Mysore Palace in India. Photo Credit: Benjamin S. Mack/GALO Magazine.

Mysore Palace in India. Photo Credit: Benjamin S. Mack/GALO Magazine.

Bellies full and thirst quenched, it was off to our next destination: Ranganatha (Srirangapatna), a temple found — mercifully — just a few minutes’ drive away. One of the most important Vaishnavite pilgrimage sites in south India (Vaishnavite being a branch of Hinduism that focuses on the veneration of the god Vishnu), the temple was originally built during the Ganga dynasty in the ninth century, and gradually expanded over the years. It is also the site of the 10-day-long Navratri festival (dedicated to Chamundeshwari, the patron goddess of Mysore) and was a key focal point in the Siege of Seringapatam in 1799 (in which Tipu Sultan’s forces fought a combined army of about 50,000 men from the Nizam of Hyderabad and the British East India Company, a battle which ultimately ended in Tipu Sultan’s death). The temple itself is adorned with literally thousands of intricately carved individual sculptures, each representing various goddesses or gods and stories about them — rather like a three-dimensional version of Egyptian hieroglyphs. Unlike any churches (where almost all iconography is of Christ, the Virgin Mary, or various saints) or mosques (where any image of Allah or the Prophet Muhammad is forbidden) I’d been to, even just a cursory look that only skimmed the surface of deeper knowledge was a terrific opportunity to learn more about a culture I knew so little about.

Shoes — and even socks — are forbidden inside the vast majority of Hindu temples out of respect for the gods and goddesses that reside within. While I had no qualms with traversing over the warm bare earth with only my skin protecting my muscles, bones and tendons, the presence of large patches of sharp, thorn-like grass outside the temple that seemed to have more in common with prickly weeds or stinging nettles than the stuff commonly found in backyards made the experience unexpectedly painful.

It was also painful, albeit on a more emotional level, to witness the length of the queue to get inside. A single line of people dressed in all manner of colors, from rich reds and blazingly bright blues to verdant greens and deep blacks, snaked out through the main entrance of the temple and down the street, with seemingly no end in sight; it must have been at least a mile (1.6 kilometers) long. There would be no chance of getting inside the temple before the year 2027.

Bottoms of our feet bristling with more splinters than the Ganges has people swimming in it at any given time, we made our way back to the car with our heads hung low.

Our mood would be boosted by additional food (the previously consumed coconut could only do so much for us!). While Indian restaurants in the West usually feature a dearth of lamb, curry, dal and naan bread on their menus (which can often be expensive), such dishes are primarily found in the northern regions of the country, and are less common in the more vegetable and rice-dominated diet of the southern states such as where we were. I knew that India was the seventh-largest country in the world by land area, but the sheer numbers of geography had not imparted the wisdom that the country’s cuisine is as diverse as the Indian people themselves.

Sitting down for a late lunch at a half-full restaurant with high tables on the outskirts of Mysore, my order was recommended to me by my companions, all of whom knew their way around southern Indian food the way Julia Child knew French cooking.

“Do you want it on a leaf?” asked Kesi.

I had no idea what he meant.

“A leaf?” I asked dumbly.

“Yeah… a leaf,” he replied.

“You’re joking,” I retorted.

“I’m not.”

I was in India, so why not? I gamely agreed that plates are so 21st century.

Sure enough, lunch was served atop a giant green leaf from a banana tree, which was many times larger than any plate I’d ever seen. Rotisserie-cooked chicken, sticky white rice, heaps of spicy masala, and some icy-cool yogurt (which, I was told, was good for digestion when eating so much spicy food) were piled high, all in neat, separate piles.

“Now you mix,” said Sesank.

“Mix?” I asked.

“Mix,” Sesank repeated, flexing his fingers.

Taking my right hand, I picked up a glop of the gooey masala, and deposited it on top of the rice. Spreading my fingers, I gently kneaded the masala and rice together, mixing them as a blender stirs the ingredients of a cake.

Eating with one’s hands may seem somewhat off-putting, but it’s considered a cultural norm in southern India, regardless of socioeconomic status. Everyone from billionaires (which modern India has plenty of) to the homeless prefer to use their natural appendages that all primates possess in order to eat. Who was I to do otherwise?

I scooped up some food and brought it to my mouth. The spicy flavor was expected, but for some reason, it tasted like meat salsa and rice. I had no objections.

The sun had already sunk considerably in the sky by the time we were on the road again. Thankfully, our next destination was as easy to find as a Chicago Bears fan in Green Bay, Wisconsin.

Located about a 10-minute drive from Mysore’s central railway station (even factoring in chaotic road conditions), Mysore Palace is one of India’s most famous attractions. The former residence of the Maharajas of Mysore (known as the Wodeyars, who ruled the area from 1399 to 1950), the gargantuan complex was commissioned by Maharaja Rajarshi H.H. Krishnarajendra Wadiyar IV between 1897 and 1912, blending Hindu, Muslim, Rajput, and Gothic styles together. Also containing no less than 12 separate temples and countless servants’ quarters, the spacious grounds easily dwarf those of famous palaces close to where I lived in Berlin, including the famed Schloss Charlottenburg.

Walking around Mysore Palace may feel just like stepping into a sun-drenched Shangri-La, but getting past its hallowed gates requires a couple things: the first, naturally, is squeezing through crowds of thousands that make Times Square’s famously clogged streets look downright abandoned. If one is successful in navigating the veritable sea of humanity, they still have to fork over 200 rupees ($3.19; 3.00 euros) for admission — which is only five times more than the 40 rupees ($0.63; 0.60 euros) Indian citizens must pay. Kesi wasn’t Indian, but at least he was able to pass for one; I had no such luck.

Passing by the automatic weapon-armed guards (terrorist incidents are, unfortunately, not uncommon in India, prompting high security in many public places) and a horde of people selling all manner of trinkets from postcards to more coconuts (I had a feeling the fact I stood out from 99.99 percent of the rest of the crowd attracted them like sugar does flies), we crossed the threshold onto the palace grounds. As if by magic, the garbage we had seen strewn about all over outside had vanished; in its place were immaculately manicured lawns, leafy palm trees, and imposing walls.

Again leaving our socks and shoes in a pile that professedly rivaled Mt. Everest in size, our quintet entered the main palace itself, with little hope we would ever see our shoes again (fortunately, by some unknown miracle, we would). We were inside less than 10 seconds when our jaws collectively dropped.

The first room we found ourselves in was the Kalyana Mantapa (“marriage hall”), a colossal, octagonal-shaped chamber with a stained glass ceiling in every color imaginable and peacock and elephant motifs adorning the walls and floor. The entire room was allegedly wrought in Glasgow, Scotland and then reassembled when it was brought to Mysore; it was the most impressive piece of interior architecture I’d ever seen. Many times larger than the rotunda of the Idaho or Oregon state capitol buildings (or even the U.S. Capitol), “breathtaking” was a poor descriptor for such a remarkable place. Light filtering down in long bright rays, the place also smelled strongly of rich, aromatic incense — invigorating the body as much as the mind and spirit.

Time was at a standstill as we made our way through the various chambers of the palace, where once upon a time Maharajas, magicians, warriors, dancers, diplomats, adventurers, explorers and more had trod. Now we — engineers, a teacher and a journalist — were the latest editions to the motley coterie.

“This reminds me of Venice,” remarked Kesi as we passed through a narrow gallery filled with huge oil on canvas portraits of the Maharajas of old who had once called Mysore Palace home. Having never been to the famed Italian city known for its canals, I had no frame of reference, but thought that there must indeed be similarities.

Up a marble staircase similar to what one would find at Versailles or the Vienna State Opera was the Ambavilas, a durbar hall (ceremonial meeting hall for the royal court, common in Iran and South Asia) used by the Maharaja for private audiences. Passing through a carved rosewood doorway inlaid with ivory (besides which was a door made of pure silver, though it was surrounded by glass and closed to visitors), we arrived inside the cavernous chamber proper, which in overall size was similar to a cathedral. As in the Kalyana Mantapa, mouths again fell agape in wonder: gilded columns lined the central nave, above which were opulent chandeliers, stained glass ceilings, and enough precious stones to economically support a small country. The floor itself formed a giant mosaic, into which were inlaid more gems. Far more accustomed to seeing palaces in ruins (or at least states of considerable decline, as many in northern Europe are), I had never seen such a display of ostentatious wealth.

Sunset nearly upon us, the fading light bathed everything in golden splendor. Perhaps the columns were literally made of gold? Though that’s not the case, it wouldn’t have surprised me if they were.

There were several live elephants standing around the palace grounds (upon which visitors could ride for 100 rupees — the equivalent of $1.59, or 1.51 euros), but riding atop of one of the pachyderms would have been far too slow if we were going to make it home before midnight — after all, we had plans to see more temples in another part of Karnataka come morning.

Making it home before darkness choked the air would not be in the cards, however. Sky blacker than the deepest depths of Mariana’s Trench, we instead opted to visit Krishna Raja Sagara, a massive dam built in 1924 that spans the Kaveri River, and the nearby Brindavan Gardens, a botanical garden with various plants in brilliant green, red, purple, white, yellow, blue and pink hues. Walking past the myriad ponds and decorative water fountains, which elicited a gentle gargling sound and cooled the moist air even further than it already was, it somehow seemed doubtful that any tigers or other predatory creatures of the night would be lurking.

Even if they were, there were at least half a dozen coconut sellers with their ubiquitous machetes. They would ensure we survived to tell the tale of the palace of not-so-great peril.

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Stay tuned next week for part two of Benjamin Mack’s adventures in India!