Author: Ravi Tej

Skillstourism — how this Australian couple is striving to put Mysore on the craft map of the world

Jubin Mehta posted on 26th September 2016

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“We’re not here to take over the world or create some dent in the universe,” Varis Lux tells me over a phone call we got on to discuss Slow Tech and his explorations with Skillstourism. An ex-navy personnel, Varis has travelled the world and had come to India as a traveller many years ago, marking the beginning of his fascination with the crafts that exist in the country.

Time flowed and a lot of water passed under the bridge. The navy takes a toll on the human body and mind, whichever country you represent. Varis moved on from the navy and there was a period of unemployment when he and his wife Catherine started thinking about life and the things they could do in the future. The idea of working with the body and nurturing the innate human desire of creating something with the hands resonated with them, planting the seed for Skillstourism.

Catherine’s longtime experience as a travel agent and her understanding of hospitality management helped the couple merge their skill sets to build the initiative. “Our combined dream is to provide an escape plan that is reproducible by happy dreamers everywhere, people wanting to leave their gridlocked lives behind and proceed towards their full potential as human beings, citizens of the planet, and in sync with their inner creator,” believe the duo. They say that one of the ways to make this happen is to start by making something with your hands and then make it a livelihood.

Tryst with India

“I started dreaming about a sort of skills training boot camp, where anybody could get away from it all and just for a short time have a break and concentrate on learning a skill — a holiday, actually,” says Varis. Accordingly, he came up with the motto Travel * Learn * Create. Meanwhile, Catherine was diligently working away as a travel agent, witnessing the rise of adventure tourism and the explosion of all kinds of niche holidays.

“People were asking for things like helping out in an elephant orphanage in Thailand, or travelling overland in home-stays in Mongolia. People wanted to have more connected, immersive, and conscious holidays. They were not satisfied just with sightseeing and taking photos; they wanted to become involved with their head and their heart,” says Catherine. This hunt led them to India in 2013 and here, they saw people making stuff on a daily basis. So much handwork was going on! “We were overwhelmed by the multitude of sincere and humble people taking pride in making things from the simplest bucket to the most ornate puja-mantap,” says Varis. This was when the realisation that this was the India they want to show their Western friends dawned upon them…

Another thrilling discovery was that upcycling is a part of life in India. “We saw that old oil cans were flattened and made into steel trunks, rebar was being made into horseshoes, waste wood was being cut into slivers and shapes and formed into beautiful paintings. So many people back home are interested in how to practically reduce consumption,” says Varis. The duo saw great opportunities in India and zeroed in on Mysore as their base owing to its rich heritage and good weather.

Skills + tourism = a more fulfilling holiday

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“All we have to do is connect the traveller with the artisan, and learning with leisure. The big thing was that this was something more than any instructable video on the net could deliver — this was real training in a real workshop, holding real tools, with a real instructor,” says Varis about their initiative.Be it yoga, cooking, metalworking, textiles or anything else, the duo started designing eight, 12, and 24-day packages of daily crafts in the morning and activities in the afternoons or evenings. Weekends would be free to do some sightseeing further afield or just relax.

Registered in Australia and in the process of formally setting up shop in India as well, Skillstourism has been operating since early 2016. Their philosophy is that creativity is the essence of being human. Everything falls into place when we are making beautiful things for the pleasure of others or our own selves, or practical things that help others, or even playful things to amuse others. This helps us to become balanced, personally as well as on a community level. In terms of the traction, the initiative is only picking up and travellers are coming onboard to see what Skillstourism has to offer.

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An outside perspective

Skillstourism is an interesting play on how the world of automation is shaping up. The world of manufacturing and other sectors as well are quickly moving towards centralisation. In a future where most things will be automated, what will humans do? For the core of humankind, work on the self is very important and initiatives like Skillstourism are thinking on these lines.

When we speak of India as a whole, an automated world seems like a distant possibility as even basic needs are not being taken care of. Cities are crumbling under the weight of urbanisation but capitalistic pressures still force India to move to make smarter cities instead of smarter villages. Amidst all the euphoria of ‘development’ in the traditional sense, it is good to have alternative voices.

As of now, there are a lot of foreigners from western countries coming to India to set up conscious initiatives, which is understandable considering they have seen the effects of rapid capitalism. A lot of Indians are also realising the flipside and are moving in a more conscious direction where we keep a check on growth at all times. Skillstourism is one of the representatives of this conscious voice which points towards taking things slow and being conscious of our actions.

Best Things to Do in Mysore

 

Mysore in Southern India stole a little piece of our hearts and sucked us into staying there an entire month. It’s not necessarily that there are so many places to see in Mysore but the relaxed vibes, amazing food and culture of this city that make you feel like you’re at home and discovering vibrant, new cultures all at the same time.

Mysore is famous for silk and sandalwood but there are many more exciting things to do in Mysore than avoiding the tourist scams at the silk markets. From the stunning Mysore Palace to creating crafts with local artisans you’ll want to spend weeks eating, discovering and exploring your way through Mysore.

But in case you only have a couple of days, here are the best things to do in Mysore during your visit

1.See the Mysore Palace

 Mysore Palace Karnataka, best things to see in Mysore

The is the reason most tourists visit Mysore and it’s one attraction that is truly deserving of its fame. The Mysore Palace was built in 1912 and for just 50 INR you can enjoy feeling like royalty and you wander through the ornately decorated halls and corridors. The palace is definitely one of the best places to visit in Mysore and should be top of you Mysore attractions list!

Opening times: 10.30 – 5:30pm

Cost: 50 INR plus 285 INR (foreigners) for the residential quarters. We didn’t do this part.

2. See the Mysore Palace by night

 Mysore Palace at night best things to see in Mysore Karnataka
Ok technically this is the same attraction as number one but it ‘s a whole different experience. Every Sunday evening from 7pm Mysore Palace is illuminated by nearly 100,000 lightbulbs creating a spectacularly magical feel. Join the crowds of tourists and locals to wander the grounds of the palace and see it in a new light… literally. Be there on time because the illumination only lasts about half an hour.

3. Visit the Markets

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The markets in Mysore lack a lot of the hustle and bustle of other Indian cities but this makes them a pleasant place to wander and look without being crushed in a throng of people. Deveraja market is popular for fruit/veg, spices and oils. The area nearby has a huge collection of silk shops but beware of tourist scams. Mandi market is also interesting to wander with flowers, fruit and some handicrafts. If you feel like going somewhere a little crazy have a look for the metal market which sells the most impressive array of used car parts, old gates, doors and metal poles.

 

4. Take a tour of the local artisans

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Mysore is known for its local artisans who specialise in everything from woodwork and marquetry to copper work and embroidery. Skillstourism offer a brilliant tour where you can see all the artisans at work and learn about their crafts. Watch the intricacy of a scene being created from tiny wooden pieces in the marquetry workshop or gaze in awe at the hundreds of hand-carved wooden blocks used for printing saris on the 16ft long table. What seems like an ordinary neighbourhood comes alive as you go behind the scenes and see the locals at work. If you’re into art or local life and are looking for some different places to see in Mysore this is definitely worth doing. You can read more details on the Skillstourism website.

 

5. Learn a craft

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If the artisans inspire you, Skillstourism also offer tailor-made workshops run by the local artisans. In a one-day workshop, you can block print your own fabric or learn the basics of jewellery making. If you have 2-3 days you can get stuck into stone carving, marquetry (wooden inlay work) or metal work and create your own piece of art to take home. The courses are professionally and personally run and offer something different to the usual tourist attractions. Max and I chose our own fabric and paint colours, block printed our own designs and then had it tailor-made into clothing. It was such a fun and rewarding experience!

The cost for hand-woven cotton, a day’s craft workshop for two including test cloth and tote bags to print and tailoring of 3 shirts and a dress (plus zip pouches made from leftovers)? €80

The feeling of wearing clothing we’ve printed and designed ourselves? Priceless!

Learn more about the craft workshops here.

 

6.  Have dinner in a Palace

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There are no less than seven palaces in Mysore so the feeling of royalty kind of rubs off. So don your best clothing, or dig your least dirty item out of the backpack and head to the Lalith Mahal Palace Restaurant for dinner. The dining room will make you feel like a king or queen for the evening and the food and service are great. Meals are more expensive than restaurants in town but still not ridiculous at about 350-450 INR per dish.

If you’re feeling extra fancy you can even book a room. But make sure you do so in advance as it is often booked out for weddings and formal visits. Click hereto check it out.

 

7. Wander the streets

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Of all the things to see in Mysore, the streets are the most interesting. As with everywhere in India, the local life, buildings and food are more mind-blowing than any tourist attraction. Meandering through the lanes of Mysore you’ll see all kinds of daily life, excited children, grandmas having tea, cows, colourful washing, tiny shops, houses fashioned in the remains of abandoned colonial buildings and all kinds of food being prepared and enjoyed. So spend some time getting lost and discovering a different side of Mysore.

8. Do Yoga

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Yoga is one of the most popular things to do in Mysore as world famous gurus reside and teach in the ashrams here during December and January. Even in the off-season when the Mysore weather heats up you can still find some drop in classes and teacher training courses. Gokulam is the yoga centre of Mysore so if you plan to yoga regularly then base yourself here.

9. Stay in a Mansion

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If you can’t afford to stay in a palace you will be able to afford to stay in a converted colonial mansion which is almost as cool. The Green Hotel has a range of private rooms, beautifully manicured gardens, a good restaurant and a café run by women from underprivileged backgrounds who have been trained by a French baker.  Delicious cakes, relaxed surroundings and there’s even a small library. Check out prices here.

For the more budget conscious check yourself in to one of the only hostels in Mysore, The Mansion 1907. This beautiful historic building houses several dorm rooms and a couple of spacious private rooms. There is free rooftop yoga in the mornings, amazing wall murals and a huge comfortable common area for hanging out. We made our home here for 4 weeks during our trip to India. Go there and you’ll see why. Book now.

 

10. Take a Cycle Tour

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Continuing our discoveries of more off-beat areas of Mysore we learnt about Mycycle Tours. Stephen runs really interesting bike tours around the beautiful island of Srirangapatnam about 12km from Mysore.  Over the course of 3-4 hours you’ll learn about the history of the area and get to soak in some amazing scenes of rural life. Make sure you bring a camera and some sunscreen!

 

 

11. Eat Masala Dosa

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The dosas in Mysore are some of the best in the country and a trip to Mysore wouldn’t be complete without indulging at least once a day. For anyone unfamiliar with this edible glory a dosa is a large, crispy pancake filled with various things. A masala dosa comes filled with a potato, onion and spice mix. Hotel Mylari is famed as being THE place to enjoy a dosa. We were staying a few minutes from here and while their dosas are good, we far preferred others on the same street which were crispier and tastier, but everyone has their own dosa preference!

 

Best restaurants in Mysore

If you’re looking for some more places to eat check out any of these for great food and decent prices.

Di Lemon – Great range of North and South Indian cuisine at really reasonable prices.

Parklane Hotel – Decent North and South Indian food and beer towers!

The Old House – Woodfire pizza for when you need a break from Indian food. A little more expensive but well worth it.

Om Shanti – Amazing North and South Indian thalis and a cold stone ice cream stand outside.

Hotel Guru – Authentic local thalis for just 50 INR. Absolutely delicious!

 

12. Drink real coffee

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Mysore is one of the few places in India where you can find real barista coffee. The mountain areas around Mysore are home to thousands of coffee plantations and the established yoga community means there is a good market for proper coffee.

Best cafes in Mysore

Depth ‘n’ Green – They have a full café with great food and an espresso bar for when you just need a caffeine fix.

Rasa Dhatu – Great range of organic food including vegan options. Organic supermarket attached.

Khushi Cafe – Service with a smile. Simple but delicious food, you can even earn your meal by volunteering for a couple of hours.

The Green Hotel – Social project cafe in an old colonial mansion. Beautiful gardens and great cake.

There are so many things to see in Mysore and the relaxed atmosphere of the city draws travellers in and a couple of days quickly turn into a couple of weeks here. So make sure you leave some time in your India to fall in love with Mysore and all it has to offer!

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