As Spykey and I toured the Mysore Maharajah’s Palace the other day our guide told us that it was illuminated by an insane 90,000 light globes every Sunday evening. Spewing that we were not going to be here on a Sunday we asked if it was ever lit up at any other time. “Only at Pongal,” he said; “but hang on – Pongal is this week!”
Sitting down later at an Internet cafe to do some Googling I discovered that Pongal is a harvest festival celebrated by Tamils around the world, and with South India being prime Tamil territory there was going to be a Pongal celebration in Mysore. And it seems that cows are a central feature of Pongal, with fluoro yellow cows popping up all over town as 14 January approached.
Our first Pongal cow sighting was two days before the festival, on a road just outside the palace:
And once we saw our first specimen the fluoro cow floodgates seemed to open, with yellow cows suddenly appearing everywhere, nonchalantly blocking traffic all over town. Most of them were yellow but now and again we saw green and blue varieties; some of them also had horns painted bright primary colours to match their fetching coats.
Yesterday morning, on Pongal day, we decided to head up the sacred hill overlooking Mysore and visit the temple at its summit. The bus ride up the mountain was scenic, and regular signs welcomed us to “one of South India’s eight most sacred hills” and reminded us that the hill was a “plastic free zone”, even though this directive was clearly not enforced judging by the plastic litter everywhere. Arriving at the top it became clear that the eight most sacred hills are probably the eight most attractive sites for trinket vendors, with an awkward negotiation of touts required during the walk to the temple.
The Sri Chamundeswari Temple itself is fairly impressive, although not the most amazing thing we’ve seen in India. It’s real attraction is its spiritual importance to Hindus, and Pongal made the temple a very popular destination this day. For the first time in our trip we found the signs and instructions for visitors to the site very confusing, and it took us some time to work out what the hell was going on. After we’d purchased tickets for what we thought was the entrance to the temple, we discovered that entrance is free via a massive line on the other side of the building but our tickets entitled us to “special” entry via a much, much shorter queue. Taking off our shoes and entering the outer temple, we approached the entrance to the inner chamber where the shrine to the Goddess was situated. The space was extremely cramped and strong with the smell of incense. Through three or four arches, behind the haze of smoke and shrouded in darkness, you could faintly see a small statue draped with garlands of flowers and guarded by some holy men. Walking past the statue, a long line of Hindus left offerings to the Goddess in the form of coconuts, flowers and money. We both felt like we were intruding a little bit so we exited pretty quickly.
Outside the inner chamber, relishing the cool air free of smoke, we were approached by an old holy man who quickly applied a bindi to Lisa’s head before she even knew what was happening. I let him do the same to mine as I thought it might be rude to refuse. We got to make a small cash offering to the Goddess for this honour.
After re-shoeing we began our descent of the mountain, climbing the 1,000 steps to the temple in reverse. On the way down an old man shook Lisa’s hand and wished her a happy Pongal. Pilgrims are supposed to follow these steps from mountain base to temple for worship, and many were doing just that, bending over to dot each individual step during their climb with a thumbprint of the coloured bindi powder. Along the way we saw a man painting a cow and a calf and I simply had to get a photo.
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On the rickshaw drive home we passed a truck that had two dead cows in the back; not sure how that relates to Pongal. Back in town, the streets of Mysore were filled with coloured cows and one particular bovine was my personal favourite, sitting as she was in the middle of an extremely busy road, completely oblivious to the traffic chaos that she was causing. And doing it coloured yellow. That’s style.
I know that painted cows in the middle of roads are completely normal in India, and I guess even Western tourists get a bit blase about them after a while, but I absolutely love the cows and seeing them all painted up today for Pongal filled me with delight as I wandered around the city.
You’ll have to wait for photos of the palace under 90,000 lights because I haven’t taken them at the time of writing this post, but I’m sure they’ll be amazing.