The early morning flower market is well under way in the bustling town center of Hassan, about 120 miles west of the booming city of Bangalore in the southern Indian state of Karnataka. Masses of blossoms -- white, green, red, yellow and blue -- provide a kaleidoscope of color as the traders sell their wares.
Busy hands deftly create stunning arrangements from the flowers; one seller drapes huge strands all over her large body, a walking advertisement for her products.
As in all Indian cities and towns, the atmosphere of Hassan's markets is stunning. It's a cacophony of sound and color. Neatly stacked displays of fruits and vegetables; bags of spices and different varieties of rice; and tins of the vividly colored hennas that Indians daub on their faces are another source of brightness.
It's not only the markets that impress in Indian towns. They all seem to specialize in use and reuse: Every bit of scrap metal and rubber is carefully retained and recycled. No throwaway society here.
Temples and technology
Karnataka is the eighth-largest state in India. The contrast here between the dazzling array of ancient, sculpted temples and booming, modern cities like the ever-expanding I.T. hub of Bangalore is quite amazing.
Bangalore's most famous sight remains the Bull Temple, a sanctuary of the Hindu god Shiva that houses a huge granite statue of a bull. The animal is traditionally the god's mount.
For years before it became a high-tech juggernaut, Bangalore was best known as the "Garden City of India." As it's located about 3,000 feet above sea level, its climate is more pleasant than those of other major Indian cities.
Two old, large parks in the center of the city, Cubbon Park, named after the first British governor, and Lal Bagh, or Red Garden, are still wonderful oases in a 21st century city growing by leaps and bounds. But development has been so rapid that the city's infrastructure is having difficulty in keeping up. Prices are so high that many firms are starting to seek cheaper alternatives, such as the city of Mysore.
An impressive edifice near Cubbon Park is the state legislature building, known as Vidhan Soudha, dating from the 1950s.Carved above its entrance are the hopeful words "Government Work Is God's Work."
As befits a new metropolis, the face of Bangalore boasts scores of new, upmarket shopping malls, clambering for space alongside more traditional small shops and markets. You still see fascinating sights: A jewelry "shop" that's no more than a cupboard attached to a wall. A tailor stitches pieces of material with a tiny, hand-held sewing machine. A peddler sharpens knives using a grindstone turned by, well, pedalling his bike. Local merchants are nothing if not inventive.
Remnants of India's British colonial past still exist. The Bangalore Club is a haven for the rich and powerful; there, an unpaid chit left behind by Winston Churchill is still displayed on a notice board.
The race course still operates and, naturally, cricket holds pride of place. Streets have names like Infantry, Lady Curzon and Brigade, but there is also the ubiquitous MG (Mahatma Gandhi) Road.
By contrast, Mysore, about 90 miles to the south, is a more relaxed, less frenetic city. Once the capital of the ancient Wodeyar Kingdom and dominated by the nearby Chamundi Hill, topped by the 2,000-year-old Chamundeswari Temple, it is a city of palaces, gardens and boulevards, with a long tradition of Indian arts, music and dance.
Mysore also has a fantastic zoo where visitors can ogle white tigers, jaguars and other exotic animals. Mysore Palace, home of the city's maharajas, is huge and surprisingly dull on the outside but contains many delights inside, including enormous reception rooms and colorful ceilings decorated with peacocks. The all-gold royal howdah (the seat used to ride an elephant) is still used in festival processions.
More striking is the Lalitha Mahal Palace Hotel, originally built by the local maharaja to house his European guests. It is well worth the steep price to indulge in a lifestyle once reserved for royalty.
About nine miles north of the city on the road to Bangalore lies Srirangapatna. This island fortress was once the capital of warrior kings Hyder Ali and his son Tipu Sultan, the Tiger of Mysore. The latter fought battles against English forces, leading to his death in 1799. Among his most famous foes was the Duke of Wellington.
Tipu Sultan's summer palace, Daria Daulat, is now a museum with huge panels around the outside depicting his battles against the British. His tomb, the Gumbaz, lies a few miles away; it's modeled on the Taj Mahal, and its doors of ebony are inlaid with ivory.
All of Karnataka is renowned for its temples. Visitors should head back to Hassan to be within easy reach of three of them. At Belur, the Chennakeshava Temple's facade is covered with intricate sculptures and frescoes, while at Halebidu the Hoysaleswara Temple is graced with walls covered in sculptures of gods, goddesses, animals and dancing girls. Some are quite risque.
At Sravanabelagola, a monolithic, 56-foot statue stands on the top of granite Vindhyagiri Hill, one of the most important Jain pilgrimage sites in southern India. The views from the top of its 620 steps are well worth the effort.
The Hoysala Village Resort outside Hassan is a good base from which to visit these temples. While there, visitors might indulge in an ayurvedic massage; the masseurs are excellent, and I, for one, came away feeling amazingly relaxed and refreshed.
A new luxury accommodations/travel option is the Golden Chariot train. The railway makes a weeklong journey from Bangalore, visiting the cities and sights of Karnataka before reaching Goa and then heading back to Bangalore.
For more on Karnataka and India, go to www.incredibleindia.org. For the Golden Chariot, visit www.goldenchariot.org.