A centre of sandalwood-carving, silk and incense production, MYSORE is one of south India’s more appealing places to visit. Nearly 160km southwest of Bengaluru, the erstwhile capital of the Wadiyar rajas can be disappointing at first blush considering the compliments often heaped on it: upon stumbling off a bus or train one is not so much embraced by the scent of jasmine blossoms or gentle wafts of sandalwood as smacked by a cacophony of tooting, careering buses, bullock carts, motorbikes, and tongas. The city was recently ranked by a national magazine as one of India’s best for business and is Karnataka’s most popular tourist destination by a long shot, attracting about 2.5 million each year. Nevertheless, Mysore remains a charming, old-fashioned and undaunting town, changed by neither an IT boom nor its newfound status as a top international yoga destination. Give it a few days and Mysore will cast a spell on you.
In the tenth century Mysore was known as Mahishur – “the town where the demon buffalo was slain” (by the goddess Durga). Presiding over a district of many villages, the city was ruled from about 1400 until Independence by the Hindu Wadiyars. Their rule was only broken from 1761, when the Muslim Haider Ali and his son Tipu Sultan took over. Two years later, the new rulers demolished the labyrinthine old city to replace it with the elegant grid of sweeping, leafy streets and public gardens that survive today. However, following Tipu Sultan’s defeat in 1799 by the British colonel Arthur Wellesley (later the Duke of Wellington), Wadiyar power was restored. As the capital of Mysore state, the city thereafter dominated a major part of southern India. In 1956, when Bangalore became capital of newly formed Karnataka, its maharaja was appointed governor.
In addition to its official tourist attractions, chief among them the Maharaja’s Palace, Mysore is a great city simply to stroll around. The evocative, if dilapidated, pre-Independence buildings lining market areas such as Ashok Road and Sayaji Rao Road lend an air of faded grandeur to the busy centre, teeming with vibrant street life. Souvenir stores spill over with the famous sandalwood; the best place to get a sense of what’s on offer is the Government Cauvery Arts and Crafts Emporium on Sayaji Rao Road, which stocks a wide range of local crafts that can be shipped overseas. The city’s famous Devaraja Market on Sayaji Rao Road is one of south India’s most atmospheric produce markets: a giant complex of covered stalls groaning with bananas (the delicious nanjangod variety), luscious mangoes, blocks of sticky jaggery and conical heaps of lurid kumkum powder.Read More
Mysore’s centre is dominated by the walled Maharaja’s Palace, a fairytale spectacle topped with a shining brass-plated dome. It’s especially magnificent on Sunday nights and during festivals, when it is illuminated by nearly 100,000 lightbulbs. It was completed in 1912 for the twenty-fourth Wadiyar raja, on the site of the old wooden palace that had been destroyed by fire in 1897. In 1998, after a lengthy judicial tussle, the courts decided in favour of formally placing the main palace in the hands of the Karnataka state government but the royal family, who still hold a claim, have lodged an appeal which is ongoing. Twelve temples surround the palace, some of them of much earlier origin. Although there are six gates in the perimeter wall, entrance is on the south side only. Shoes and cameras must be left at the cloakroom inside.
An extraordinary amalgam of styles from India and around the world crowds the lavish interior. Entry is through the Gombe Thotti or Dolls’ Pavilion, once a showcase for the figures featured in the city’s lively Dussehra celebrations and now a gallery of European and Indian sculpture and ceremonial objects. Halfway along, the brass Elephant Gate forms the main entrance to the centre of the palace, through which the maharaja would drive to his car park. Decorated with floriate designs, it bears the Mysore royal symbol of a double-headed eagle, now the state emblem. To the north, past the gate, stands a ceremonial wooden elephant howdah. Elaborately decorated with 84kg of 24-carat gold, it appears to be inlaid with red and green gems – in fact the twinkling lights are battery-powered signals that let the mahout know when the maharaja wished to stop or go.
Walls leading into the octagonal Kalyana Mandapa, the royal wedding hall, are lined with a meticulously detailed frieze of oil paintings, executed over a period of fifteen years by four Indian artists, illustrating the great Mysore Dussehra festival of 1930. The hall itself is magnificent, a cavernous space featuring cast-iron pillars from Glasgow, Bohemian chandeliers and multicoloured Belgian stained glass arranged in peacock designs in the domed ceiling.
Climbing a staircase with Italian marble balustrades, past an unnervingly realistic life-size plaster-of-Paris figure of Krishnaraja Wadiyar IV, lounging comfortably with his bejewelled feet on a stool, you come into the Public Durbar Hall, an orientalist fantasy like something from A Thousand and One Nights. A vision of brightly painted and gilded colonnades, open on one side, the massive hall affords views out across the parade ground and gardens to Chamundi Hill. The maharaja gave audience from here, seated on a throne made from 280kg of solid Karnatakan gold. These days, the hall is only used during the Dussehra festival, when it hosts classical concerts. The smaller Private Durbar Hall features especially beautiful stained glass and gold-leaf painting. Before leaving you pass two embossed silver doors – all that remains of the old palace.
Mysore Dussehra festival
Mysore Dussehra festival
Following the tradition set by the Vijayanagar kings, the ten-day festival of Dussehra (Sept/Oct), to commemorate the goddess Durga’s slaying of the demon buffalo, Mahishasura, is celebrated in grand style at Mysore. Scores of cultural events include concerts of south Indian classical (Carnatic) music and dance performances in the great Durbar Hall of the Maharaja’s Palace. On Vijayadasmi, the tenth and last day of the festival, a magnificent procession of mounted guardsmen on horseback and caparisoned elephants – one carrying the palace deity, Chaamundeshwari, on a gold howdah – marches 5km from the palace to Banni Mantap. There’s also a floating festival in the temple tank at the foot of Chamundi Hill, and a procession of chariots around the temple at the top. A torchlit parade takes place in the evening, followed by a massive firework display and much jubilation on the streets.