We have just had a fantasic weekend in Mysore celebrating Dasara with approximately 2 million Indians and several elephants. We went with our New Best Friend, Arun, who looked after us so well, that we became like helpless puppies and just followed him around whilst he did everything for us. The trip this time consisted of three students, one Singaporian, one Australian and one American, and myself. In fact, Krithika and Priya (Oz and SP respectively) are both Tamil, which was handy for the brief moments when Arun went to the loo or something and I felt a wave of anxiety about how I would cope in his absence.
The Dasara festival is celebrated all over South India in slightly different ways. In Mysore it is a royal festival celebraing the victory of Truth over Evil. Apparently, the Goddess Chamundeshwari,also known as Durga, who has a temple in her honour on a hill overlooking the city, slew the demon Mahishasura on the tenth day, or Vijayadashami. The festival culminates in the Jambu Savari which is a procession, lead by 3 Dasara elephants, who would have originally carried the Maharajah but now carry an effigy of the Goddess, the start of which is marked by a 12-gun salute. This year was exceptional as the Vijayadashmi also fell on Ghandi's birthday, a national holiday, which also represents, to India, the triumph of Truth over Evil.
The long and the short of this is that there is a 9 or 10 day festival in South India, celebrated most enthusuastically in Mysore. Every day of the festival, Hindus celebrate different pujas, where different aspects of their life and work are decorated with flowers, paint and tinsel in order to ask the Gods to bless them. The tenth day is the culmination and considered highly auspicious so everything is puja-ed, especially vehicles. Buses pound by with an impenetrable network of marigold flower garlands, often obscuring the windscreen; people sit upright on hero bicycles with banana leaves arrangements and jasmine tied to the handlebars; streaks of red, yellow and white paint adorn the paintwork of lorries carting gravel and workmen in lungis to the various postholes for filling. Even our car had a catfish-like moustache of banana leaves and a calendula smile, which remained pretty intact for the whole weekend.
The tone of the trip was set pretty early on when we stopped at a roadside Dharba. I had a garlic masala dosai and a vadai with coconut and coriander chutney. Everyone agreed the food was delicious, right up until the last mouthful of potato masala when I found a toenail. Unfortunately, I found it on my tongue. When we told the waiter, he disagreed with our assessment of the situation and refused to budge from his opinion that it was a piece of onion. It wasn't.
We arrived at Mysore and went straight to Arun's office where a) we found out it was his birthday and b) we watched the puja ceremony for the computers done by the local priest. Everything had a marigold and red paint on it, even the box of loose wires inexpertly stuck on the wall - I guess maybe that needed puja-ing more than anything.
It is now a museum but was built as the official seat of the Wodeyar Maharajahs of Mysore, by a British Architect, Henry Irwin, who started it in 1897 and finished it in 1912. It is spectacular and although we sadly couldn't see inside as it was shut for the festival, the outside is beautiful enough. As the festival was in full swing, it was quite a heady experience to wander around the grounds at night. The noise was tremendous. Chatter, singing, flute sellers, drum sellers, hawkers of toasted rice with their charcoal warming pots, distant honking traffic and screaming, shouting kids all contributed enthusiastically to the cacophony.
After a good while wandering around, we finally went out to dinner and gave Arun his cake. He was both touched and hideously embarrassed in unequal measures. Especially as we sung him happy birthday (out of tune) and then blew some noisy, squeaky bird things we had bought at the palace, whose tails unrolled, not by the usual 12 inches but by up to 6 feet. The entire restaurant, including the manager who came up to wish him many happy returns of the day personally, joined in.
Exhausted we went to bed finally at about one o' clock. Tomorrow - I'll tell you about the elephants.