Time Out sidesteps the subcontinent's tourist hotspots
Noise. I’m inside what could be a giant kaleidoscope: light filters through a stained-glass ceiling onto a mosaic floor, shining iridescent with inlaid semi-precious stones. Gold and teal columns curve out like so many goddesses’ legs and the walls are chock-a-block with paintings depicting royal processions. But, despite the lavish decoration around me, it’s the noise I notice most inside Mysore Palace. I’ve become used to the hushed tones with which the Chinese approach the Forbidden City, so the decibel levels of India’s domestic tourists come as a shock.
I hear shouts of ‘Hey, Raj, look here’ and the equivalent in India’s myriad other languages. A guard holding a rifle that looks as though it’s been taken from a period painting tries – in vain – to blow a whistle over the din.
The majority of foreign visitors to India take in ‘The Golden Triangle’ (Delhi/the Taj Mahal/Jaipur), then travel south to Goa or Kerala to unwind. But I’m hoping to get a culture fix, gorgeous scenery and relaxation in one place: Karnataka. This less well-trodden Indian state lies between the tourist hotspots of Goa and Kerala, and – thanks to good-value flights to the state’s capital, Bangalore – it’s easily accessible from Dubai.
On landing in Bangalore, I head via two-hour express train (Dhs28, www.cleartrip.com) to the jewel in Karnataka’s crown: Mysore and its brilliantly ornate – if rowdy – palace. As if the interior isn’t bling enough, the outside is bedecked in almost 100,000 light bulbs, which are illuminated at weekends.
I didn’t think anything could match the palace’s sensory extravaganza until I visit the city’s Devaraja Market. As I enter the bazaar, I hear the jingle-jangle of people trying on glass bangles. I breathe in the goods on the next set of stalls before I see them: jasmine, marigold and rose petals being sewn onto garlands by old men sitting cross-legged. In the heart of the market, there’s an essential oils stand. The vendor – an Indian Omar Sharif with olive-green eyes – seals the deal by throwing in two glass vials. It’s only back at my hotel that I realise one of them is chipped.
The next day, I return to Bangalore, but not before stopping off at the historically important Srirangapatna. Before Indian independence in 1947, the Kingdom of Mysore was the most important in southern India. Its rulers, the Wodeyars, came from Mysore, but from 1610, Srirangapatna was their capital. At the end of the 18th century, kingdom and capital came under the de-facto rule of Tipu Sultan. This Muslim warrior struck terror into the hearts of British Empire soldiers until he was finally defeated in 1799.
Today, you can visit Tipu’s tomb, as well as the dungeon where he kept British officers captive and Daria Daulat Bagh, his summer palace. Inside, Daria is a carnival of colour and intricacy to rival Mysore. Outside, green lawns, a reflection pool and rows of trees leading up to the building echo the Taj Mahal.
Also worth a look in Srirangapatna is the even-harder-to-say Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple, which dates back to the ninth century. Here I find Hindu pilgrims – the women in bright saris, the men in black sarongs with gold bindis – entering a pyramidal gateway made up of hundreds of pillars and stone figurines.
The bus from Srirangapatna back to Bangalore is a world away from the modern train I took to Mysore. The front window is lined with fluorescent Ganesh stickers. The driver flicks the radio between traditional sitar music and a Kanye West techno remix instead of concentrating on the road (and, if you’ve been to India, you’ll know the roads are no doddle. Cows, rickshaws and Bedford trucks all ignore lane dividers).
At first, I struggle to see through the grimy windows. Once pulled back, they bring in fresh air and vistas of sleepy village after sleepy village – the kind where everyone seems to have nothing to do except sit in the shade. Four hours later, I know we’re in Bangalore as the countryside transmutes into billboards and crowded housing. Known as India’s Silicon Valley, Bangalore is not a place many tourists choose to visit. But there’s a fair deal to see here, from colonial-era relics (it was an important city during the British Raj) to another Tipu Sultan palace (not as impressive as Srirangapatna’s) and Lal Bagh Gardens (Bangalore’s other sobriquet is the Garden City). The main attraction, though, is the thriving food scene. I particularly enjoy the Punjabi fare at Queen’s Restaurant (+91 80 2559 6361). In any case, Bangalore is Karnataka’s main transport hub. From here, there’s a convenient overnight train to my final destination, Hampi (from Dhs17 to Hospet Junction, www.cleartrip.com).
As if Hampi’s scenery isn’t arresting enough, with its green rice paddies and piles of giant boulders that seem to have been left by the gods, the village is also the modern-day site of the 15th century capital of the Vijayanagara Empire. Before the ascendancy of the Wodeyars and Tipu Sultan, this kingdom ruled all of southern India, and its monkey-ridden ruins are now Unesco-listed. Among the highlights is the Royal Enclosure, which includes colossal elephant stables and the Lotus Mahal, so called because its arches are said to look like a lotus opening to the sun. The plant metaphor is perhaps pushing it, but it’s a piece of geometric mastery that makes the architecture of Renaissance Europe look like mere stick drawings.
Another gem is Vithala Temple and its impressive stone chariot. To get to it, I clamber up a boulder face and dodge cows and goats on a narrow path along a river bend. It’s well worth it, not least because of the sight of locals crossing in strange boats that resemble giant woks made out of wicker.
It’s possible to ‘do’ all of Hampi’s sights in a day. But that goes against the chilled-out nature of the place. Instead, I take a boat over to Virupapur Gadde, where a collection of guesthouses jostle for views of Hampi’s ruins. Mysore is famous for its yoga retreats and ayurvedic treatments but Virupapur Gadde is my preferred spot for transcendence (read: indulging in an ayurvedic massage that’s a cross between a traditional Chinese yank-fest and a Swedish oil rubdown). The people here are not dissimilar from the typical Goa crowd – gap yearers and other members of the harem-pant mafia – but, lassi in hand, relaxing on a hammock after seeing some of India’s, if not the world’s, most impressive ruins, I really don’t mind.
Need to know
Getting there Emirates flies direct from Dubai to Bengaluru airport in Bangalore from Dhs1,450 return. www.emirates.com.
Where to stay Mysore: The Green Hotel What this eco-friendly hotel lacks in mod cons, it makes up for in charm: it’s a renovated palace that once housed the Wodeyar princesses. Profits go to charity and efforts are made to employ locals from the poorest sections of the community. Rooms from Dhs185. www.greenhotelindia.com (+91 82 1425 5000).
Bangalore: Purple Lotus The sleek minimalist design and setting in a quiet residential area make this boutique hotel the perfect hideaway. Relax over breakfast as water tinkles into lotus-filled rock pools. At night, sip cocktails on a roof terrace with unique vistas. All rooms with Wi-Fi and satellite TV, from Dhs675. www.purplelotus.in (+91 80 4005 6300).
Hampi: Shanthi Guest House Thatched bungalows with verandas and hammocks overlook the river from Virupapur Gadde. Amenities are basic – hot water comes in a bucket on request. But rooms are clean and have mosquito nets. Be sure to book this Shanthi Guest House, not the accommodation with the same name on the Hampi Bazaar side. Rooms from Dhs54. (+91 83 9432 5352).
What to eat Mysore The dish of the area is the sickly-sweet Mysore Pak: cute decorated square shapes of gram flour, sugar and butter. If you’re looking for something savoury, try the local crispy dosas with dhal, or crispy poories often mixed with 12 spices.
Bangalore Try some incredible beef rolls or sheekh at Fanoos, near Johnson Market. Apparently the owner of this place started out as a street vendor and became so popular he made enough money to open a proper restaurant.
Hampi Sit overlooking the Tungabhadra river at Mango Tree Café, which sits under a mango tree (surprise) in a banana plantation. You’ll have to walk from Virupaksha temple, heading west. Get delicious vegetarian curries here and while away the hours.