City of Palaces … and rip-offs.

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Mysore Palace

Want to get royally ripped-off?

Go to Mysore.

Half my family hails from Mysore. My forefathers served under the Wodeyar rulers. One of my great grand-uncles painted some the murals that are displayed inside the Palace. Hardly a month goes by when I do not visit this city, either for work or for photography.

And I’ve come to hate the place. Mysore typifies the horrific state of tourism in our country. Rickshaws and taxis that loot commuters without fear, hotels that give you the worst possible service, grossly overcrowded tourist spots, abusive waiters, corrupt cops, the list is endless. Everyone wants his cut, everyone has his hand out, everyone has a nasty invective for you.

And garbage everywhere. Mind you, this city claims to be the “cleanest” city in India. Well, it is marginally cleaner than Bangalore. But then, Bangalore is without question, one of the filthiest cities in the world, not just in India.

Some of the “hotspots” of this formerly regal city:

Chamundi temple: Well over a thousand years old. Home of Mysore’s presiding deity. Try getting into the temple on any day of the week. Minimum waiting time is an hour, and you have to literally fight your way in. Literally. Count the number of encroaching hawkers and illegal shops around the temple. Inhale the tantalising stench from the huge pile of garbage on the hillside below. And then ask yourself, if this is how this city treats its presiding deity, how will it treat you?

Mysore Palace: For heaven’s sake leave your camera and cellphone with someone you trust. Cameras are not allowed inside the Palace. If you carry one, the cops inside will ruthlessly extort you – even if you do not take the camera out of its case. Same applies to cellphones. Photography outside the palace is permitted, without any entrance fee. Even here, you can get ripped off by touts. Be on your guard, will you?

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Chamarajendra Wodeyar, King of Mysore 1868-1894

Mysore Zoo: If you’ve seen a zoo before, then don’t bother. There’s just nothing special about this one – except for the pickpockets and petty thieves inside. Keep all your jewelry out of sight, remove your bangles and ear-rings. And keep your purse or handbag hidden, or booby-trapped. Distribute your cash and cards in various pockets. If you’re from Bombay, you know how to protect yourself from pickpockets. The same principles apply here.

Karanji lake: Next to the Zoo. If you want to observe human couples in foreplay, this is the place to visit. Once a nice waterbody for birds and birders, Karanji has become polluted with sewage, and infested with lovey-dovey couples. The lake smells foul on most days. You still can see waterbird species like the painted stork, spot-billed pelican and oriental darter, but these special residents of Karanji are constantly disturbed by boating and illegal fishing. Bird populations have been declining and will eventually disappear.

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Kukkarahalli lake.

Kukkarahalli lake: Same as above. Once attractive. Now avoidable. Not as bad as Karanji, since Kukkarahalli is not as commercialised. But it is getting there.

Brindavan Gardens: The best place to get groped. This place is definitely unsafe for women, even if they are in a large group. The much-touted musical fountain is not worth the trauma you will have to undergo to get there. Parking is a nightmare. Traffic is ghastly. Crowds are unruly, drunk and abusive. And they grope, grope, grope.

Ranganathittu bird sanctuary: For a bird-lover like me, Ranganathittu used to be the place for observation and photography. Used to be. Now, the place makes my blood boil. Far too crowded. Leaky boats. No safety measures of any kind. And the usual rip-offs. The “friendly” boatman will take you on a prolonged boatride for your photographic pleasure, if you cross his palm with a good amount of silver.

Srirangapatnam: This “historical” town on the outskirts of Mysore was once the capital of Tipu Sultan, a person for whom I have very little regard. Srirangapatnam is as bad as Mysore for tourists.

The so-called “expressway” from Bangalore to Mysore, once a great road to drive on, is choked with traffic and extremely unsafe. Without fail, I see at least two accidents on this road, each time I drive down. I wonder when it will be my turn.

My country has so much to offer to a discerning tourist. Ancient culture, spectacular temples, remarkable architecture, awe-inspiring natural beauty. And yet, India has less than 0.7% of the world’s tourism business. Tourists are ripped off everywhere they go, abused, intimidated, and frequently molested. India is generally known as one of the world’s most unsafe destinations.

Anyone who knows Mysore the way I do, will understand why.

Srini.

Somnathpur – visit once and only once.

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“The construction of this temple was caused by Somanatha”, the notice-board put up by the Archeological Survey of India informs us at the entrance. That mild syntax glitch aside, the ASI has done a fair job at the Channakeshava temple at Somnathpur.

Built around 1268 AD, during the reign of the Hoysala king, Narasimha II, the Kesava somnathpur-1temple presents the connoisseur with the best of Hoysala architecture in a compact, one-day package. To the purist, Somnathpur is perhaps a more complete representation of Hoysala art, than its much bigger and more famous cousins at Halebidu and Beluru, a hundred miles to the west.

Not many people know that the Halebidu-Beluru temples are generally incomplete. They don’t have the vimana (or gopuram) on top. Somanthpur does, and while its vimana doesn’t tower over you, unlike the gopurams of Tamil Nadu, it is imposing all the same.

Walk around slowly, pause at an exquisite sculpture, admire the lathe-turned stone pillars, turn your eyes upward to the sixteen intricately carved ceilings, and as Whitman would put it, simply ‘stand and stare’. Each of the ceilings depicts a banana flower in different stages of growth.somnathpur-1-5

somnath-1-21Somnathpur is one of the few temples in India where you can walk right into the sanctum sanctorum with your digcam and snap away at the idols. somnathpur-1-8Try and locate the names of the sculptors, carved at the base of each statue. Ruvari Mallithamma, a famous temple sculptor of the time, sculpted most of the statues.

Somnathapur, until recently, was a good place for a quiet Sunday visit, especially if you like ancient temples. That said, the placid beauty of this historic Hoysala temple is rapidly being ruined by greed and neglect.

You will find patches of poorly done repair work all over the temple, junk and debris randomly dumped inside the courtyard, and the jarring sight of a solar panel placed right on top of the gopuram. Couldn’t they find a more discreet place to put it?

Once, you could park your vehicle under the shade of a nearby tree and stroll across Somnathpur at leisure. Now, there’s an unwashed thug breathing stale booze on you, demanding a hefty parking fee. There’s no parking lot though. You still have to look for parking space on your own. If you’re lucky, you might be given a receipt for the absurd parking fee extorted from you.

The local villagers were a benign, friendly lot, once upon a time. Now, you will find yourself being harassed by hawkers and beggars of all kinds. Even the ASI clerk who issues the entry ticket to you is a surly fellow who rudely informs you that camera tripods are not allowed, and will not tell you why.

Good luck with the stray dogs that infest the place. And try not to look at the urban slum that surrounds the immediate vicinity of the temple.

Best time to visit: Any time, but it does get hot during April-May.

Bottom-line: Visit Somnathpur only if you appreciate medieval Indian temple architecture and are capable of ignoring all the trouble and general filth you will be subjected to. And visit it just once. The residents of Somnathpur will ensure that you wouldn’t want to visit again.

Cheers … Srini.

Mahabalipuram … NEVER again!

Shore Temple - Centerpiece of Mahabalipuram.
Shore Temple – Centerpiece of Mahabalipuram.

Once, just once in my life, I want to visit one destination in India where I won’t get ripped off, cheated, abused, intimidated and generally made to feel like concentrated crap.

Just once, I want to walk into a place, relax and listen to what it has to say to me, and walk out in one piece. Just once.

Mahabalipuram, near Chennai, is a UNESCO heritage site that has been on my bucket list since many years. When I took a day off to visit this temple town that dates back to the 7th century, I thought it would be a memorable experience. It is after all, a UNESCO site.

Memorable it certainly was, for all the wrong reasons.

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Pancha Ratha – five temples carved from a single granite boulder. Thirty eight years in the making. Dedicated to the Pandavas and Draupadi.

The instant I got off my car, a horde of hawkers and touts descended upon me. Buy this, try that, come with me and I’ll give you a good time … they just would not leave me alone. And then I made the enormous mistake of hiring a guide to take me around. And I wound up paying him Rs.750/- for no particular reason. He took me around in my own car, to monuments that were easy to locate anyway, and gave me information that I had already looked up in Wikipedia anyway. But he did ensure that the right hawkers ripped me off.

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Arjuna’s Penance – bas relief sculpture, depicts various episodes from the Mahabharata.

The arrogant moron at the ticket counter gave me a nasty shock, as he refused to issue a normal ticket to me. The fee for Indian nationals is Rs.10/- only. For foreign nationals, it is Rs.250/-. I never understood why foreign tourists must cough out at least ten times what Indians do, wherever they go. Do they get anything more for the huge amount of extra money they pay? I hardly think so.

For some absurd reason, the afore-mentioned arrogant moron at the ticket counter was convinced I was a foreign national, and demanded Rs.250/-. And then demanded to see my ID. I offered my driver’s license, and he felt it was forged. I told him I’d rather go back to Bangalore than pay Rs.250/- to that arrogant jack-ass. Finally, he relented and gave me a Rs.10 ticket.

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Krishna’s butterball – an unusual balancing rock structure.

Hawkers, hawkers, everywhere. Every nook. Every corner. Every turn. And they will not leave you alone. They go on and on. They chase you. They harass you. Until you buy something. And my friendly guide ensured that I did buy a lot of worthless artifacts, at astounding prices.

The day ended with my taxi driver ripping me off, and forcing me to pay an extra Rs.500/- for a speeding ticket that he got on the way back from Mahabalipuram.

I had it coming to me. A fool and his money, after all. Should have just stayed at home.

Why do these hawkers and touts think that tourists from another land owe them a living? What value do they provide to the places that they infest? They did not build any of the magnificent monuments that people like me travel hundreds of miles to admire. They do not maintain the place, they in fact soil it with their presence.

They abuse the law with impunity. They loot tourists blatantly. They harass, they harangue, they intimidate. And the local custodians of the law simply stand by and watch.

And then we wonder why India’s share of the world tourism market is less than ONE PERCENT. That’s right. Mera Bharat Mahaan has less than 0.72% of the global tourism market.

Bottom line: Mahabalipuram is strictly avoidable. Admire this ancient temple town in the safety of the Internet.

Mahabalipuram was certainly the experience of a lifetime. That’s because I will never go there again in my lifetime.

Ah well, I did take some good pictures. Enjoy my pictures, and be happy you didn’t get ripped off, unlike me.

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