I felt very free in Mysore.
A beautiful city. They call it the City of Palaces. I remember vividly watching the glorious domes and arches and spires whirl-by around me as we sped through, in and out of people, cows, cars, tuk-tuks and market-vendors. Travelling around a city in India, come day or night, on the back of someone’s motorbike is an indescribable feeling of liberty, release and empowerment. Did it so many times. Often with people I’d only just met. That’s my definition of freedom. Hands in the air, shades on, just a backpack on my back and not a worry to think of. I only ever took local transportation in India. Journeys by bus were long and sweaty, but a good way to see the countryside flash by, or sleep shoulder to shoulder with some stranger who doesn’t seem at all bothered that you’re in each other’s personal space. That’s India. No AC, wooden seats, but an open window, curly hair whipping wildly in the hot air blowing in from outside, neck arching every time a temple, palace or gliding eagle goes by. A child looks round from the seat in front of you, smiles with a face full of white teeth, beautiful dark skin and wide eyes. You know you’re being watched nearly all the time… and yet it’s somehow comforting. The city itself watches you. It’s seen many pilgrims before. They come and go. Perhaps it likes you. Perhaps it will let you in on a few of its ancient secrets…
In Mysore I was granted access to an ancient temple restricted to the general public, I was given a special tour of one of the World’s most beautiful palaces and didn’t pay a single rupee, showed a load of Indian tourists how to get soaked in a fountain, I ascended one of India’s sacred hills, found a golden temple full of monkeys and witnessed another beautiful sunset gild the sky before my eager eyes.
I found a real sense of peace, and belonging in Mysore, and even though I always miss being in the Jungle when in India, it was nice to be back in a city. And what a city!
I lived for a short while in Bangalore, and made a lot of friends, in very little time, a whole network of people. India is a very easy country to make friends in, if you’re open, friendly, fearless. I embrace everyone and everything around me and make so many connections wherever I go. Although I think Mysore was a city that embraced me…
Meeting Shaun was cosmic. A Bangalorean himself, he was such a great friend for my time in the city, and beyond (and he had a great motorbike!). We were very much kindreds, brothers we said. We ‘clicked’ and had many an adventure, more of which I’ll write about another time. I think I may have been his first proper Western friend. He was my first proper Indian friend for sure. As well as being an incredible performer and poet, Shaun hosted quite a few charity concerts and creative events in and around Bangalore, some of which I got involved in – more stories for another time.
Anyway, Shaun joined me for the first couple of days in Mysore too, and had to put up with my insatiable Aesthete caprice – which he must have been quite used to by that point.
Mysore Palace is no doubt India’s most beautiful palace, and one of the most beautiful palaces in the entire world. It is quite a sight to behold. The royal seat of the Maharajas of Mysore, a princely state. No better place for an aesthete.
A friend of mine, NK, grew up and lived in Mysore. He invited me to the palace one morning. As his family were local politicians he was able not only to get me into the palace for free, but also to give me a private tour of rooms cut off from the general public. As you can imagine I was very happy.
Shoes off inside and no cameras allowed (okay I may have broken that last rule slightly).
It was a fantastic feeling walking across the beautiful marble floors barefoot, being lead through the long corridors and passages, shrines and great halls. Part of NK’s tour took us into the armory which is shut off to visitors – the weaponry was just incredible and it was by far my favourite room in the place. Next, we went to the heartbreaking yet mesmerising trophy room, which is again not open to the public. Seeing such incredible creatures reanimated in such an obtuse way really dissatisfies me. I find it distasteful, cruel, pointless. I placed my hand on the head of one of the tigers, had a little moment, and swiftly moved on. Don’t get me wrong, it’s amazing to see the artistry behind a ten-foot stuffed elephant, and I’m thankful for the privilege, but I’d rather see the real thing, in the wild, free…
It was great being led round by NK, someone who knew the city inside out. He took me to his favourite place for lunch, a little biryani place in a backstreet I would never have found. NK had a motorbike too, and as Shauny boy wasn’t up to it he stayed at the hotel, and NK took me round for a tour of the city, in my favourite way. Zooming around, my eyes looking up towards the passing trees and buildings. Mysore is pretty clean for an Indian city, and very safe. I do remember I had to walk across a narrow plank of wood over an open sewer to get into the restaurant though… But the food was great!
So Shaun and I are walking through a busy street some days later – the noise, the street vendors, motorbikes, tuktuks, over-crowded buses, cows, electrical wires and narrow streets. There was no doubting we were on the Sub-Continent. Shaun being Indian and from an even noisier street was very used to it all – but I was fascinated by everything. Every detail, colour, speck of history…
Suddenly I spot something from afar – can’t take my eyes off it – there’s the very top of this ancient temple poking out from between buildings and walls. I can’t really make it out, but I’m mesmerised… I told Shaun, pointed zealously, but he rather nonchalantly replied saying it was just an old temple. “We have to get to it!” I said, looking at Shaun in such a way that he knew I wouldn’t stop until I laid my damn hand on that temple (I get pretty passionate about ancient architecture).
We walked around all the streets, slowly winding closer, until eventually we were close enough that we could no longer see it. It seems to be unreachable, somehow closed-off and surrounded by walls and other buildings. I lead Shaun down this tiny little alleyway (he was probably hoping I would have given up by now). Then I saw it again! Just through a little opening between a couple of buildings. But it was so obscured, there was no way of getting to it without climbing over a load of buildings (which I would have been prepared to do). I asked/begged/ordered Shaun to ask a local woman who was sitting in the alleyway, dressed all colourfully, on a doorstep. She told us there was one way in, through some old gates. She said they were often locked. The temple was too ancient and crumbling to be open to the public. By this point I was more desperate than ever.
So we eventually arrived at the gates. Locked of course.
But I could see the temple through the gap. I was practically salivating by this point.
I gave the door a nice loud knock. Why not? I think Shaun was getting embarrassed. A lot of people were looking at this insane white man dashing about as if there was some kind of emergency to get beyond that gate.
Then the gate opened a bit and a face appeared. I sort of pushed Shaun into the gap and probably said something like “Speak!” quickly and excitedly.
I’m not exactly sure what was said but I just smiled a lot and looked very eager and possibly winked a few times. Anyway, the guy, who turned out to be a security guard, let us in! So we slipped through the gap and the guard shut the door behind us.
See, if you don’t ask you don’t get. I ask. All the time.
I tried to surreptitiously take photos at first, sort of crept around, the place was sacred, at least to me it was, but after seeing that the guard really wasn’t paying attention I let loose on the thing. Such a beautiful old temple! This really was a moment for my diary… Only wish I had a hat, whip, and a few bad guys to kill… or a pistol. At least I had my camera – that’s black and equally as sexy.
I cannot tell you how much I adore ancient architecture. I mean I lived in Rome, spent extensive time in Athens, walked past Florence’s Duomo everyday for almost a year – ancient buildings are one of the main reasons I travel at all. They’re where a lot of the initial passion for this Diary came from… Running my hands along ancient walls – the beautiful details, lost sacred statues – some so old you almost didn’t even notice them at first – just the sheer testament of age, wisdom, ancient magic of those structures fascinates my mind. The ages and changes these buildings have seen. Legacy.
Being here was an utter privilege.
Being allowed to explore such an incredible ancient site was such a highlight of my time in India. An utter privilege – especially to have it all to myself. Yes, I am no ordinary tourist – I have far too much drive, passion and dare – I am a 21st Century pilgrim searching for the little truth left in the world… I found truth here, in Mysore. It may not be the biggest, the brightest or the most famous temple – but this was my discovery. I’m sure Indiana would have been proud…
I have since, after quite some research, found out the temple I found is the Sri Subrahonneshwar Swami Temple, or there abouts. Although I have found out nothing about it on the net… a mystery.
Mysore spoilt me rotten…
The thing about the sort of travel that I do I need to make a bit clearer – so much of what happens to me is unplanned, spontaneous, chance – in fact, most of it.
People always ask me questions like how do you do it? How do you afford to see all these places? How are you able to have such amazing cultural experiences wherever you go? etc.
And I’ll tell you my secret…
I do not plan. Simple.
Planning takes all the fun out of pretty much every detail of travel, and life.
Okay, yes, I am very organised about the important things – I’m practically always on Skyscanner or some other website planning, rethinking, replanning, rethinking until I find the cheapest deals I can. I research enough so I know what I do and don’t need to carry in my bag (which never turns out to be half as much as you’d think). I network, make contact with people I’m interested in working with or meeting, get the relevant jabs and visas or whatever, and the rest I leave up to fate, God, my guide – whatever you’re most comfortable with calling it.
Most of what I do I do through faith – belief that I have everything I need, that I will be provided for, that planning details are pointless because the force of life is far too powerful to control so what the hell are you thinking making an itinerary?? Things are bound to go wrong!
Do you really believe you can control the power of life?
I don’t. Not anymore. I’m an ex-control freak.
When you truly relinquish what you think is your hold on your life, you will realise you have been holding yourself down, in a place, the same place you’ve been in for a looooong time. A place that you think is ‘safe’ or ‘secure’ or whatever.
You know I have one of those places too. Me.
Just me. Nothing added or taken away.
When I walk into a bar, an airport, down some street I’ve never been in before, I carry that very special tool that can give anyone anything they want in life – self-acceptance.
I love everything I am – everything I chose to have in my life – no noise, no baggage – no excessive pride, ego, fear or prejudice. Acceptance of myself and everything around me. Acceptance of my faults, other people’s faults, mistakes, fears, hang-ups. I have no problem with my faults.
I used to have a lot of hang-ups. I showed them the door.
Sometimes they come back, uninvited – I show them the door again.
I refuse to be restricted by circumstances and feelings I CAN control.
I am free because I am me – I am aware of what I am, I embrace it – I’m not afraid of myself – so why should I be afraid of what others think or expect of me?
So when I booked a one-way flight to India, to a country I’d never been, took only a little rucksack with one change of clothes, I had about a grand in my bank – and you know what? I didn’t even spend it all. I visited so many places I didn’t even know existed really. I made friends along the way, people helped me, I suppose I helped them in some way. I didn’t even have a phone for the few months I was in India last. I used to ask people on the streets if I could use their phones. Yes, I just walked up to random people and asked to use their phones. Did it to the bus driver one time in Mysore, another time when I was there, and then realised I was on the wrong bus so chucked his phone back, thanked him as I opened the door and jumped off while the bus was still moving. I once even asked an Indian policeman if I could use his mobile when I was lost on the streets of Bangalore trying to find Shaun’s place. Yeah, that time I got on one of the local school buses that stopped about twenty minutes walk from the hostel I was staying in, full of screaming kids, got off about twenty minutes later and just began walking – no map, never been down these streets – asked random people along the way, most didn’t speak English and wanted to sell me live animals – after using the policeman’s phone, you wanna know how far I was from Shaun’s place? One block. Faith. I knew I’d make it and I did.
What’s that saying – “the fool didn’t know it was impossible so he did it anyway” – well, I’m that fool. I bluff my way in and out of the most ridiculous and amazing situations. I haggle, barter, guess, hope, pray, sing and laugh my way through life, and always seem to make it… just in time.
I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve made a plane within minutes of takeoff.
I’ve lost count of the amount of people who’ve happened to be in the right place at the right moment just to help me when I was in need.
I believe everything that happens to you happens with divine purpose. I just let life get on with the details – they always turn out to be far more interesting than anything my mind could conjure anyway.
This is the Art of Going.
It’s so easy to master.
Set yourself free from everything you keep telling yourself you can’t do.
I believe I could do anything.
That’s the art of being me.
Mysore was never a place I’d even heard of or planned to go, and yet it quickly became one of my favourite adventures in India. And it wasn’t over yet…
Shaun had to leave for Bangalore, so after a sad goodbye (I told him we’d meet again before I left India, he didn’t believe me as I was travelling East. But we did meet again before I left. My path lead me back to Bangalore eventually – are you getting how my life works yet??) I made my way out onto the road, where NK said he’d pick me up on his bike.
Next I’m back on a motorbike again and life is caressing me. I stayed at NK’s aunt’s house – she had a spare room with a terrace that she rented to yogis, which was conveniently free at the time of my arrival. I stayed there for a couple of nights. We sat and ate dinner on the rooftop one night- yes, so I was fed, looked-after, had a big double bed all to myself and didn’t have to pay a rupee… This is the generosity of Indian people. I told you Mysore was spoiling me.
It was bliss in the mornings.
So one time we were walking round the city and I saw a load of Indians tentatively splashing around in this fountain that was spraying all over the place. I gave NK my camera and showed them how it was done. Walked straight down into the middle of the jet and got soaked through! Not exactly my first time.
The cheesiest things are always the best.
NK comes running up the stairs onto the roof terrace where my room was.
“Get your camera. There’s some place I wanna show you.”
I obliged. Next minute I’m on the back of his motorbike again. This time we’re heading away from the city centre, bobbing and weaving through the other vehicles like a bird. Two wings. Swift. I am a falcon again and I’m free, my orange Hindu scarf is blowing behind me.
We passed under a sign welcoming me to the country of the goddess and one of India’s most sacred hills. We began winding up, with speed, both leaning together as we turned corners sharply, knees almost touching the grey road beneath. I held onto the seat tightly. Eventually we arrived at the top, we were around thirteen kilometres from the city below now, and my eyes beheld the most beautiful temple I’d seen in India yet.
This is the Chamundeshwari Temple.
It is said that sacrifices to the gods used to be made at this site; an ancient place very sacred to Hindus; a place the people of Mysore hold in high honour.
I basked in the energy of the site. People acted in a very special manner. Respect, reverence. I believe there’s much power in belief, and collective faith. The power of unity, one belief, one religion ~ a state of consciousness that built every great civilsation of the ancient world.
There was also a bustling market on top of the hill. And plenty of holy cows.
Then my heart leapt as I spotted them – monkeys climbing all over the temple.
It was one of the first times I gotten so close to so many monkeys, and against the backdrop of the temple it was a spectacular sight.
I was definitely in the Jungle Book now.
We climbed to the very edge of the hill. The views were spectacular, and the sun was just beginning to set. Of course it was… was I in a dream?
The city of Mysore was a meer model village down below. I watched, mesmerised, as the sky turned bright gold before my eyes. A miracle, if ever I saw one.
I watched as that great halo circled down through the sky, gilded the rooftops of the city.
I watched until all the light went out of the sky, and only the illuminations of the palace remained, down there, in the great below…
In Mysore, I was baptised in holy light, foreign heart and the spirit of friendship.
The form of Mysore, those golden days, is printed deep into the flesh of my memory.
I am grateful. I am cleansed. Healed. Brought back to me again.