Increasing the spice levels in India (4) – Mysore, Madurai and the Chettinadu

Meandering around Mysore

The journey to Mysore was not an easy one. There is a direct train from Hospet (near Hampi) to Mysore, but it sold out four months ago (or at least tickets in any class I wanted to sit in had sold out four months ago). So I ended up taking a night train to Bangalore which departed at 17.30 (all good) and arrived at 04.17am (not so good). I then had to get to Mysore, which should have involved getting across town to another station and then taking another train, but I threw the ‘I’m and old lady’ card at the problem and got the hotel to send me a car to drive me the 2.5 hours to Mysore. A nice smile to the man on reception at the Radisson Blu and I had a room upgrade, a check in at 7am and a free breakfast for an additional £25 on my original room rate. Nice.

Mesmerising garland making at the market

I had only managed four hours sleep, but decided to have breakfast and head out and pretend I was awake. After fortifying myself with dosa (thin crepes with potato), tea and vada (deep fried savoury donuts) I walked the 3km into town dodging cows, their poop and a lot of tuktuks. The main sites didn’t open until 10.30am and it was still only 9am so I went to the fruit and veg market. It was a mesmerising hour watching the vendors make garlands for weddings and temples. The youngsters used a needle, the professionals just used thread and worked magic with their hands to tie and thread the flowers together. The smell of jasmine was delicious. There were also lots of stalls with kumkum (powder for bindis/blessings), sugar cane, incense, and anything you might need for a temple visit. It was a very low key and friendly experience

I next wandered to the Jagan Mohan Palace to see the museum. Probably not worth a visit unless you are fascinated by old furniture and colonial paintings of men in turbans.

Mysore palace – the second most visited site in India

And the highlight of Mysore was the palace – the second most visited site in india – Although. I am not entirely sure why. It was interesting – lots of garish pillars and paintings. It was also incredibly busy of school groups taking selfies. Um, yup. If you are in Mysore, definitely go, but I wouldn’t go to Mysore just to see the palace unless you like garish pillars

I was pretty knackered by this point – about lunchtime – so wandered back to the hotel. I did get slightly lost and ended up at the business end of town in a filthy market that smelled of pee – but eventually made it back to the hotel. I had lunch at the foodcourt at the Mall of Mysore, and did some shopping to buy some local clothes for my visit to Madurai (no western clothes are permitted in the temple). And then I had an early buffet dinner and passed out (this old lady is too old for night trains).

Sri Chamundeshwari Temple on Chamundi Hill

After a lazy morning, I summoned the energy to go the famous Sri Chamendeshware temple. It was 10km away so I used Ola (Indian Uber) to order a cab. As is not uncommon he turned up and refused to take me for the Ola fare of 300 rupees but offered to take me there, wait, and return me for 1000 rupees. At this point, I am too lazy to get annoyed with this type of cheeky behaviour, so I hopped in. He was a cheeky 25 year old who drove with a death wish on the windy road up the hill, although he did slightly endear himself to me by saying I looked like I was 30, though I was bewildered to be told I had a ‘milk white’ face.

The temple was busy, but not as busy as it apparently gets. There was a long queue (pictured below in the cage) but for a fee of 100 rupees (£1) I skipped the queue with a fast pass (yes, hindu gods have business class access). It was rammed in the temple once I joined the front of the queue, and I strategically placed myself between women to avoid the habitual ‘boob brush bys’ that the local men attempt. I was most amused by the lady I dubbed the ‘yank lady’ – she was at the destination for the queue, where you could take a blessing, and to avoid anyone staying their too long she basically continually grabbed arms of the devotees and yanked them hard out of the way and pushed them towards the exit. It was quite hilarious. I wandered around and checked out the stalls – my favourites are the coconuts – there is always a special area for coconut smashing – and also the Mysore pak stall – where I bought some amazing pak, which is a fudge made with ghee, delicious.

Nerding out at the Mysore Rail Museum

The taxi driver treated me to another adrenalin filled ride – back down the hill to Mysore, and I had him drop me at the station so I could be a total nerd and visit the Mysore train museum. It was quite a treat – and I even went on the toy train. I love old locomotives, and the had some lovely restored carriages (I would come here before visiting the palace if I had to choose :-))

Art deco bones

I was hungry and google maps led me to the amazing lunch at the Madur Tiffanys – I know I am in for a good lunch if the place is crowded, and I am even happier if there are women and families in side (you always get odd looks if you are the only woman in a restaurant). I ordered the ‘meal’ (what south indians call a thali) and it came with curd, three curries, sambal, two puris, a papad, rice and a dessert (kheer). I finished it off with a local coffee (which I am pretty sure is boiled nescafe) and then wandered around admiring the bones of the architecture of Mysore (my favourite was the rounded frontage of the Indian milkbar). Mysore really is a lovely town, less crowded than most in India, with lots of parks and green spaces.

More mesmerising flowers

I realised I was close to the flower market, so went back to see what it was like in the afternoon – very busy. Lots of fun shouting and haggling. Though lots of the vendors welcomed me back with ‘hello – madam has come back again’. The rain started bucketing down, so I took shelter in front of a stall under a leaky piece of plastic and discussed Russian politics and bought some incense from the stall holder.

Second night train in three nights – snoring and hoiking (not me)

Back to the hotel to recover my pack, and then back to the train station. I had made the mistake of buying food on the night train to Bangalore – and that egg briyani had been a very poor choice – both in terms of flavour and stomach consequences. I had figured out that ‘parcel’ means takeaway, so I went to a well reviewed restaurant by the station and got a dosa and some more sweets (Mysore pak fudge) in a parcel to go for the train. I had a blissful journey to Bangalore – the carriage was very quiet – even though it was entirely open. The bliss was shattered in Bangalore by the arrival of an old couple who turned the lights on and starting watching tele on their phones at full volume. After some negotiation, i managed to get the lights off and the phone volume down by 10.30. Sadly this was followed by the lady snoring her head off and the man hacking up half his lungs all night. Delightful. I had 5 hours sleep (this was my second night train in three nights, so I was feeling grand). At 6am they recommenced the tele routine and turned the lights on. I couldn’t resist muttering ‘rude arseholes’ very loudly and taking my luggage to another part of the carriage to find an unoccupied spot. My morning was greatly enhanced at around 6.30am by the arrival of the coffee wallah – two of his cups and I was partially restored. We rolled into Madurai at 8am and I deposited my pack at the train stations’ cloakroom and headed into town

Worshipping the triple breasted warrior goddess in Madura

Madurai is famous for the Meenakshi Amman Temple. The temple is the home to Meenakshi – the triple breasted warrior goddess. It’s a huge complex with 12 gopurams – the four biggest being the gates to the north, south, east and west. Phones and cameras are not allowed inside, and non Hindus are restricted from entering some parts of the temple. I really enjoyed my visit. The devotees are quite hilarious – some are obviously very serious, but quite a lot of them are groups of guys taking lots of selfies and having quite a lot of fun in their black lungis with their bellies out (and some of them have some impressive bellies). I wandered around inside admiring all the sculptures and enjoying the people queuing for their blessings.

I was hungry for breakfast by about 10am so google led me to a filthy but crowded establishment on the main pedestrian street near the temple – SPS tiffins. The waiter delightedly welcomed me to India and sorted me out a dosa and two masala chais. Yum. I tried quite hard not to look in the kitchen which was black with dirt. The dosa was amazing – but the spice levels have definitely increased as I have headed south – these Tamils are a tough bunch.

Apart from the Meenakshi temple there isn’t much to see in Madurai. I made the effort to wander around the silk and sari shops – the fabric is really beautiful, and if I thought I could wear a sari without it falling around my ankles in public, I would probably buy one. I also ventured down to the Tirumalai Nayak Palace, which probably didn’t merit the entry fee.

By 1pm I was flagging so I recovered my pack from the station and took at tuktuk to the Madurai Heritage hotel. A lovely place, in spite of the Fawlty-esque service. I took the spa menu on the desk at check in as a sign from god, and spent my afternoon having a facial and a massage (£35 for two hours of treatments). After an afternoon nap, I had a very heavy Madurai Dum Paratha for dinner (kinda like indian lasagne but very spicy and with paratha layers instead of pasta) and went to bed.

The breakfast buffet was excellent, and I discovered payasam – which is basically jaggery sugar, milk, cardamom, and millet. unbelievably good sugar hit in the morning, and a nice addition to the fried donuts and dosas I have been eating (must see the cardiologist when I go home :-)). I had a lazy morning and then met my driver for the next few days – the lovely Mr Raj

Voyaging in the Chettinadu

The Chettiars are an incredibly wealthy community of traders based in Tamil Nadu who made their fortunes in colonial times and spent the money building incredible mansions (with teak from burma, marble from italy and art pillaged from around the world) in the villages of Chettinadu. I was sceptical about how much I would enjoy this part of the trip (i am not that fussed by fancy houses) but in the end it was a real highlight. It was an easy drive from Madurai to our first stop and Raj taught me all the tamil phrases i needed to know (thank you, hello, ok, and good).

First stop Athangudi

Raj stopped off at a tile factory, and some lovely man showed me how they make the famous tiles which adorn most of the mansions. It wasn’t on the itinerary but it was pretty interesting – not a hugely productive enterprise, at most they make 100 a day. We then went to the Athangudi palace where I was an instant celebrity – with quite a few selfie requests. It was a stunning building – unbelievable tiles and marble, beautiful teak doors, and wonderfully designed so it was cool with the rooms giving onto a central courtyard.

Kanadukathan and a dodgy lunch

We then headed to the village of Kanadukathan which had a number of beautiful houses, most were closed (including the wonderful Chettinadu palace) but they were still delightful to look at from the outside. We stopped for lunch at google’s highly rated Sri Villas Mess. I ordered the veg meal, and I knew I was playing Russian roulette when it came on a banana leaf that had drops of local water on it and most of the curries and rice were not more than luke warm (meaning bacteria had time to grow). Oh well, it was a very authentic experience, and I was seated next to the old lady who owned the joint (and sported some excellent chin hairs) and she was impressed when I ate with my right hand versus using the spoon she offered me. (FYI, I lost the game of russian roulette but recovered in 24 hours)

Kothamangalam’s terracotta horses

We then ended our day in Kothamangalam where I was staying the night and visited this extraordinary temple with a few hundred terracotta horses – which the farmers make as offerings for a good harvest. They were quite something.

I was staying at the outstanding Saratha Villas – which two french architects have lovingly restored into a tiny hotel. My room was bigger than flats I have lived in. There was only one other tourist guest – a 73 year old from Germany – but the hotel was full with the stars of a movie that was being filmed locally. I worked for a few hours and then had a late dinner and an early night.

Waking up with the village

The music started blaring from the temple around 5.30am, so I had a coffee and headed out into the early morning light just after 6. The village was waking up and I enjoyed watching the local women make their Kolam, which are decorations outside the gate to invite in wealth. They make these every day with rice flour. The mansions were also lovely if run down, and even the smaller village houses had beautiful detailing. I strolled for an hour and a half watching women cleaning their house fronts, men drinking tea and rearranging their lungis, and kids doing their homework while waiting for school buses, listening to the music blaring from the 4-5 temples I passed around town. It was a delightful way to start the day. Breakfast was outstanding vada and idlis (puffy steamed rice cakes) with sambar, and curd and fruit, with very strong coffee. I wondered why there were 4 people standing around one of the breakfast guests tending to his every need – and it turns out he was a big movie star in the shoot.

The next part of this epic Indian journey will cover the chola temples of Thanjavur, Chidambaarum, Kumbakonum, and Gangakoidacholapurum, and the seaside towns of Puducherry and Mahabs.

Kothamangalam, 17 December, 2022

Additional Info

Mysore- stayed at Radisson Blu Plaza (very nice). Best place I ate was Madura Tiffany near the station.

Madurai – stayed at Madurai Heritage, where the food was fine. Best tiffin was at SPS Tiffin and Fruits near the temple

Trains – easiest to book on

Chettinadu – stayed at Saratha villas – which was amazing, and their dinner was a triumph. They also served the best idlis I ate in India

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