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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Melukote. No cleanliness. No Godliness.

 

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Cows, dogs, hawkers, shops, cars, garbage. Where is the room for God?

What the eff am I doing here, I ask myself as I trudge barefoot in the heat, through the filthiest temple town I have been in.

This is Melukote. Global hub of Shri Vaishanavism, second only to Sriperumbudur in importance. A world-renowned center for Sanskrit learning. The scriptures say that Rama and Krishna themselves worshipped the ancient deity here. The temples you see today are a thousand years old, built stone by stone by Shri Ramanuja and his disciples.

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To visit temple, just follow the garbage.

This is Melukote. And it is filthy.

Cleanliness is next to Godliness, we are told. If that is true, then please be assured that God would keep His distance from Melukote.

Due to my being born a Thenkalai, I am a follower, albeit a reluctant one, of Shri Ramanuja and a Shrivaishanavite by default. Melukote is therefore “my” place. Each year, I find myself drawn to this place. And year after year, I find myself being repelled by the general filthiness. This year, the filthiness was just intolerable.

The history of Melukote is truly Vedic. The temples are merely ten centuries old. The primary deity here, Cheluvanarayanaswamy or Thirunarayana, has been worshipped at this place since the time of Rama. After the long-lost metal idol was rediscovered by Shri Ramanuja in 1100 or so, Melukote was heavily patronised by the Hoysalas, the Wodeyars, even by Tipu Sultan, and in modern times, by Shrivaishnavites across the world and by all other sects. With all that patronage, past and present, there is no excuse whatsoever for Melukote’s current state.

It’s not a question of money. There is no shortage of money, I have no doubt. It’s not a question of government support. You need neither money nor political support just to be clean. It’s a question of attitude and it’s a question of arrogance.

At no other major shrine have I seen cars parked right at the temple walls, nowhere else have I seen so many hawkers peddling their wares so close to the main temple. No where else have I seen garbage so carelessly strewn about. Sullen watchmen at the gates and sundry people expecting money at every nook are common features in all temples. One expects Melukote to be different, but no. One is totally wrong. Give me twenty rupees, insists an elderly priest inside the temple, and I tamely hand over the money, not due to piety, but due to pity.

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Don’t worry. It’s a “protected” monument.

My visit there yesterday coincided with an “abhishekam” of Ramanuja’s idol. The term “abhishekam” means a ritualistic libation of  a religious idol with various sanctified liquids like milk, ghee, honey and sandal paste.

There were innumerable Iyengar mamas and mamis inside, in traditional vestis and 9-yard sarees respectively. Technically, I am an Iyengar mama too, and I ought to have been in a vesti too. But my priorities are crystal clear.

Cleanliness first. Godliness next. Hygiene first. Spirituality next. Sanctity of body first. Purity of mind next.

Three years ago, my elderly mother ate the food here, came back that evening to Bangalore with acute gastroenteritis and had to spend a full week at Fortis hospital. That horrible week comes back to my memory, and I bluntly turn down the offers of puliogare and annadana that I am plied with.

History and divinity both get buried under the filth of Melukote.

As a Shrivaishnavite, I am not just angry. I am filled with a cold rage as I make my way through this ancient town. In vain do I tell myself that Rama and Krishna might have walked down the same lanes that I walk now, and that Shri Ramanuja definitely did. All I can see are the piles of garbage, the plastic bottles everywhere, the stray dogs, the hawkers, the growling monkeys – and the devotees who create all this filth.

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The ancient Kalyani (water tank). This is the only angle from which the garbage is not visible.

Enough. I call up the driver (who is of course parked right next to the temple wall) and we make our way back to the Garbage city, also known as Bangalore.

Garbage outside. Junk inside.

The newly laid road from Mandya to Melukote does little to soothe my rage, since I’ve seen the hundreds of old trees that once stood on either side of that road, and were butchered for no reason.

In comparison, Tipu’s tomb in Srirangapatnam is a pleasure to see. Gumbaz is immaculately maintained, and more important, it is clean. There’s no entry fee although there is a stiff parking fee – but no parking lot. The outside is no doubt dirty and hawker-infested. But the inside is just the opposite. Manicured lawns, old trees that date back to Tipu, and the tomb itself is shining white – and clean.

So. This is “my” Melukote. I don’t feel good, I feel ripped off. I don’t feel sanctified, I feel dirty. I am not filled with spirituality and enlightenment, I am filled with dark anger.

Next time I feel the desire to commune with God, I won’t take the expense to hire a cab and drive 150 kms through dense traffic to end up at a place that is filthier than the urban slum I live in.

I’ll either visit the small temple at my street corner, which is far cleaner, or just stay at home and visit Wikipedia, which is far safer.

Absolutely no cheers … Srini.