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.

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Where Aves rules – Ranganathittu.

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Spot-billed Pelican. Resident species at Ranganathittu.

The only reason why I continue to live in this garbage-laden, dog-infested, over-congested and rapidly decaying concretised shithole called Bangalore, is the proximity of a few good birding locations.

Ranganathittu is one such. Spread over just 700 square meters, this sanctuary is one of India’s smallest. Yet, it is home to well over one hundred avian species and several other flora and fauna.

During the winter months, the star attraction at Ranganathittu is the Eurasian Spoonbill. So named because of its characteristic flat bill, the Spoonbill is a long-distance migrant that comes down to India all the way from Europe.

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Eurasian Spoonbills.

Come October and hundreds of Spoonbills arrive at Ranganathittu to breed. Spoonbills prefer shallow waterbodies and feed on small aquatic animals, like snails, frogs, crabs, aquatic insects and young fish. Spoonbills have a typical feeding style. They walk around in shallow water with their open bills dipped in, constantly sweeping for prey. The bill snaps shut instantly when it touches its prey.

While the Eurasian Spoonbill is a winter visitor, there are many other resident avians at Ranganthittu that are just as spectacular. The gorgeous Painted Stork is one of them.

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Painted Storks at Ranganathittu.

So is the Asian Openbill Stork. And the Oriental Darter (alias the Snakebird), and the Woolly-necked Stork, and the Spot-billed Pelican, and the River Tern, and the Great Thick-knee, and the Indian Shag, and many more.

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Asian open-bill stork coming in for a landing.

And look out for the Marsh Crocodile (or Magarmach, if you prefer). Ranganathittu is one of the few places where you can see the endangered Marsh Crocodile in its natural habitat. You can usually spot a couple of these magnificent monsters sunning themselves on the rocks.

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Magarmach having a siesta!


There is a large colony of Flying Foxes at Ranganathittu. Flying Foxes, FYI, are bats. In fact, they are the world’s largest bats.

If you take a boat across the lake, the boatman will take you very close to these crocs and foxes – for a small financial incentive, of course!

The entry fee is Rs.50/ per head (per Indian head, that is). For foreigners, the entry fee alone is Rs.300/-. And that, to my mind, is not fair. Why do we always assume that visitors to our country are all stinking rich and are all very happy to pay ten times the normal fee?

The fee for a common boat is Rs.50/- per head. Or, if you have money to spare, you can shell out Rs.1000/- for a four-person boat and a prolonged half-hour ride across the lake. Shell out another Rs.100/- to the boatman, and that half-hour can become one hour!

The gardens around the lake are equally rich in avian life.

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Green Bee-eater, Ranganathittu gardens.

Look for the Green bee-eater, Grey wagtail, Oriental magpie robin, Black-rumped Woodpecker and India’s smallest bird, Tickell’s Flowerpecker. About the size of an adult thumb, this elusive little fellow prefers to feed on the fruits of the Singapore Cherry tree, which is where I snapped this Flowerpecker trying to gulp down a meal.

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Tickell’s Flowerpecker, Ranganathittu gardens.

Distance from Bangalore is about 120 km, an easy two-hour drive from the city. Ranganathittu is close to Mysore. If you prefer, you can stay at Mysore for a couple of days, and visit several birding spots around the town.

Ranganathittu is good for a visit through the year. If you want to see the Spoonbill, visit during October-March. If you’re serious about birds and photography, then strictly avoid weekends. Mid-week is strongly advised. Visit the place as early as you can. Ranganathittu opens at 8.30 am, at which time you will probably have the place to yourself.

Please avoid loud clothes. Dull greens and browns are the correct attire. We don’t want your ultra-tight jeans and bright-yellow tank-top to scare those poor birds, do we?

Do avoid exposing large amounts of your skin – and not for moralistic reasons. There is no shortage of mosquitoes and other stinging insects at Ranganathittu. Odomos is well advised.

If you have no car, no worry. There are many buses from Bangalore and Mysore. Or gather a few friends and hire a taxi. The nearest rail station is Srirangapatnam, but I think a road journey is far better.

Just grab your binocs, hit the road one fine morning, head for Ranganathittu, and leave your worries to the birds!

Cheers … Srini.

Dasha Hara … once again!

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Once again, the festival of Nine Nights comes by, and once again I find myself in the home of the Ravindranath family, to enjoy their spectacular Golu display.

For those of my readers who are unfamiliar with this festival, herewith some Dushera fundas:

In the Indian scriptures, the nine nights of Navaratri, correctly called Maha Navaratri, are dedicated to Shakti, the fundamental force that drives all of Creation. In the scriptures, Shakti is given the form of a woman, The Cosmic Mother.

At the beginning of Time, She created Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesh, the three divine entities that are responsible for maintaining Creation. Hence, She is also called Adi Shakti, the Primary Force.

The nine nights of Navaratri are dedicated to Navadurga, the goddess Shakti manifested as Durga, in nine different forms.

veenaravidasara2016-1According to the Puranas, Durga was created to slay Mahishasura, a powerful demon who had a boon from Brahma that he could not be slain by a man or an asura or a God. He thought that women were too weak to fight him, and omitted to add women to that list.

Mahishasura was the original MCP! And he paid a big price for his arrogance. Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesh put their energies together and brought forth Durga, a woman of immense power.

It took Her nine nights and ten days, but at the end of a fearsome battle, Durga slew Mahishasura. Mahanavaratri is celebrated to commemorate this mighty battle between good and evil.

Mahanavaratri is so called because there are four other Navaratris during the year. Mahanavaratri or Sharad Navaratri is considered the most important of them all, and is held during the first nine days of the bright half (Shukla paksha) of the month of Ashwin, which corresponds to early October to mid-November in the Gregorian calendar. The festival marks the end of the monsoon season and the beginning of winter. From Navaratri onwards, we can expect clear blue skies.

Srirangam, near Trichy.
Srirangam, near Trichy. The first of the 108 Divya Deshams.

On the ninth day of  Mahanavaratri, Saraswati, goddess of knowledge, is worshipped. In the Gurukulas of ancient India, students began their studies on this day. Music classes start on this day, and we worship our books and other sources of knowledge – that would include laptops and iPads nowadays!

Khseerabdi Shayana - Vishnu resting on the Ocean of Milk.
Khseerabdi Shayana – Vishnu resting on the Ocean of Milk.

On the ninth day, some people also hold Ayudha Puja, and worship their weapons, implements and tools of trade. In the Mahabharata, Arjuna reveals his identity to Prince Uttarakumar on this day and collect his weapons that he had hidden in a Shami tree, before doing battle with the Kauravas.

The tenth day, Vijayadashami, is the day on which Durga slew Mahishasura and became known as Mahishasuramardini.

Vijayadashami also commemorates the death of Raavana at the hands of Rama. In the Ramayana, Rama worships Durga on this day, and seeks her blessing to slay the ten-headed Ravana.

This is why the festival is also called Dasha Hara, the cutting of Ravana’s ten heads, or Dusshera.

Mahisha’s capital was Mahishasura Uru, now known as Maisuru or Mysore. Durga is known as Chamundeswari in this part of India and is the reigning diety of Mysore. The Chamundeswari temple at Mysore is almost a thousand years old. Dusshera is a really big festival in Mysore.

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For those of us who hail from Bombay, Navaratri is all about Garba and Dandiya Raas. Garba derives its name from ‘garbha’ meaning pregnant. It symbolises the cycle of life. Traditional Garba is performed only by women and does not use any sticks. Dandiyaa, on the other hand, is based on the events of Krishna’s early life in Brindavan. Somewhere in the past, these two dance forms converged.

For me, Dusshera is about traditional golu, a stepped display of dolls and miniatures. My mother’s collection of earthen dolls is fifty years old. My sister and her friends would make cute little landscapes and other decorations for golu.

So once again this year, here I am at the home of the Ravindranath family at Basavanagudi, Bangalore. Since two decades, this unique family has been putting up a remarkable Golu display in their home.

Open to the public at no charge whatsoever, this amazing exhibition comprises well over FOUR THOUSAND dolls and miniatures.

Parama Padam - the supreme abode of Vishnu
Parama Padam – the supreme abode of Vishnu

The golu display here is built upon a particular theme each year. This year, the theme is based on the 108 Divya Deshams.

The Divya Deshams (Divine temples) are 108 temples dedicated to Vishnu, that were specifically described by the twelve Azhvars in the Divya Prabandha, a collection of 4000 ancient Tamil verses that worship Vishnu. The Azhvars (pronounced approximately as ‘alwaars’) were twelve poet-saints who devoted their entire lives to the worship of Vishnu and the propagation of Vaishnavism in south India. There is considerable controversy about the exact time period, but it is generally agreed that they lived at least a thousand years ago or so.

The twelve Azhvars
The twelve Azhvars

The Azhvars came from all castes and all walks of life. Only three of them were Brahmins and one of them was a woman.

I’ve seen some impressive Golu collections in my time, but this one is in a different class. Piece by piece, doll by doll, each of which was made to order by master craftsmen across south India, this amazing collection has taken over two decades to put together. And, it has cost this modest, middle-class family a small fortune. Some of the larger dolls cost Rs. 20,000/- each.

This display is open to the public at no charge whatsoever. And yet, there are some unscrupulous people who charge ignorant tourists a lot of money on the pretext of taking them to see this free golu display.

Parasites like these make my blood boil. I had the same experience at Mahabalipuram, where I was fleeced by a self-styled “expert”.

Caveat emptor, people. Caveat emptor.

Many golu displays are not open to the public. But those that are open to the public, are always free. There is no need to cough up money to a third party who poses as a cultural “expert”. Locate the place on the internet, contact the concerned family, and just go.  Some families do not permit photography and some do. It is better to ask beforehand.

You will be expected to remove your footwear and mute your cellphone. The host will be glad to explain the display to you, making it completely unnecessary to hire any “expert” from outside.

The Ravindranath family
The Ravindranath family

Remember to profusely thank the host. Golu displays take a lot of time and effort to assemble. The Ravindranath family takes three months to assemble their mind-boggling Golu collection.

Theist or not, take pride in our country’s rich cultural heritage.  My agnosticism doesn’t come in the way of my appreciation of my country’s culture and traditions.

Happy Dasha Hara, everyone.

Cheers … Srini.