Mysore is a city that spreads across flat plains. We are now in Karnataka, a different language but that is about all that is different. The people are charming and cheerful. The city is bustling and has so many attractions that it would take a few weeks to do them all justice. Our stop is for three nights. We are met at the station by the local agent and our new driver, big affable man called Pasha. As with all our drivers, Pasha is very keen to see that we are looked after well. On these trips we are not mere passengers; we are entrusted to the drivers who not only get us from one place to the next, but advise on where to get good South Indian coffee, where to eat and where to the best and safest ATMs are - though I have to say that never once did I feel unsafe or intimidated.
Our first trip out is up the only raised ground for a long way. A drive up the Chamundi hills, a dozen kilometres out of town, gives the traveller a good view of the city and the surrounding countryside. At the top of the hill stands the colourful, giant statue of Mahishasura, sword in one hand, serpent in the other. Here is the site of another tale, one where the demon Mahishasura was slain by the goddess Durga. His statue stands proud and colourful, but I wonder why it is him not Durga who is here? Perhaps it stands to remind the faithful to what lengths the gods and goddesses will go to secure the earth and the heavens - and don't you dare get in their way.
It is a popular spot. The cream stone walls of the Chamundeshwari Temple attracts tourists as well as those seeking a more spiritual experience. However we by-pass the tall gate house and walk round the outside until we come to the Mahabaleshwara Temple. In a country where the eye can feast on the colour and grandeur of temples, Mahabaleshwara is a stark contrast. It would be unfair to call it plain but the understated nature of its size and of its embellishments provide, if anything, a far greater sense of spirituality. Inside, it is quiet and we are admitted into the inner sanctum to gaze on the lingam and perhaps to receive darshan. Here is another lesson for me. The line between the sacred and the profane does not exist for the Hindu; they are as one. I should not have been surprised to see the priest with two mobile phones in hand. He was exchanging numbers with a woman who had arrived expected to find the usual priest as she needed to discuss something with him. I suppose we all need a day off some time.
On the way back down the hill we stop to admire the large Nandi, a welcome sight for all who have decided to walk the 800 steps up the hill to this point, knowing that soon they will reach Shiva at the top. Offerings can be made to the priest, who when not engaged in such activities, stands with his arms crossed, leaning back on the rail and contemplating… what? His next cigarette, another message on his mobile phone?
Further down the hill Patsy sees a peacock and then a mongoose. Surely these are auspicious sightings? I, of course, do not see either but I do bathe in the delight that Vishwas, our guide, Pasha and Patsy have at seeing these creatures. Sightings are not that common and we all are pleased that they have chosen to show themselves to (most of) us. As we descend the hill back to Mysore, I reflect on the peace and harmony we have seen and felt - and then I am struck by the fact that we could be the start of some joke: A Hindu, a Muslim and two Buddhists were in a car….
‘The British’ are never very far away in India. Certainly on the tourist trail they crop up regularly, usually without ill will (at least in the hearing of us Brits), in place names, the railway or evidence of empire-building trade. If ever there was an example of conquering by commercial stealth, the history of the British in India must be the epitome. In many ways this was more damaging than military conquest, but that discussion can wait. At the fort island of Srirangapatnam is evidence of earlier times in the history of Britain’s attempt to conquer. Here we learn of the multi-national interests in India, of the many European nations looking to make the most of its wealth and potential. And here we learn of Tipu Sultan http://www.nam.ac.uk/exhibitions/online-exhibitions/enemy-commanders-britains-greatest-foes/tipu-sultan, the man who managed to keep the British at bay, at least until he met with Arthur Wellesley (later the Duke of Wellington).
Stories abound of the push and pull of power in this area, of how the massive fort, together with the river at its feet kept the invaders out - initially at least. The river also had its use in dealing with captured British officers. They were tied up in the dungeon that was allowed to flood. Vishwas very nobly showed us how! But when Wellesley eventually won through, his message to the people in the region was clear: the main palace was raised to the ground and he took over the summer palace as his official residence. The Summer Palace still stands, its gardens full of flowers and schoolchildren playing running games. Inside the palace, wonderfully cool, the wonderful art work tells more stories but we have left it too late to do the visit justice. Another place to go back to.