When each sunset becomes a visual delight; you begin to spend most of your evenings trying to catch this magic in the sky, leaving you in a cotton candy haze, you know you have arrived in a special place. I had no care in the world for Mysore, until recently, when I came here, to pursue yoga and Ayurveda. Of sandalwood, silk, sweets, and surreal sunsets; my time in Mysore certainly put me in an elevated state-of-mind. Back in the metropolitan now – yet longing the small city charms. The unbearable lightness of the memories I carried back with me, have indeed, coaxed me to unfold my experiences out here. This article will take 10 mins of your life (it’s a long read). But, I promise, to virtually chaperone you through the many mundane facets, which make for the mindful saga called Mysore.
Once a royal kingdom, the first thing that comes to your mind when you think of Mysore, is the grand palace. Let’s walk back into history to set the context. Built in the year of 1912, the Mysore Palace, home to the royal dynasty of Wadiyar, is a prominent testament of an ancient monarchy. It’s eerie history reeks of victory, defeat, and a centuries-old curse that constantly looms across the walls of this heritage property. They say it all started in 1612, when Raja Wadiyar, conquered Mysore, after dethroning the then king Tirumalaraja, of the Vijayanagara Empire. Following the unceremonious demise of her husband, the tormented Alamelamma, wife of Tirumalaraja, took all the royal ornaments and fled for Talakadu (a close by town). When Wadiyar’s soldiers tracked her down to confiscate the jewels, instead of surrendering, she jumped into the holy Cauvery river and ended her life. But before that, she left a spiteful malediction looming on the Wadiyars – cursing them of an heirless future. “May Talakad turn into a barren expanse of sand; may Malangi (a village on the banks of Cauvery) turn into an unfathomed whirlpool; may the Wadiyars of Mysore not have children for eternity”, she is said to have chanted as she took the leap to her death*. Uncannily this 400-year-old curse came back when the last heir of what was one of the wealthiest royal dynasties in the world – the Wadiyars – passed away in 2013.
Located on the foothills of Chamundi, this landlocked tropical city is about a three hours drive from its contrasting cosmopolitan: Bangalore. Cased with the bounty of coconut palm trees, every day here seems like a vacation. Nobody is rushing, nobody is screaming on top of their lungs to make their presence felt (mmm, their ego I mean). Everyone seems to be quite complacent with what they have. Spirituality, religion, ethics, and conventions remain the cornerstone of the city’s social fabric. A profound sense of traditionalism and ritualism prevails in society, so does the belief in the god of small things. People still grow avocado and pomegranate trees in their backyards, they still mourn the death of their neighbors; cows are regarded higher than humans.
Morning in a typical Mysorean household begins with watering the holy tulsi plant, washing the patio, and hand drawing fresh rangoli outside the doorway for good luck. Interestingly, yet not surprisingly, they also have superstitious guidelines for this sacred art form. Rangoli patterns are specially made keeping in mind a focal point – waving off the evil eye. Kannadigans believe(d) in spirits, both good, and evil. During the summer nights, the by-lanes of mohollas are filled with its residents, as they remain outdoors to soak the cool night breeze, while chit-chatting and exchanging stories from the day. A place where slow living is a virtue, and afternoons are made for leisure and filter kaapi; Mysore’s air drags you back to the laid-back 1970’s vibe, to the nostalgia of the Malgudi days.
Tender coconut vendors with their rusted machete spread across the nooks of the city like weeds, occupying every busy corner they can get their eyes on. Women in Mysore embrace traditional dressing. They are usually adorned in sarees (famous for it’s Kanchipuram silk), studded with sparkling gold jewelry, hair lathered in coconut oil, and jasmine fresh flower malas tied around their chiffon buns. The bulge between their petticoat and blouse is a testament to all the south Indian junk rage (yes, I mean that butter dosa, every damn day).
Each year large groups of international students (mostly American) come here to attend yoga teacher training courses. Unlike the other yoga towns; Goa, Rishikesh, Dharamshala, there is nothing much touristic about Mysore – it thrives on the sheer seriousness of learning yoga under the tutelage of a maestro. It is highly vested in yoga tourism; it is because of Ashtanga yoga (actually guru Pattabi Jois), Mysore has managed to gain some sort of world recognition. Even the locals have embraced this “international” revolution into their daily lives – either by opening guest houses and yoga shalas within their houses or giving away their home patios to open vegan, chakra balancing and Ayurveda cafes. The yoga district of Gokulam is almost like a bubble in a bubble; with plant-based cafes serving almond milk lattes outnumbering the street dosa joints. A world of modern hipsters in the ancient city of conservatives. Its posh (and rather calm) lanes are filled with old-school kothis covered with bougainvillea facade – most of them painted in summer colors, with wooden structures, and high ceilings. The hipster district of Gokulam is unlike any other part of Mysore. It’s like one of those particular neighborhoods that remind you of the other unique places in the world thriving on sub-culture values.
The food here is primarily influenced by the culturally rich Kanara coast. Mysore, situated on the Deccan Plateau, is separated from the shore by the Western Ghats (a key biodiversity hotspot area in the world). Over the years’ migrants and travelers from the coast came towards the inland, but not without their local cuisine and treasured recipes. The coast is home to some of the greatest south Indian culinary secrets, fishermen tribes, and oceanic spirits. From the Konkani-speaking Chitrapur Sarsavat Brahmins to the anjal fry and ghee roast chomping Mangaloreans, and of course our beloved dosai from Udupi. Some of the dishes here have been borrowed (and improvised) from its neighboring states: Tamil Nadu (the Iyengar tambrams), Andhra Pradesh and Kerela.
“I don’t care about where the rich people eat – give me the real food, give me culinary culture,” said Anthony Bourdain. The nightlife here is made of the sizzling sounds made by the splash of water and the dramatic lathering of dosa batters onto the steaming hot tawas. The fermented aroma of freshly steamed idles, the whiff of chitranna (lemon rice), and the spicy treat of bise bile bath topped with crunchy boondi; Kannada cuisine comes in all its elaborate forms during the night walks in this sleepy city. While some vendors go all out with the MSG and make a mean gobhi manchurian in their overused greasy woks. Oh well, cauliflower manchurian is a cult here. Found in every restaurant or street food stall. Street carts selling smash-hit snacks. The source of the oil is usually unidentified or very old in these situations, so either get ready to be a daredevil, or go home.
“The chronology of dishes in a traditional South Indian meal starts with payassam (sweet) and ends with buttermilk (cooling). Making the ancient Ayurveda eating principle a daily practice. From banana leaf (unlimited) meals that offer you a savory and sweet variety of condiments, to the rich spread of it’s vegetarian delicacies; It is rather easy to be a vegetarian when living in Mysore.” – Anita, Ayurveda doctor
Rice, dal, love, and lactic fermentation – these are the critical ingredients for a classic dosa. Having extensively traveled across south India in the past month and a half, I can safely say that Kannadigas make the softest dosa in the world. From the buttery benne dosa (of the Devangere region), to the spongy set dosa, neer dosa (water dosa), and not to forget the local Mysore masala dosa (generously slathered with spicy podi powder); dosa in most parts of this state is a cultural staple. While searching for the greatest dosa in Mysore, I tried many, but none like the one I ate at everyone’s beloved Hotel Mylari. This modest little 15 seater with a total of five items on the menu enjoys the glorious reputation of serving the softest dosa of all the land and giving their customers the quintessential benne dosa experience. The epitome of no-frills, these guys do not serve sambhar or any other unnecessary condiments. The dosa, round and folded over itself in half, comes accompanied with coconut chutney on the side. And, there is, of course, butter! Here the dosa is literally doused in benne (Kannada word for butter) while cooking, therefore, the appropriate name. The tantalizing aroma of butter, from the tiny kitchen, reaches our table before the dosa itself – lingering us in buttery dreams in broad daylight. Another differentiating factor between the soft benne dosa and other dosa is the addition of maida (gluten), which gives the dosa its desired texture. The fermented rice pancakes are done perfectly well and are so soft from the inside that the texture almost resembles a freshly baked Japanese cheesecake (remember its all in the butter). Priced at a meager Rs. 30 per dosa, after finishing one, we call for one more, and after finishing that, yet another.
Owing to my obsession for city markets, one of the most captivating spots, for me in Mysore, is the glorious Devaraja Market. Estimated to be 400 years old, stationed opposite the heritage sandalwood museum, the busy Devaraja is a spectacular sight for its accurate Mysorean representation. As soon as you put your foot into its vibrancy, you are greeted with the sweet scent of jasmine and rose malas muddled up with the fragrant handmade incense smoke. If you’re a visitor, a yoga enthusiast, or a curious gastronome like me, this is a great melting pot for local experiences, flavors, aromas, fruits, vegetables, and other products (incense sticks, rangoli colors, prayer condiments, etc) that are subtly knitted into a Mysorean’s daily lives. Traders, wholesalers, and retailers are scattered around the different aisles. Each section is designated to maintain easy maneuvering through the market. The fruits aisle is more or less overwhelmed with the various varieties of local south Indian coconuts and bananas. The sale of flowers are either in bulk or as garlands, that are used for weddings, festivals, religious ceremonies, etc. The garland making is an artistic affair here. It’s a visual delight to see the artisans meticulously beading petals into the thread; creating various garland patterns.
There is no concept of cold storage here. Everything procured in the morning is sold by the end of the day, or at most trickles over to the next day. Everything is grown and sourced locally; avocados arrive from Ooty while the luscious heads of iceberg lettuce come via a small farm in Coorg. The market is also home to traditional herbal oil and ittak makers (usually migrated from Kerela) that charm you into their shops with the live artistic demonstration of (making) fresh incense sticks! A lot of the tourism savvy shopkeepers have trained themselves to speak, in not just English, but also French, Spanish, and Italiano (thanks to the international yoga students and their love for all things Indian culture).
Mysore pak one of the most accurate representations of melt-in-your-mouth desserts. Also, the most loved south Indian sweets in the history of Indian desserts. It is made with gram flour (besan), cardamom, turmeric, and ghee; usually cooked on firewood. There are many dubious versions of the sickeningly sweet dessert depending on the type of fat used to prepare it, but the most authentic one is made with pure desi ghee.
Naviluna looking for a perfectly tempered bean-to-bar chocolate made with homegrown cacao? Head to Naviluna. Formerly known as Earthloaf, Naviluna (its new name) stands for the ‘new moon.’ It’s incredible how David Belo (friend and owner) has embraced every characteristic of Mysore in his brand aesthetics and flavour profiles. From the vegan Mysore pak, to the jackfruit and pepper, mosambi and caraway, and mango chilli, he’s got them local flavors all covered. His raw chocolate tablets made with only coconut sugar are sustainable, local, thoughtful and delicious.
Coconuts are the best example of sustainable food use in south India. They really go circular (economy) with the use and by-products of this superfood. Well coconuts are EVERYWHERE and a mention of South Indian cuisine cannot be possible without them! Will elaborate more on this in another piece.
Churmuri. Where there’s a whiff of pak, there also must be churmuri, Mysuru’s answer to crunchy bhelpuri. Don’t get mistaken, the chaat is not just a north thing, people in south India love their chaats – and usually, have it made their own way. Puffed rice, onions, tomatoes, grated carrots, fresh coriander, green mango, peanuts, sweet and hot chutneys make for a classic churmuri. Another fried snack added to this mix to elevate your tastebuds would be: Nippattu; little circles of dough, studded with gram dal and curry leaves, deep fried to a perfect crispy-crunchiness. They also taste amazing by themselves.
The land of bhaths. In it’s literal translation bath means rice in kanada. And believe me, in the land of rice, the locals of Karnataka have found incredible ways of glorying this staple grain. Some of its derivatives also use rava and vermicelli to break the daily rice monotony. The O.G. bise bile bhath (said to have originated from Bangalore). Shavige bhath (shavige is vermicelli, this one is a made by stir-frying veggies and vermicelli together), and vangi bhath (made with aubergine). My favorite one is the chow chow baath – a mash-up of savory and spicy rava – a popular way to eat this is to chase each mouthful of halwa with a spoonful of spicy mixture, which provides a delightful contrast in flavour and texture.
Seafood: While vegetarian cuisine trumps the local food scene here, the curious creatures of the sea have a special place in the palates of the locals too. From the roadside (river) fresh catch fry shops to lunch messes owned by Malayalis (serving the best kinda mussels), to authentic Mangalorean cuisine restaurants serving up prawn sukha with neer dosa. Seafood is a crucial facet of Mysore’s culinary scene.
Filter kaapi: Dark roast with a mean punch of chicory. The concentrated concoction of coffee (brewed in a percolator) is mixed with (steaming) hot milk and insane amounts of sugar. The best part of this beverage? The theatrics of stretching milk from one container to the other, to create foam – a somewhat “manual” way of making south Indian-style cappuccino. Filter kaapi is traditionally served in a small steel glass accompanied with a steel bowl with a larger surface area – which facilitates cooling down the piping hot coffee.
Back home in Delhi —where it is hard to keep pace with the astonishingly wide variety of high-end dining experiences—my thoughts drifted back frequently to the simple joys of poking around the lanes of Mysuru, its Malgudi-ness offering a peculiar small-town charm, unassuming and unfussy, unlikely to be found anywhere else.