A centre of sandalwood-carving, silk and incense production, MYSORE is one of south India’s more appealing cities. Nearly 160km southwest of Bengaluru, the city is Karnataka’s most popular tourist destination by a long shot, attracting about 2.5 million visitors each year. Nevertheless, it remains a charming, old-fashioned and undaunting town, changed by neither an IT boom nor its new-found status as a top international yoga destination. That said, the erstwhile capital of the Wadiyar rajas can be a little disappointing at first blush: upon stumbling off a bus or train you’re 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. Still, give it a few days and Mysore will cast a spell on you.
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 a busy centre that teems 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-run Cauvery Arts and Crafts Emporium on Sayaji Rao Road (closed Thurs), 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.
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.