causes further spillage, and as that slick of coffee decides to head your way across the marble top, there’s no lip, you then realize there are no napkins. Shit. A new day, India one, traveller zero!

We took a rickshaw to the palace with a manic driver who must have been on some kind of speed or hallucinogen. He appeared to be communicating some extensive information by Morse code courtesy of his bugle horn which had a throaty, roarty base timbre. Others seemed to be responding like Canada geese on the wing. Heading for near collision with movable or immovable objects, his hand would spasm on the rubber bellows and there’d be a jump of two octaves and a chordant shriek of two passengers. Setting down at the palace we realized this was just normal, normal for Mysore. Before setting foot in the palace we knew we were in a mad place. The structure is vast, fairy tale, wedding cake, pythonesque, and indeed impressive if only for its lunacy and flamboyance. Henry Irwin who designed the place had done a pretty surreal job with the Madras High Court but was probably constrained by budget and status quo. The Mysore royal family who had already lost their principal palace in 1897 when a wedding party bash, more likely piss up, went horribly wrong and it all burnt down, chose him to raise something unforgettable from the ashes. He did not disappoint.

Amongst architectural buffs, its style is called Indo -Saracenic. It’s a wonderful term and for me conjures up n’th strength Vindaloo back in my Uni days late at night in the back streets of Southampton, and Morgan Freeman in Prince of Thieves. I always thought that he played the quintessential Moslem, reserved, wise, and importantly, sane.

It is of course a fusion, again a trinity…this just keeps turning up, of Hindu Temple, English Gothic and Moghul inspired architecture. Now Henry Irwin had been in India a long time and he seems to have had quite a monopoly on Raj mega structures. Looking at his history and Mysore palace from the road, one does wonder if he did not partake of the available stimulants and mind altering substances that India has had on offer since man first discovered fire and an aptitude for gathering. Entering the palace complex proper this argument gathered a deal of credence and was further substantiated as we walked from one reception hall or throne room to the next. Every surface is embellished in either intricate carving, gilding, silver work or painted and mirrored decoration. The shear size and area of application is beyond normal need, even for a king. It is grossly overstated opulence verging on the grotesque, and the lurid colour palette totally at odds with say Morris, his contemporary, miles away in a different light. It must have been a very crazy trip and I’m sure if the Raja had any misgivings or short comings on its completion, dear Henry, certainly a supremely competent man, may just have said ‘chew a bit on this, pop this little number atop your gilded hookah, enjoy the hareem, and then write out that cheque…preferably blank!’

It’s good to know and reflect that Henry Irwin escaped all this madness in his later years, holing up in the Nilgiris at Ootacamund where the air was clear, and sanity prevailed behind white picket fences and under red tin roofs. There lies a man who shaped India and one of the last who made it truly incredible.

The real glory of India when not stunned by its capacity for geographic extreme, is surely the millennial eccentricities and passions of dynastic kingdoms. Extraordinarily wealthy and no doubt tyrannical, they chose to patronise the arts and built not for the now but for the ethereal and an eternity. A timeless aesthetic in stone is here and unsurpassed by any effort today. The European occupation of latter years, buccaneers with a far flung Royal mandate, contributed little which was original, but synthesised existing styles into a form of architectural plagiarism. Grand and dominating they are, which of course was the intention. Perhaps the Portuguese porticoed haciendas along the Malabar coast could be excused. They look inviting, homely and social. Rarely higher than a palm tree top, they work very well with the climate. In the present time architecture would appear to have been consigned to a history of dynasty or colonial rule.

Dynastic today, may only be applied to the politicians. They are dragging India into the mire and perpetuate an ill informed and hypocritical culture through disinformation, personal greed and outright dishonesty. With inordinate power for change, they choose to create nothing of real worth and continue to rape, pillage and exploit India for their own, surprisingly vast, fiscal gain.

Oh for the Hoysalan kings, who built well, appreciated the arts, and were no prudes. Confirmation of this lies in two fine temples at Belur and Halebid an easy ride from Hassan through a medieval time warp. Nestling in agrarian serenity, these temples define ‘small is beautiful’. Like the Dravidian they are grounded, but not heavy or oppressive. They are not characterized by huge gopura and in your face life sized garish pantheon. They both exceed the temple test way beyond any pass mark, and are candidates for scholarship and a bursary of wonder. The builders have achieved the perfect amalgam of craft, scale and design to divine effect. Blessed with a resource of very workable soap stone, the masons were able to lift their art to a sublime limit. On close scrutiny every surface has been worked in crisp intricate detail with an uncanny eye for form and movement. Stepped plinths are alive with elephants, horses and tigers, each in individual pose. No one example is repeated or mirrored. It must have taken a lifetime and indeed at Belur it is chronicled that most was done by a father and son team over eighty five years. The front face of the temples display devadasis in athletic and yogic coital pose, and one supposes then, that these Hoysalans were adroit in the art of Kama Sutra as well. All jolly good fun and rather Scandinavian, but in a warmer clime. The principle deity here is Vishnu and incarnations are beautifully sculpted on the rear facets of the temple structure and within the sanctum sanctori. I’m one to appreciate craft and precision, the poetry of motion, and noting that the massive pillars in the surrounding cloister were indented and moulded by elephant powered lathe work, it was a muse to wonder what these early engineers, for they were just that, would make of a Britten or an MV Augusta! It’s only after leaving, that one realizes with some guilt, that a walkabout has hardly done justice to the many truly devotional lives which created such marvels. It’s on my list to go back to with time to experience the different effects of light, maybe a full moon, and a different lady.

The last must to see in Mysore district, which is a bit of a leg and needs a night stopover if moving on to Bangalore, is Shravanbelagola. Here is the world’s largest monolithic statue of Gomateshvara, the earliest proponent of Jainism, which is loosely a synthesis and distillation of Buddhism and Hinduism. It is a serious and important pilgrimage centre for the Jain faith and thousands flock annually to make their obeisance. For the incredulous, this minimalist statue is huge at nearly sixty feet and made of a singular block of stone hauled up the mountain over a thousand years ago by an Egyptian minded crew. There, this upright gentleman, entwined in foliage of stone, reminding all of his meditations in the forest attaining enlightenment,beams out across the plain a visage of serenity, contentment and peace. For the irreverent his minimalist ascetic pose is just that. Gomateshvara is stark naked and with a figure and manly attributes which would probably make David jump back into his cold bath.

We took off from Mysore very rested from our little excursions. We were on good form and predictably the bike was running like a top, quite unphased by temperatures which Munich would never see. The plains are indeed hot even early on in the year, and rocky outcrops bounce additional fiery radiation at you. The ‘black body’ radiation of my school physics was now understandable and a little uncomfortable. The very dry heat did make it all tolerable and the quiet rural roads made for a reasonable lick of speed. For the most part obstacles or danger came with good warning. I soon learnt that if a lone buffalo crossed the road, there was a good chance that a calf would come scampering into the road out of the blue. Cyclists paid no heed to the horn and were likely to just swerve off onto some dusty path across your line of passage. We braked for them, and definitely for the speed breakers that bounded every village. They were a killer on my back if not noticed when daydreaming or simply ignored.

In these parts Karnataka was flat and very rural. I loved the smells of dung and dung fires coming through the hamlets, all very earthy, and the Brahmin bulls were particularly fine and taller at the shoulder than those in Tamil Nadu. It was still harvest time with stubble burning and sheaves of straw going back to the villages to be built into raised round and conically thatched stacks. I think the year had been good and everyone would return a wave with a smile, especially the children and even the women. All was very well.

We arrived in Shravanbelagola to quite a surprise. Up on the mountain our monolith quest was completely scaffolded out with tiered stages and pretty much obliterated from view. This, we soon learnt, was not a restoration exercise or an attempt to colour the statue. From a distance it looked stained with ochre and lime, almost vandalized as if a flock of incontinent pigeons had found a toe hold on the granite and roosted through a tropical storm. It turned out that this was an auspicious duodecennial event only matched in nature by the blue flowering of the shola forests back up in the Nilgiris. This, was a ritual bath, and the soap of the Gods is ghee, clarified butter,curds and milk. The breeze down the mountain had quite a rancid and Camembert odour after some days of this treatment, sickly, and at odds with sweetness and light. However, washed and scrubbed it was, and devotees paid a premium to hurl buckets of dairy produce over the entire height of the statue. You may guess as to where the premium ‘tickets’ were sold. Apparently as the scaffold is removed a more thorough shake down is employed, and with time, the monsoon, and that fierce sun, the granite patina returns to shine out on to the plain its message of harmlessness and restraint. I remembered from my history that certain ladies and queens were famed for bathing in asses milk. It must have been tricky to find so many lactating asses to fill a bath. Here it was bovine and the herds of devotees probably matched their cloven hoofed suppliers in equal number. When India does, it does it large, and devotion for sure knows no excess. I did catch Gomateshvara’s eye. I think it was a boon, and I knew our journey, at least in his land, would be safe.

Despite all this, Travis has a friend who now runs a plush, hand-built hotel in Kerala’s backwaters. Read more about it here and visit if you can.

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