Tuesday, October 2, 2012


On January 23rd the hotel driver took us down the mountains from Ooty to Mysore. It was an enjoyable drive with lovely scenery. There were many switchbacks, but the weather was perfect, the road was good, and the traffic was light.  When we completed the descent, we passed through a game preserve and were disappointed when no elephants appeared.

Mysore is a lovely city with many trees and buildings dating from the days of the Maharajas. Wealthy rulers of the most prosperous princely state apart from Hyderabad, the Maharajas were great patrons of the arts and architecture, and created many palaces, churches, temples and gardens.  Although Mysore joined India at independence, this legacy of the Maharajas  is still very much in evidence today.

Beautiful Downtown Building, Mysore

Jaganmohan Palace, Mysore

Our hotel, the Pai Vista, was a modern four-star hotel with several restaurants and coffee shops. One of the restaurants, the Jungle, was decorated to resemble the jungle at night. It captured the atmosphere perfectly: there were trees, flowers, birds, animals, areas of darkness, areas with spot lights, waiters dressed in safari suits, and the night sounds of the jungle. Combined with fine food, it all made for a great dining experience.

On January 24th we visited Mysore Palace, built by the Maharaja in 1912 to replace the 14th Century structure that was destroyed by fire in 1897. We had a guide show us through the palace. Much of the layout and design of the original were retained.  Of its many attractive features the most outstanding were the many doors beautifully carved from Burmese teak, the two beautiful durbar halls for the Maharaja's public audiences and private meetings, and the large ground floor pavilion with the ceiling made from Belgian crystal and its huge crystal chandeliers from Bohemia.

Entrance to Mysore Palace

Temple in Grounds of Mysore Palace

Mysore Palace - No photos allowed of the Interior

Looking Back Towards the Entrance to Mysore Palace

The next day we took a rickshaw to Tipu Sultan's summer palace at Srirangapatna. The palace itself was not that interesting, having become somewhat dilapidated since Tipu's defeat by the British in the late 18th Century. He was a Muslim ruler of Mysore allied with the French who were established in Pondicherry.  He fought four major battles until his final defeat  - attributed by some observers to his ally, France's, lack of interest due to a preoccupation with what was going on during the French revolution. Still, it was fascinating to be there and to imagine the events that had taken place and were illustrated in the many drawings and paintings in the palace.

Entering the Grounds of Tipu Sultan's Summer Palace at Srirangapatna
The Grounds of Tipu Sultan's Summer Palace
Our Guide Explaining Details of Tipu Sultan's Career
The Summer Palace
Visitors Leaving the Summer Palace
After leaving the summer palace, our driver took us to Tipu's fort  This was huge.  An entire village had sprung up inside the ramparts. We stopped to see the temple but didn't go in. Tipu's tomb, a miniature Taj Mahal, was lovely, and the small prison was interesting.  British soldiers had been held here, many dying in captivity, no doubt because they were forced to stand upright for 22 hours each day for four years in water up to their chins, being allowed to sleep only for the two remaining hours.

Next morning we visited the Lallitha Mahal Palace, a five star hotel, formerly one of the palaces of the Maharaja of Mysore. Built by the Maharaja in 1921 for the exclusive use of the Viceroy of India, it is one of the most beautiful buildings we have ever seen. Subsequently used as a guest house for the Maharaja's European guests, it became a luxury hotel in 1974. We spent several hours there, enjoying a beautiful lunch in the main restaurant to the accompaniment of a drummer and a flautist. The hotel is elegant, with beautiful decoration and furnishings. We especially admired the elephant at the hotel entrance which is made from intricately inlaid wood.


Lalitha Mahal Palace Hotel, Mysore


Staircase in Lalitha Palace Hotel

Dining Room in Lalitha Palace

Wooden Inlay Elephant in Entrance Hall, Lalitha Palace

Being Republic Day, the national holiday of India, we anticipated major celebrations in the city and hoped to see a performance of classical Indian dance. However, the only such performance we discovered was scheduled for late in the afternoon at an auditorium at the University of Mysore. We arrived early and took seats a few rows from the front.  About an hour before the concert was to begin, two male and two female singers, seated on the floor of the stage and accompanied by two drums and a keyboard, begin to perform. As it was early and there were not many people in the audience, it seemed likely that this was a prelude to the real concert. Soon, a man came up, whispering to us, and asking if we would please move to the front row, as we were his guests. We agreed, although we felt a bit nonplussed at being singled out in this way and hoped that no role was being planned for us in the subsequent proceedings.

We enjoyed the music, although both the singing and the rhythm were strange. It was complex, with different tunes and rhythms going on simultaneously, but somehow it all came together very well. After about 45 minutes, dignitaries arrived and were seated at a table on the stage, the musical performers remaining seated on the floor at the front. 
Musical Performance, Republic Day, Mysore University

The first speaker, who had to be a politician, ranted on at top volume for about half an hour.  He punctuated his rants with an interminable series of what sounded like rhetorical questions, aggressively pointing his finger at the audience. We we sat front row centre, trying to avoid eye contact. The audience, mainly school children, completely ignored him and continued to talk and laugh the entire time. While this was going on, the musicians who had been crouching at the front of the stage got up and left. When the politician finally finished, we were dismayed to see that he was to being followed by another,almost equally obnoxious.  After five minutes we could stand it no longer and left the auditorium feeling a bit sheepish because our behaviour, though necessary for our sanity, would most likely be seen as hardly worthy of honoured guests. We wondered how many votes the politicians figured their ranting would gain them considering that the audience was made up almost entirely of children. We were disappointed to miss the concert, however,  especially since we assumed that the performers would be the beautiful children who were now filling up the auditorium dressed in fancy colour-coordinated costumes.

Beautifully dressed school children at the Republic Day celebration

Back to our hotel we went to collect our luggage, then on to the station for an overnight train to Mangalore.  After an uneventful night, we spent an enjoyable hour or so next morning talking to the young Indian couple who shared our compartment.  They were living in Seattle where they worked for Amazon.  After traveling around India they were going to see the girl's parents in Dubai.  They told us that over 200 graduates of the University of Western Ontario worked for Amazon in Seattle.

On January 27th, we took an auto rickshaw to go to Sultan’s Battery, a watchtower built by Tipu Sultan.  It is located on the Cauvery River, and enabled Tipu to watch for boats approaching on the river. He is said to have built the tower with stones taken from the churches that he destroyed during his 15-year imprisonment of Mangalore’s Christians.


Tipu Sultan's Battery, Mangalore

We then drove to the beach which was quite beautiful.  There were at least 50 people wading and swimming.  Our driver told us that none of these people could possibly be local because the danger of the undertow here was so well-known by everyone in Managlore. He said that each year many people drowned.

 Beach near Mangalore

Portable Temple at the Beach near Mangalore

We then drove through an area of heavy industry, interesting because it was the first we had seen in India.

While in Managlore, we had two splurge lunches at the Taj Hotel. Our hotel was a modern business hotel, plain with very ordinary food.

Taj Hotel, Mangalore

Managlore was a large city that we found quite boring after the excitement of the past few days. It was  necessary to visit because it was on the way to Goa.  On January 28th at around 3:00 p.m. we left Mangalore for a six-hour train ride to Madgaon.

Shops and Apartments, Mangalore

Thursday, August 23, 2012


On January 20th we went to Coimbatore by train and then by taxi to Mettupalayan, arriving late afternoon. We woke early on the 21st and caught the train which left for Ooty at seven a.m. The narrow gauge Nilgiri railway, a rare example of the continuing use of steam engines, was built by the British between 1890 and 1908.  It takes you up into the mountains for five hours using a rack and pinion system to negotiate the steep grades of up to 1:8. In the centre of the track is a third track which has teeth for the train to grip and get traction from. 

 The Steam Engine

One of Several Stops to Take On Water

Ooty and the train link to it originated to exploit the tea-growing potential of the region. Tea continues to be exported today. Ooty, or Udhagamandalam as it is now called, became a popular hill station under the British Raj. It was used as a much needed escape from the summer heat.

 Tea Plantation

The train ride was very exciting, definitely a high point of the vacation. Our coach, which we shared with six other people, was very old, made of wood, and very small - we sat four to a side with our knees almost touching. We opened three small windows on each side of the coach and leaned out to look down hundreds of feet into deep valleys spanned by railway bridges built by the British in the 19th Century. We held our breath, hoping the bridges wouldn't collapse. There are dozens of bridges as well as sixteen tunnels.

 Looking from Our Coach into the Next

 Crossing a bridge

 Another Bridge

The mountain scenery was spectacular.  The train went very slowly, up grades as steep as 1:8 using the notches in the track to lever us up. We could almost feel the train straining as it was lifted. Several times we disembarked while stopping to take on water for the steam engine.  

It was all great fun made even more enjoyable by the perceived danger and the companionship of the very nice English couple sitting opposite us. When we reached Coonoor we changed to a modern engine and sped into Ooty in no time at all.

Our hotel, the King's Cliff, was in a charming 170-year-old building whose ownership had passed from one British aristocrat to another in a card game. Later, it was owned for a time by the Taj Hotel group before being purchased by a Tamil Nadu owner. There was a beautiful garden, antique furniture, a glass breakfast house set among the flowers, and wood fires in every room. Set high upon a cliff, the hotel had lovely views of the town below.  After dinner a man came to our room with an arm full of wood and lit a big fire. He insisted that we accept a hot water bottle.  It turned out that we needed it, as it became very cold in the night after the fire burned out.

 Breakfast Room in the Garden of our Hotel

 Sitting Room of our Hotel

 View of Ooty from the Garden of our Hotel

 Hotel Coffee Shop

In the Hotel Garden
 Hotel Entrance

 On January 22nd we hired the hotel driver to take us around to see the sights. He was a good man whose company we enjoyed.  First we went to a look-out point for the views, then to a tea factory (not operating that day), a tea museum, a tea plantation, and the botanical garden for which Ooty is famous.

 View of Ooty

Ooty Botanical Garden

 View of Ooty from the Tea Museum

 View of Ooty
 At the Botanical Garden

As on almost every other day, there was brilliant sunshine which made the mountain scenery look particularly lovely. After dinner we asked for and received a heater for our room, making for a very cozy comfortable night.

The next day, January 23, we again took the hotel's car and drove down the narrow road to the base of the mountains, then through a game preserve to the beautiful city of Mysore.

Strange Vegetation Seen Throughout the Game Preserve

Saturday, August 18, 2012


We were disappointed in our day in Fort Kochin because our expectations were excessive and also perhaps because our rickshaw driver was more interested in taking us to shops - where he would get a cut from our purchases - than in showing us the sights. We therefore decided on the 17th of January to go to Ernakulam. We thought it would be an adventure to go to a large city without having preconceived notions of what we would be likely to encounter. As it happened, we were to have a fascinating day. To begin our day we took the hotel boat to the main jetty.

 View of the Harbour from the Hotel Boat

Main Jetty, Ernakulam

When we arrived, we asked a rickshaw driver to take us to the durbar hall art gallery, somewhere to begin rather than something expected to be special. The gallery was closed for renovation, but when we began to explore the area we discovered that the famous annual week-long Shiva temple festival was ending this very day and that by chance the temple we happened upon was in fact the Shiva temple where in a few hours the elephant procession would begin. We wandered about for a while and looked into some shops. 

Ernakulam Food Vendor

As we passed what looked to be the open entrance to a small hotel, I asked two children if they would allow me to take their photo. They agreed, and one of the adults standing beside us told me that a Brahmin wedding was being celebrated there. Just then, people began to descend a staircase a few metres to our left.  As I watched them coming down, I saw that among them were a man and a woman wearing garlands of flowers around their necks. These were obviously the bride and groom. When I raised my camera, they paused, smiling, to allow me to take my photograph. I felt greatly privileged. They were gracious and welcoming as are so many in India.

Brahmin Wedding, Ernakulam

We inquired at the police assistance booth and discovered that the procession of elephants would begin at the temple and travel for its conclusion to a large field nearby. Though it would be a while before the procession began, we decided to go to the field to see what was happening. People were already gathering, and we were lucky to find two of the last available seats. Next to us was an interesting man with whom we spent the next two hours or so. He spoke, for example, about his job as an able seaman on cargo ships, including his last post on an oil tanker out of Panama. He described the big storms that had frightened him. He lived in Alleppey, spending ten months of the year away and the remainder at home with his wife and two children.

He was in Ernakulam to attend the annual seven-day Makaravilakku festival in the Periyar tiger preserve. He explained that pilgrims went there because every year on the same day a bright light was seen ascending three times up into the sky. He believed this was the work of the god Ayappa who resided in the temple there. Paul later read in the newspaper, however, that this was a hoax. Because the 200,000 devotees bring in a lot of revenue for the temple every year, the state of Kerala has allowed the festival to be held in the tiger preserve. To protect the tigers, however, no lighting ha been provided. This year, after a jeep overturned in the dark and rolled down a hill, the resulting  stampede caused 102 deaths. Without any lighting, the police were unable to locate and assist the injured. Although a similar though less serious accident had occurred some years previously, the state government had refused to deal with the conflict between the temple and the tiger reserve.

Our friend told us about pilgrimages and festivals.  Most pilgrims are men because women between the ages of ten and 50 women are not allowed in the temple. They will light a flame at home, but are considered unclean during their monthly period. Some will not even cook at this time. Pilgrims fast for 41 days during the pilgrimage he attended. They pray at 6:30 p.m., because this is when the god is believed to be most potent and capable of answering supplicants' prayers.

More and more people were coming into the large field where we were sitting. Finally, we heard what sounded like drums and bugles. I moved closer to the road where I could see ten or fifteen men begin to dance to the music dressed in elaborately decorated red and white outfits, each holding a cymbal. They were accompanied by drummers.

It sounded like martial music, with dancing that was stylized to resemble fighting. The hypnotic performance went on and on, the repetitions of the dance keeping time with the loud rhythms of the music.

Soon, six beautifully decorated elephants arrived, one behind the other. 

The atmosphere was incredibly intense: obviously this was an event of high significance.The elephants moved slowly down the field and lined up horizontally, each standing with his mahout beside him. 

Increasing numbers of people were arriving.

With so many people in an enclosed space with only one visible exit, we became uncomfortable and decided to leave.

Musicians We Passed on Our Way Out of the Field

When we reached the road, we found it had been closed. Army and police were in evidence, but there was no sign of aggressive behaviour.

 Musicians on the Road

We walked a few blocks to where the road was open and got a rickshaw. The driver had to use many detours before he finally found a way to get out of the area. Every street was crowded with people walking to join the elephants. Not being accustomed to large crowds, we were relieved to have made an exit; but what an experience!

Next day, January 18th, we took the train to Calicut (Kozhikode), arriving in the evening about nine o'clock, then going by rickshaw to our hotel, the Taj Gateway. This was a luxury hotel with a beautiful swimming pool.  We decided to have a lazy day on the 19th, reading and drinking diet Coke at the pool.

On January 20th we went to Coimbatore by train and then by taxi to Mettupalayan, arriving late afternoon. After a night in a hotel there, we would take the old steam train to Ooty.

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