End part of a trip I made to the holy South Indian pilgrimage town of Tiruvannamalai in the state of Tamil Nadu where I stayed at the Athithi Ashram which is run by devotees of the great twentieth century spiritual master Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi. Once my time at the ashram was done it was just a question of taking a taxi ride back to the city of Bengaluru in the state of Karnataka.
So the interstate swing back from 19/2 went something like this. First of all I knew that was it, my week in Tiruvannamalai at the Athithi Ashram was over and now there was to be no lookin’ back. I had done all that I could do and really in all honesty it had gone better than I could have ever expected – the meditation, the talks with Swami Hamsananda, the mesmeric shrine times at the end of the day in the dual temples of Ramanasramam, staying fit, staying healthy, no bad stomachs or stuff like that – which had meant that I was happy, more than happy as a matter of fact. Turned out to be a bit of a rush after my parting talk with Swami as my taxi was already waiting outside the ashram gates and I still had a bit of this and that to do with regards to packing my case and clearing up which meant I would have to get my skates on. Before going back up to my room I told my driver who was sitting in the car on the other side of the gates that I would be about 10 minutes or so and bounded back up the stairs to my room in order to get myself together.
The ride from Tiruvannamalai to Bangalore turned out to be a bit of a fast one as once we got to the town of Krishnagiri we joined the main highway which more or less runs the length of the country, with more than one or two pinch points in between, and where signs to Varanasi indicate it is over 1700 km away in a direction which was pretty much due north. So it was speedy, a Grand Prix shakedown on a four lane highway where weaving in and out of the traffic in front of you whilst travelling at high velocity was very much the order of the day. It was one of those rides where I sat in the car with the back windows wide open instead of in a nicely chilled a/c bubble, and the reason for this was that my driver had a stinkin’ cold which I most definitely wouldn’t have minded not picking up in any way whatsoever. In fact, although I’m somewhat ashamed to admit it, paranoid thoughts that he might have Coronavirus passed through my mind, making me wonder if it was worth asking him if he’d driven any or many people from the Chinese part of the world recently. Glad to say I managed to resist the temptation, mainly because I knew that with his very limited English and my non-existent Tamil, it would have been too damn complicated for me to break on through and get him to understand what the fuck I was talking about. So anyway, we rocked on through the Tamil countryside with the warm air blasting through the open windows of the car from any direction you might care to choose, no problem with that really, sure the air was warm but it wasn’t hot and within that lies a very big difference.
It had been a few days ago whilst staying in the ashram that I’d decided there was no point in going back to Chennai, that I might as well go on to Bangalore and spend the night there before getting the train to Mysore the following morning. It was a ride which I had done before – Tiruvannamalai to Bangalore – so I knew the score. Sitting on the back seat of the taxi I knew that my time in Tiruvannamalai would soon seem like it was far behind me once I was back in the big city, but I guess I was OK about that, it was what it was and I would just have to get on with it. The Bangalore pedal ride was fine with the only drawback being the slow crawl back into the heart of it from the south as we made our way through Electronic City, where the intensity of the traffic on the highway simply had to be seen to be believed. Even with that thrown into the mix I was still at my hotel – Highgates on Church Street – by around 2 pm which after a 9.30 departure from Tiruvannamalai meant that with all things considered it had been pretty good going.
Checking into Highgates was simple enough with its staff bright and friendly which made for a bit of a change as sometimes people in Bangalore hotels could be a bit surly, unless of course, you were going top dollar. Once again I was thankful I had used Booking.com, as when all was said and done they had not as yet ever let me down with regard to the booking of places for me to stay whilst out and about in India, well, with the possible exception of the Athena Hotel back in Tiruvannamalai last year that is, a place which had turned out to be a real dog and nearly drove me crazy. The great thing about staying in Highgates was the fact that it really was slap bang in the middle of town which meant that stepping out of its gates saw me in the heart of the action in no time at all, which I guess is all well and good if being in the heart of Bangalore is where you want to be. Funny thing was I’d stayed in Highgates once before, about 15 years ago, possibly more, long before it had been given the makeover and freshen up which it had now. Back then I was holed up in a room for the night next door to a guest who had their television on all night at incredibly high volume, something which wound me up badly because I was due the very next day to fly up to Delhi. My room was fine this time around, in fact after the relative austerity of the Athithi Ashram it all looked incredibly comfortable and I was therefore more than happy with what I’d got for the rate of 4,000 rupees for the night with breakfast also included.
Settled myself to rest for a little while once I was in my room, by way of making myself a mug of tea courtesy of the kettle and all the rest of the kit provided, then sitting at a desk in the corner to write my notes on my last day in Tiruvannamalai. All so fresh in the memory, although I know that the memory is already fadin’, just as it had to, with soon enough only a resonance echo being left for me to pick up and go with. By around 3.30 I was ready to head out onto the streets for a little bit of city walkin’, as whilst I’d been in Tiruvannamalai my steps had been pretty impressive, so I was keen to keep up the run I was on with figures of 10,000 steps a day being reached without any problem at all. Needless to say once I was out of Highgates the weather was warm and sunny and I soon got into the swing of taking numerous shots of the streets and shops signs with my iphone which as far as new toys go was something I was now really getting into. I made my way down Church Street and then took a right onto Brigade Road so as to walk down to the ICICI Bank ATM which I knew was located on Residency Road next to a petrol station. This time around there was no trauma of alarms being activated in the booth or any damn bloody nightmares like that, which meant I was able to withdraw 5,000 rupees without any problem.
Once stocking up on cash was out of the way I carried across Residency Road towards the Garuda Mall which, after just one nearly wrong turn on the way, I found without too much of a problem. In Garuda Mall I ended up buying myself a shirt for 1299 rupees and a mustard yellow t-shirt for Dawa Dolkar for 399 rupees, come to think of it the colour of my shirt was mustard yellow as well, although there were patterns on it, red and black I do believe, which made it look all rather exotic. Both these items were bought from a department store by the name of Lifestyle, of which there were a few in South India, and both of them I paid for with my ICICI Bank debit card. Carrying my bag of clothes out of the store and then out of the mall I thought it would be a good idea to head on back to my room in Highgates so as to rest up for a while before another taking walk around town when it was early evening. It meant that on getting back to my room around 5.30 I just laid low, laid back on my nice big soft double bed for the best part of an hour and took it easy.
Refreshed from my little rest I was soon out on the streets again and I walked down MG Road passing all those places I was so familiar with over all those years when I’d spent a night or two night in Bangalore; The Bangalore Ham Shop, Binny Mills Limited, Barton Towers, The Deccan Herald, Higginbothams, Joyalukkas. From out of all these I popped into Higginbothams and it seemed pretty deserted, extremely deserted as a matter of fact, with me being virtually their only customer, yet somehow despite this I managed to find a book I more or less wanted. It was on sale as a South East Asia Edition from Shambahala Publications for only 250 rupees and it was a book on Buddhism called Sadness, Love, Openness by a Tibetan lama whose name was Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche. Made me wonder though, looking at how empty it was, whether Higginbothams was going to make it much further into the 21st century, as at the end of the day you had to be able to pull in the customers no matter how long you had been there, even if it was 100 years and you owned the building, both of which was probably the case with Higginbothams.
On from Higginbothams it was time for me to think about getting something to eat as it was now early evening, and after my 4 to 5 hour car ride up to Bangalore from Tiruvannamalai earlier in the day, my batteries were getting low. Guess I was now thinking of just fillin’ my stomach and then headin’ back to Highgates to crash out on that nice big double bed in my room. There was a MacDonald’s on Brigade Road and I kind of thought it might be a good idea to go there and have a MacMaharaj Meal but when I walked inside I found the place so damn unappealing that I just turned around and walked right out again. Well, what exactly was I expectin’ for that to have been any different to what it was? Down at the bottom of Brigade Road I crossed over Residency Road and carried on walking, but I soon realised that as far as food was concerned I was fast running out of options. It was time for a double back in other words, so I cut my losses and turned around before I went too much further down that particular road on a hopeless mission, as it was going nowhere.
Back on Brigade Road, only this time on the other side, I saw a first floor restaurant just past the MacDonald’s I’d recently walked out of which went by the name of Thalappakatties. It was a byriani house which according to its sign had branches in a number of South Indian cities like Madurai, Chennai, Kanchipuram and Dindigul as well as in places further afield such as Singapore, Dubai and Paris. Checking out the menu board by the entrance, I saw it was most definitely non- veg, with their chicken and fish dishes taking top billing, but even so there were some veg dishes on the menu and that was good enough for me. So it was Thalappakatties that I went to but to not to have a chicken byriani, mutton byriani, or even an egg one, as I was still too close in memory to my time at the ashram for anything like that. Turned out that although the service was a little bit chaotic and the mushroom soup I ordered for starters incredibly spicy, being rammed full of black peppers, the paneer byriani which I ordered for my main course was absolutely delicious and served up in generous quantities. Since my ashram breakfast back in Tiruvannamalai, I’d only had a snack in the form of a couple of veg puffs from a place called Chai Stop on Church St when I’d been out walkin’ earlier on, which meant I was actually pretty damn hungry. It was good for me to sit there in Thalappakatties whilst looking out over the bright lights of Brigade Road and thinking of nothing in particular, in a state of weary vacancy which actually felt quite nice. I had to wait a while for the food but that was fine, I was hardly in a hurry after all. Anyway, the reason why the food took time was that it was all cooked fresh and as we know, to produce something decent means it should not be done in a hurry, no shortcuts taken or anything like that.
After the meal it was a walk straight back down Church St to Highgates for me, and where I was back in my room by 8.30. I was pretty much done for the day, more than had enough of the crowds of Bangalore where the vast majority of the people on the streets seemed to be so much younger than me. In fact – needless to say I guess, I mean it is probably stating the obvious – the intensity of big city Bangalore, where life can seem so hard bitten and tough, was a world away from the peace of Athithi Ashram and the overall atmosphere of Tiruvannamalai. A world away? Well no, maybe not quite that far, half a world probably, but all the same the contrast was jarring and along with the rigours of the road trip earlier in the day, it served to make me more than a little tired and for me to feel every one of my 57 years of age. Just goes with the territory I guess, win some lose some, high and low, with all the other jazz thrown into the mix as well.
It was not long after 10 when I switched out the lights and had quite a long sleep but it was broken in the middle of the night by the sounds of a couple arguing in the room next door. Guess this was kind of funny because like I said before, the last time I’d stayed in Highgates, probably close to 20 years ago and long before it was renovated and freshened up, I’d had a disturbed night there as well, that time caused by someone watching incredibly loud Hindi movies on their television. What to do? I’m in the middle of an Indian mega-city after all and these things happen. Their arguing was loud enough for me to have to stick No Geography by The Chemical Brothers on my headphones and by the time I’d got to the end of that some 40 minutes later the warring couple had obviously worn themselves out and gone to sleep.
By 5.30 in the morning or so I was up and writing at the desk in my room after having made myself a mug of Sunrise Coffee which when taken black with a single sugar slid down nicely. What I was writing up was the final day of my time in Tiruvannamalai, that walk of mine up the holy hill and those talks with Swami Hamsananda. Guess I knew that I was coming to the end of something, that I’d taken things as far as they could go whilst I was there and that was absolutely fine, it was how it was meant to be and there was nothing more I could have done. Taken it to the hilt, up to the top and over the border. The writing actually took up the best part of a couple of hours until it got to the point where I could put a seal on it, but when I finally reached that point I then had a good long shower before going down for breakfast. Now I have to say that whilst the room at Highgates was well worth the money I paid for it – something like 4,000 rupees for one night city centre Bengaluru style – the add-on breakfast which came in at 450 rupees was something of a disappointment. It was OK I guess, but I had to work hard to make it work if you see what I mean, and even then had to struggle somewhat to get a decent cup of fresh coffee out of them. It was all a bit odd but I think I got there in the end, got there in the sense of filling my stomach so that I would not feel hungry until I went for lunch with Sonam Tashi later in the day after my Shatabdi ride to Mysore.
Breakfast was over by around 8.20 and I found that I had plenty of time to take a morning walk around central Bengaluru which meant Church Street, Residency Road, Brigade Road and finally a long stretch of what was the once attractive MG Road, but which these days is dwarfed by the Bengaluru City Namma Metro. This is something which has been constructed more or less right on top of it, therefore throwing large parts of MG Road into deepest shadow and where it gets decidedly smoky when the traffic builds up, which needless to say in Bengaluru is early in the day. Nevertheless my walk was an enjoyable one because the pavements were relatively empty and I was able to take plenty of photos with my iphone whilst still building up a decent number of steps on my phone counter. But even so, if there was one thing my Bangalore stop off taught me this time around, it was that when we went back to London Dawa Dolkar and I would give the centre of town a miss and treat ourselves to a night in the Taj at the airport instead. That would ensure we would be well out of the action, which as I have mentioned before, I found somewhat tiresome after my ashram days mainly because – I have to say, hate to say even – virtually everyone around seemed so much younger than me. That reflection again, staring back at me from the window of the Shatabdi in all my 57 year old glory, became my mental picture. Well that’s just the way it goes I guess, the relentless rollin’ of the passin’ years, and with what seems like little more than a blink of an eye I stepped in one end of the tube and now I am well on the way to comin’ out the other. Who would have thought it? Just where in the world has all that time gone?
So there was that 45 minute walk around in the bright morning Bangalore sun before it was time to head back to my room and get my stuff ready for the transfer down to Bengaluru City Railway Station. Being in Highgates meant I could just walk out the doors of the hotel after checking out and get a rickshaw on Church Street without any problem. Well, when I say without any problem what I mean is that the availability of rickshaws was no problem, but it was more of a hassle hitting on the right kind of price with the drivers who all happened to be Muslim. Best I could do was get the price down to 300 rupees which wasn’t bad but probably not great either, far from great if you were a local, no doubt about that, but the fact of the matter was that I was not a local. Certainly 300 rupees was far better than what it would have cost in a taxi that’s for sure, where it would have been impossible to get a ride for under 500. Not only that, there was also the fact that my driver understood that I wanted to be taken around the back of the railway station and not to the main entrance as it was from around the back that the Shatabdi to Mysore departed from.
Due to chronic traffic congestion which is more or less common throughout the whole of Bangalore it took the best part of half an hour to get from Church Street to the railway station but even when that was taken into consideration I still had another half hour to spare before the train was due in. It was surprisingly busy on the platform, usually Bangalore to Mysore on the Shatabdi was a bit of an empty ride, but not this time and when it came to boarding the train after it had pulled into the station there was a bit of a scramble to get on board, despite the fact everyone would have had tickets on which their seats numbers were reserved for them. It was a bit of an Indian situation in other words, with people intent on getting on the train before all the passengers from Chennai had had a chance to get off, which of course was a bit crazy and more than a little pathetic to witness. This was also pointed out to me by a well dressed Indian man standing beside me who had a smart leather hold-all and a book called Treasures of the Temple tucked under his arm. Turned out he was working in the Mysore Palace, no doubt an art expert doing in depth research or something similar. “Look at them, look at them, they just can’t help it!” he said, “they don’t understand that they can’t get on until the others have got off. Ridiculous! Ridiculous!” All I could do was stand there and agree with him, because it was ridiculous, and we both waited there to let the crowd fight it out before finally boarding the train.
The ride itself, once everyone had finally sorted themselves out and regained some semblance of dignity, was pretty much the same as it ever was, which meant that the next couple of hours slid on by with more than a little bit of bright familiarity about them as the train made its way through Ramanagara, Channapatna, Maddur, Mandya and Srirangapatnam before finally rolling into Mysore station pretty much bang on 1 pm. The plan before my arrival had been for me and Sonam Tashi to go to the Radisson Blu over on the other side of town in order to have their buffet lunch which came in at 600 rupees per head, but Sonam Tashi changed the goalposts on that one by suggesting we go to Shree Devi for a chicken byriani instead. Being the kind of guy I am, I told him that was fine by me, and so we headed straight over there. After 9 days away over in Tamil Nadu I hadn’t eaten any meat at all, but now I was back in the Tibetan scene things were soon a different story. Got to say however, that the chicken byriani which I ordered gave me a burst energy in a way which a vegetarian meal never could, so whether that was a good thing or a bad thing I am not really certain.
After our lunch we had a couple of things to do in Mysore centre before once again hitting the road back to Bylakuppe, another trip over to the east side of the country now virtually over. Only thing left for me to do before hitting that road was to go over to Sapna Book House and buy a new notebook because the one I’d bought in Tiruvannamalai at Ramanasramam was full. Turns out the new notebook just so happens to be the one in which I’m writing this.