While being based in Bangalore I frequently travelled to and fro by road between Bangalore and Ooty —passing through the calm and staid Mysore often referred to as the ‘City of Palaces’. I had never stopped long enough to see any of these palaces, till the very last month of my stay in Bangalore, when I finally saw ‘ Amba Vilas’ the Maharaja’s Palace with its golden domes. I discovered that the present palace is comparatively new and much grander than the early one which had burnt down. Mysore’s Maharajas have been known to be particularly fond of ostentatious décor and the Amba Vilas Palace was a perfect example of this.
The rulers of the state of Mysore —now known as Karnataka—the wealthy Wodeyars, in keeping with their style of living, are credited with creating some of the most opulent palaces in the country.
However, while ruling from their gilded palace in Mysore, they managed to lay the foundations of a highly progressive and affluent state. As in so many parts of India, the people of the state have been molded by major schools of thought through the centuries. In Mysore there are splendid examples existing of the various religions that have held sway in the state—Jainism, Hinduism with equal emphasis on the worship of Shiva and Vishnu, and the Muslims.
The focal point of the city of Mysore is naturally the Maharaja’s Palace with its glittering interiors and spectacularly illuminated exteriors on Sunday nights. The Palace was built in the late nineteenth century, in the Indo-Saracenic style popular at the time, at a cost of Rs. 4.2 million. Full of gilded ceilings, stained glass, mirrors, carved doors and mosaic floors, the most opulent being the columned Durbar Hall. Part of the Palace is still used by the present royal family on festive occasions, while the rest is a museum. The collection includes a golden howdah used by the rulers during ceremonial processions - giving a taste of the splendid lifestyle of the Wodeyar rulers of Mysore.
The ten-day festival of Dussehra, held with pomp from the times of the Vijayanagar dynasty, has survived and is still a great attraction. A spectacular procession is taken out to the accompaniment of music, dance and fireworks. The royal family’s devotion to Goddess Chamundeshwari (or Durga), has manifested itself in a 40-metre high temple built to the Goddess at the top of Chamundi Hill, with a couple of beautifully carved silver doors. There is also a huge figure of Mahisasura, the Asura said to have been destroyed by Durga. Three-quarters of the way up is a large and imposing figure of Shiva’s mount Nandi, carved out of a single rock.
Before going up the Chamundi Hill to the Temple, one should visit the tastefully built Lalitha Mahal Palace, located at the foot of the hill. This beautiful Palace was the official state guest house. Now converted into a hotel, the Palace with its landscaped gardens, set against the backdrop of the Chamundi Hill, is a spectacular sight. Further up the hill, is Rajendra Vialas, the Wodeyar’s Summer Palace.
One cannot write about Mysore and leave out Tipu’s Palace. Tipu, commonly referred to as the ‘Tiger of Mysore’ due to his daring exploits with the British, built his capital at Srirangapattnam, 15 kilometres from Mysore. He managed to remain a terror to the British for 20 years before he was killed in 1799. His capital Srirangapatna, on an island on the River Kaveri, draws many pilgrims, due to a temple with the image of Vishnu in his reclining form. Tipu’s fortress Dariya Daulat and his summer palace are notable for their ornate arches and murals, depicting episodes from the lives of Tipu Sultan and his father Hyder Ali.
Also worth seeing is the impressive tomb of Hyder Ali with its surrounding garden. Within a 30 km radius also lies the Brindavan Gardens, located about 20 km from Mysore, next to the Krishnaraja Sagar Dam. Here an elaborate combination of fountains create a veritable fairyland when lit by a myriad lights in the evenings, making it among the most popular backdrops for song sequences in regional films and a popular haunt for honeymooners.
Somnathpur, 30 kilometres from Mysore offers visitors an insight into the splendours of Hoysala temple architecture. The Kesava temple dedicated to Vishnu was built by a Hoysala Prime Minister, Somnatha in the 13th century. The temple with its triple towers has carvings from the base upwards of majestic elephants, speeding horses and soldiers.
However it is the inner images that are truly unique and where one can see craftsmanship of a very high order. The images are made of stone, but are so well-polished that when knocked upon they resound with a metalic sound like bronze. Even more amazing are the bangles on the figures, which can be turned at will being loose around the wrists—carved simultaneously with the arms, from a single piece of stone.
But as expected, Mysore was too placid a city to remain the capital, and soon enough the capital moved from Mysore to Bangalore.
Here, the Wodeyars decided to build a replica of Windsor Castle, in keeping with the cosmopolitan ambience of their new capital. The Bangalore Palace has many visitors while continueing to be used by the royal family. Its huge gardens are now also rented out for weddings, films and special events.
Needless to say, it continues to surprise visitors from abroad.