Hampi!!

October 23

We spend today exploring Hampi starting at the ruins of what was the urban core and including the remains of the royal palaces and temples. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the fabled city of Hampi sprawls across a spectacular barren boulder strewn landscape. This city served as the capital for three generations of Hindu rulers for more than 200 years, and reached its zenith between 1510 AD and 1542 AD.

 Our guide is Viru Pakshi, an art graduate of Gulbarga university, who has been guiding since 1991 and one of the best guide in Hampi region. He has had an opportunity to work with Mr. John Fritz and George Michell an anthropologist and archaeologist respectively, which has given him vast knowledge of history and architecture of Hampi.

When we met him, I told him that we needed Hampi for Dummies, not a sophisticated and detailed account. We could understand him fine and generally he did okay (Carol gives him lower marks than I do). We’d both agree, though, that of the four guides we’ve had so far, he’s #4.

This is an absolutely extraordinary site, encompassing 56 square kilometers, or almost 40 square miles. The monuments are in remarkable condition and the restoration that’s been done is first class and does not detract from the original. I’d put this in a category comparable to Angkor Watt, Bagan, and Egypt. Carol probably would not rank it that high, but even if she’s right, being a notch below those spots is pretty amazing. So, if it’s not there already, put Hampi on your bucket list.

We had excellent weather, though the sun got quite hot at times. I used my walking sticks which were quite useful, but I think carry the danger of becoming more reliant on them than one need be. Some of the most dangerous walking is on flat land, where you don’t notice a stone of a different height and trip over it. While walking sticks would be useful in that situation, chances are I wouldn’t be using them then. So, I’d say this is still a work in progress, but probably a good idea.

We returned to the hotel for lunch, then had a couple hours during which I swam n our private villa pool. Tough work, but somebody’s gotta do it.

The afternoon was mixed, because it rained for about the second half of it. While that adds to the adventure, it does not add to the comfort. We did have an umbrella, though, and the rain was not too hard, so we survived it.  

Best I can do is just include a lot of photos, of the site and environs. I won’t try to identify them for you, but they’ll give you some idea of the overall impression.

Tonight we had a lovely candle-lit dinner at the hotel’s fancy restaurant alone on a patio. Nice.

Silk Cocoons and on to Hampi (including bonus food blogging information.)

October 21

Awoke very early for drive back to Bangalore.

Shanta, our driver, made a brief detour through an island city, Srirangapatana, who fought and ultimately were destroyed by the Brits. The Sultan Tupi, who we heard about in Bangalore died here at a place marked by a stone. Ox carts share the road with cars and motor bikes.

We stop for a quick coffee, then drive on to a fascinating cocoon market, where cocoons are auctioned off daily. Unfortunately, we were too early for the day’s auction, but the place teemed with activity, inside and out, with examples below, which include a fellow at an adjacent tire shop and a guy brushing his teeth. This unusual spot will be one of the more memorable on the trip.

We head for the Bangalore airport, arriving in plenty of time for our noon flight. Roadsides are littered with trash. I know we have different cultures and sensibilities, but to me the trash reflects a basic disrespect for life. Of course, I suppose it also reflects an economic choice.

We interrupt this blog for a special message. Recall that Vidya, one of our guides in Bangalore, is a major food blogger. For anyone interested, here are her blog and YouTube links:

http://vidyascooking.blogspot.in/

https://www.youtube.com/user/viduoo9

We return now to our regular programming. Flight to Hubli was a quick 45 minutes. We are met by a driver and guide, who have lunches packed for us, which we eat before setting out on what we’d thought would be an hour’s drive. Because of our late flight change to a new city (Hubli), we have a four hour drive, which tuns out to be four and a half. Oh, well.

Hampi better be terrific because, after spending the day there tomorrow, we have another full day commute the next day to reach our destination. There are only two things that could get in the way of it being terrific–excessive rain or a guide we can’t understand. Hoping for neither.

The drive is long, but not uninteresting. We pass through more rural areas. Heavy rain has flooded areas and not helped the roads, some of which are far worse than we’d encountered thus far on this trip, others fine and still others in a state of being repaired. We pass cows, goats, bulls, dogs, oxen and pigs. People tending the animals and people living their lives by the side of the road. Frustrating, because there are a hundred photos I’d like to have taken, but I don’t want to prolong our already long trip. Some time I’ll spend a day in a foreign country taking photos of nothing in particular, or maybe not. Here are a couple, taken in the rain through the car window.

We arrive at the Evolve Back Hotel, formerly known as the Kamalapura Palace and, for those of you who think that where you stay doesn’t matter, because it’s just a place to sleep, I have two words for you–you’re wrong.

I’m not going to be able to capture this place in a few photos, but here’s a slice of the lobby, with evening candles being lit

and here’s the Ambassador in which we were driven to our villa

and I’m not going to post the video I made walking around the villa, which is about the size of our condo (because the video takes two minutes to cover the villa), but perhaps this photo of our shower stall, with two overhead shower heads, gives you some idea.At 7:30, we went back to the hotel to witness a procession led by a flutist, then went upstairs to hear a storyteller tell a basically incomprehensible myth about Hampi (as we were the only two, we couldn’t very well leave) and then went for a very good meal in one of the hotel restaurants. Tired, we were then driven the short distance to our villa in a golf cart (yes, we’re shameless), and, once we found the bedroom, retired.

More Mysore

October 21

Early shower. Our hotel room requires that we throw a switch twenty minutes prior to wanting to use hot water in order to heat the water in the tank, which provides a limited amount of hot water. Actually worked fine, but another example of the many things we take for granted.

Buffet breakfast at the hotel is okay, but a far cry from the Taj. The Royal Orchid Metropole, the name of our hotel, may overstate its grandeur, but it is perfectly fine, more than adequate.

Carol and I spend an hour or so outside the room and at 9:30 are picked up by Sachin and Shanta (who has been our driver since arrival in Bangalore). Shanta has done a fine job, attentive and helpful, pleasant and prompt.

We first visit a silk factory, which, until independence in 1947, made saris exclusively for the royal family. Mysore Silk is known to be the finest and Mysore Silk is not only a geographical designation, but a brand name, made exclusively by the factory we visited. Sachin gives us a thorough and fascinating tour of the factory, taking us through probably a dozen or more steps necessary to produce the final result, from washing the silk, combining strands to strengthen it, twisting it, winding it onto spools, dying it, putting it into fabric, melding the welp and woof, adding gold strands.

All of this is done in a huge, very loud factory, with Japanese-made machinery, overseen and tested each step of the way by people doing repetitive tasks all day long and wearing earplugs to protect their hearing. Takes one back to how things used to be in the industrial revolution. Certainly gives you an appreciation for all that goes into the product and why the best go for $5000-6000. Unfortunately photos are not allowed (out of concern that designs may be stolen), so you’re stuck with this rather bland description of a very interesting process.

Next we went to the decidedly less interesting factory where oil is produced from sandal wood. Carol and I would not have been able to understand a word of the English-speaking guide, but Sachin translated for us. Not a must-see, and again no photos allowed.

Next, in a steady drizzle, we head out to the Mysore market which, like all Indian markets is colorful, chaotic and multi-functional. Here are a few market photos, starting with Sachin buying us some bananas to taste.

The rain becomes heavier as we walk through the market, and we’re quite drenched by the time we make it back to the van and head to a restaurant for lunch and interesting discussions with Sachin, who is quite worldly for a 26-year old who has never left India.  

After lunch, Sachin takes us to the studio/workshop of a Mr. Mohan, who is the Indian master of inlaid wooden art in which he utilizes different types of wood to produce incredible images that one would swear were paintings.

He does a freehand wood cutting of two elephants for Carol.there are others in his studio, learning the skills.Mr. Mohan is doing a dining room table for Sachin, which we saw, partially completed. It looks beautiful, and Sachin clearly is very proud of it.

We leave the inlaid wood studio, and the rain increases steadily, as we drive to a sculptor’s studio, where work is being done outside. After ten or so minutes, the rain, other people there and general weariness prompt us to tell Sachin we’ve had enough of this. Win a few, lose a few.

The increasing rain makes walking to a temple and seeing the supposedly great views we were going to have impossible (or at least unattractive). Here’s the great view.We do drive up to Chamundi Hill where we see the massive Nandi Bull which stands guard over the hills

On the way back to our hotel, we give Sachin a copy of Where the Sacred Dwells, Namaste, our poetry/photography book about India, Nepal and Bhutan and he seems genuinely wowed by it and anxious to read and display it.

Today was a pretty good day, but was definitely dampened by the weather, about which neither we nor anybody else can do a damn thing. Sachin was an altogether terrific and fun guide, though, and we enjoyed the time we spent with him. And Mysore feels more like the India we know. There are cows wandering down the streets.

We got back to the room early and plan to have an early dinner, then pack for our 6:15 departure tomorrow morning.

On to Mysore, the Palace

October 20

We drive to Mysore, about three and a half hours away. The drive is totally unspectacular. While we see bits of Indian life, there is no scenery of any interest. For the most part, the roads are good, many of them excellent. Part of the trip involves heavy traffic; in other parts, we move along quite well.

We have Wi-Fi access in the van, so we are able to check and send emails. Is this good? I’m not so sure. We also have access to the Internet, so, for example, we were able to follow, pitch-by-pitch, as the Astros eliminated the Yankees. While I am always happy when the Yankees lose to anyone, and we now know it is the Astros we have to root against along with our grandson, Jasper, when we back the Nats in the World Series, I wonder whether we really needed to know this driving through India. Seems like another example of being connected a lot more than we need to be.

On first blush, Mysore seems a city of some character, as opposed to the rather non-descript Bangalore. At less than a million people it’s about a twelfth Bangalore’s size. I like this street sign, which we encounter en route to the hotel.y

We check in to the Hotel Royal Orchid Metropole, a very nice, unpretentious hotel.

We unpack in our comfortable room and have lunch in the hotel restaurant.

Our guide for the next two days, Sachin, is not a professional guide but someone who grew up in Mysore and has a deep love for the city and knows its inner workings, giving us an insider tour of the city. Sachin is an avid reader, philatelist and connoisseur of art. He’s an amazing story teller with a smart sense of humour. Sachin holds a bachelor degree in engineering and is a mixed martial arts student. He is a fourth generation Mysorean and has always been proud of his heritage and culture; hence his passion for learning about history and meeting travelers.

We meet Sachin and start at the magnificent Mysore Palace, originally built in the seventeenth century, but now in its fourth incarnation (completed in 1912), due to various forms of destruction.  The palace follows the Indo Saracenic designs prevalent in the north and is built in grand proportions with a confusion of domes, arches and colonnades of carved pillars. One of the largest palaces in the country, it is beautifully restored and maintained and has beautiful stained glass, ivory inlaid doors, wall paintings and some valuable art treasures. It is the second most visited shrine in India, topped only by the Taj Mahal.

The palace is mobbed and at time claustrophobic, but quite spectacular. Sachin does a great job of threading us through the throng and stepping off to the side to explain clearly and interestingly what we are seeing. He is very engaging and easily understandable. He’s amused by how much I know about him (as a result of having pumped our travel agent for information) and impressed by the extent of our travels.

When we first met Sachin, I told him that we were old and couldn’t remember a lot of stuff about all the places, so I wanted him to make sure that we understood two or three key things about Mysore. He clearly “got it” and said he would, over the course of our time together. I told him that I did not feel I had that about Bangalore, that we understood that it was an IT hub, but that that was not something we’d seen. Sachin said that people say that the best thing to do in Bangalore is to go to Mysore.

I use my new walking sticks, which I’m not sure I actually need for the palace and which present a challenge in tight quarters, but I think they do lend an extra measure of stability. By the way, thus far, I’m enjoying not having my camera along.

The following photos don’t begin to do the palace justice. Note the “plastic free zone” sign in front of the first photo.

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As we leave the palace, we encounter a light drizzle, which provides a refreshing cool. We drive back to the hotel and rest up for a while, then are picked up by our driver to go to see the palace lit up at night, which happens only on Sunday nights and holidays.

So this is what we see when we first get there, okay, but not spectacular.we are almost ready to leave, when, all of a sudden, 97,000 light bulbs light up the palace.Very cool!

The evening is a festive event,with many Indians and their children and grandchildren in tow. Of course, I’m actually more intrigued by some kids playing on a statue of a tiger than by the spectacular palace complex.We head back to the hotel, where we have a pleasant dinner in an outdoor courtyard, then retire.

Bangalore in Earnest

October 19.

Another great buffet breakfast, and sent out our first laundry in our new do-laundry-often plan.

Today we do a full day tour of Bangalore City. Bangalore was founded in the 16th century by a local chieftain, Kempe Gowda’ and derives its name from the local Kanada word bendakaluru.  The translation to the rather prosaic “boiled beans” stems from a story of an old woman who gave this to a Hoysala King in the 10th century when he turned up hungry at her home.  Today the city is the center of a thriving information technology industry and home to a growing population of young professionals. It’s often referred to as India’s Silicon Valley.  It’s modern, sorta, but not with many large buildings.  If one wanders into old Bangalore, you see remains of the city’s historic past.

We’re accompanied by two very engaging guides, Usha and VIdya. Usha, an engineer turned writer with a passion for travel and history, she juggles her time between walks, managing her organization’s content, freelance writing to magazines like The Alternative, Citizenmatters, Indiahikes, GoUnesco and raising her 12-year old son.

Vidya is an avid food blogger, with more than 65000 followers around the world. She is passionate about all things food, and has been featured in quite a number of Indian cookery shows – News9, Suvarna Kannada News, High Ultra Lounge to name a few. She is knowledgeable about the contents of every dish and points them out as we walk through markets, and skilled at getting into the back seat of our van. Vidya and Usha get along well and complement one another, which makes for a pleasant and fun experience for their clients.

We start at the Snake Temple, an active, functioning Hindu temple. It’s always interesting to observe people going through their daily rituals at a temple.

We stop to rest for a beverage at a local cafe before visiting the farmers market away with wholesale flowers, fruit, vegetables and spices.  The flowers are quite amazing and are brought and turn over fully each day.

Back in the car we take a historical drive through the city, stopping for a traditional Karnataka lunch, with small portions of over a dozen foods served on a large banana leaf and eaten with our hands.

Carol and I decide to pass on a visit to a fish and meat market, as we’ve seen too many of those around the city, and we’re getting tired and hot. We do go to visit the remaining portion of a fort, most of which was destroyed by the British and the summer palace of Sultan Tipu, an important historical ruler who we’ll hear more about when we visit Mysore and Hampi. Most of the Palace has been destroyed. Neither the fort nor the palace is likely to make our list of the ten highlights of our lifetime travel experience–or the top two hundred.

We’re taken to an art show featuring work of students from a local art school and a crafts market being held there, both of which are busts. Usha takes us to a store that features ancient board games, run by an engaging and passionate young woman, from whom we enjoy hearing about some of the games.

Back at our hotel, both Carol and I are exhausted and fall asleep, getting up for an okay, but not exceptional dinner at the hotel, before retiring for the night.