YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

India Means Pageantry and Palaces

March 23, 1986|GEORGIA I. HESSE | Hesse is a San Francisco free-lance writer.

MYSORE, India — Somehow, out of the debacles of the Bhopal industrial disaster and the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was born a new worldwide involvement with the intriguing subcontinent that is India.

That involvement was fueled by the timely appearance of a couple of distinguished motion pictures and the TV special, "The Jewel in the Crown."

Mid-1985 to mid-1986 has been christened the Year of India by tourism authorities. To support it, art exhibitions and craft shows are being staged across the United States.

For the first-time traveler to this ancient land, the state of Karnataka would be a good initiation because of its pageantry and palaces, its relics of great civilizations and its relative absence of poverty.

The Green Heart of Karnataka, they call it today, is an enormous modern state that was historically the principality of Mysore, where man has lived just about as long as anywhere on earth. It extends from just beyond Bidar in the north to the high, temperate Nilgiri Hills in the south (near the resort escape of Ootacamund, the "snooty Ooty" of the British in Paul Scott's "Raj Quartet" or "The Jewel in the Crown").

For international travelers, the two main ports of call and comment are Mysore and Bangalore. Today's capital of Karnataka is Bangalore, surnamed the Garden City. It was born more than 400 years ago as the eye of a small kingdom and was protected by watchtowers at its four corners. Today it has sprawled far beyond those towers to crowd in more than 2.5 million souls. On many mornings they all seem to be shopping or selling in Sri Krishnarahjendra market at once.

Clutter and Confusion

Indian markets are clutter, chaos and confusion raised to the 10th power. Pyramids of spices and dyes in shrieking shades, mounds and mountains of flower heads separated from their stalks, clashes and crowds of pots and pans, symphonies of strange fruits.

It is like falling headlong into a cornucopia.

"Welcome!" a salesman shouted in English, poking a purple-tipped finger onto my forehead to create a huge holy mark. It melted later, producing a less-than-holy stain that stopped fellow Westerners in the street.

In Bangalore one is conducted first to the 120-year-old (or so) High Court, an imposing red-stone leftover from the days of the Raj, and the Vidhana Soudha, where the state legislature and secretariat sit in granite splendor. It is illuminated on weekend evenings.

Whether the visitor wants to see such government monuments or not, they will be shown to him. To the Indians, they symbolize the stability and progress of the modern state, and of that they are proud.

When freed from governmental concerns, one walks, more relaxed, through the botanical gardens of Lal Bagh, designed more than 200 years ago by Hyder Ali and his son Tipu Sultan to enliven more than 240 acres with 1,000 varieties of trees and plants. The arches of the famous Glass House exhibition hall recall the art nouveau of many Paris Metro stations.

In the Khedda Bar of Bangalore's Ashok Hotel--as around the pool at Delhi's Oberoi Inter-Continental, at lunch in Bombay's classic Taj Mahal Hotel--Indian women in exquisite saris speak softly, in educated English accents, of the works of Paul Scott, of Hermann Hesse, even of the acid critic V. S. Naipaul, a Trinidadian of Indian family. In every way they seem the equals of their Western counterparts, and they are infinitely more feminine.

Slim and Sinewy

In Bangalore and in Mysore the Kannadigas (as the state's residents are known), slim and sinewy, go busily about the streets, buying and selling; there is less torpor than elsewhere in the country. These days, a common sight is a brace of pretty young girls in frilly Western dresses and Sunday-best shoes dancing along with their middle-aged mother in her delicate sari, wearing huge Italian sunglasses and a wide Japanese wristwatch.

But those are city scenes, a few thousand years removed from the life of villages and fields where scantily clad peasants plod slowly behind their buffaloes, plowing the patient land as they have for centuries. Wives bearing heavy jugs wait at the central well or fountain, children playing like kittens at their feet. It is a rural scene scarcely changed since the epic days of the "Ramayana."

About 140 miles west of Bangalore, two towns of the 11th-Century Hoysala dynasty, Halebid and Belur, sit among sleepy hills. They are pilgrimage points for enthusiasts of temple architecture and carvings--in this case, sensuous sculptures done in soapstone.

Hoysala is not a household word. It is as dusty in the minds of modern Indians as well as in those of Americans, although it ruled and raised temples in Karnataka from the 11th to the 14th centuries.

The Hoysalas built at Halebid a temple and palace complex decorated over 86 years with figures of the god Krishna dancing on the head of his serpent Kalinga and women with contemporary-looking coiffures that are 800 years old.

Los Angeles Times Articles