For most of recorded history, Mysore was home to the Wodeyar dysnasty who can trace their genealogy back to 1339 when two princes from Dwaraka (current Gujarat), Yaduraya and Krishnaya, followed their dreams to his place in south. Yaduraya played the role of rescuing the damsel from distress and married the princess to become the next successor to the throne. It is said that he took the name Wodeyar from the Kannada word ‘Odeya’ meaning master.
Mysore was a vassal state in the ancient Vijayanagar empire which came into its own in the year 1673 under the reign of Chikka Devaraja Wodeyar – a man who chose his battles tactically based on the logic of defeating provinces that were no longer of interest to the Mughals. However, sneaky tactics often have a way of capturing attention. Being a smart man, the Wodeyar king decided to pledge his allegiance to the Mughal Sultanate instead of incurring their wrath. In essence, he paid for the freedom to rule and expand. However, start of the early 18th century placed Mysore in a strange predicament – the kingdom was without a proper ruler and stuck between a rock and a hard place – on one hand, the Nizam of Hyderabad who saw himself as the natural successor of the Mughals in southern India, expected an annual tribute from Mysore. On the other hand, the Marathas saw it as their right to collect chauth, the annual tax, from Mysore. Tumultous history aside, it wasn’t until the year 1902, when Mysore reached its golden age with numerous infrastrucure projects in industry, education, agriculture, and arts.
Once upon a time in Mysore
The semi-arid weather of Mysore makes it a sought-after getaway for many. However, to see a city come alive in terms of its culture and heritage, the recommendation would be to make it a stop during during the festival of Dussehra, which is usually celebrated in the month of September or October. That’s a post for another day, but here is a 24-hour guide to the City of Palaces.
Perched high up on Mysore’s Chamundi Hills is the medieval Chamundi Temple—home of Chamundeshwari or Durga, the tutelary goddess of the Mysore Maharajas since the dynasty’s inception in 1399. To date, on the 7th day of Navratri she is decorated in jewels donated by the royal family and on Dussera, her double is carried around the city in a grand affair as part of the celebrations. This will probably the only temple where the demon Mahisasura also features prominently. To avoid the crowd of Dussera, I decided to ignore this from my itinerary. The fact that it requires climbing 1000 stairs had obviously nothing to do with it!!!
A French-designed statue of a 3rd Century Greek Saint in a German-styled cathedral in the heart of South India.” That is Saint Philomena’s Cathedral for you, dedicated to Philomena [291 – 304 AD], the patron saint of babies, children, and youth.
175-feet tall twin spires of this dark grey Gothic style church towers over the city, thereby making Saint Philomena’s Cathedral one of Asia’s tallest churches. Built between 1933 and 1941, at the request of Mysore Reverend Rene Fuega, its French architecture is said to be influenced by St Patrick’s Cathedral in New York and the Cologne Cathedral in Germany.
When the capital of the Kingdom of Mysore moved back to Mysore from Srirangapatna post the 1799 siege, Maharaja Krishnaraja Wodeyar III built a small church in 1843 for the British East India Company officers and soldiers. In 1933, his grandson Maharaja Krishnaraja Wodeyar IV expanded it further with the help of the Frenchman Daly. The colourful windows depict key scenes from the life of Jesus, while the crypt houses a statue of the sleeping St Philomena. Mary, dressed in a sari, is also represented inside the church, showing how Christianity was immersed and adapted within the local culture.
Pro tip – Photography inside is prohibited. On Sunday, during mass, tourists are not allowed inside the Church
Royal Heritage de’tour
Reigning over the cityscape is the literal crown jewel, the Amba Vilas Palace, referred simply as the Mysore Palace. Queen Regent Kempananjammanni Vanivilasa Sanndihana commissioned the prominent British architect Henry Irwin in 1897 to build a new palace, after its predecessor was completely gutted in a fire. One that would showcase the legacy not only the 600 years of Wodeyar royal family rule but also the importance of the city of Mysuru itself. The present-day dramatic, three storeyed stone building was completed in 1912, and was further refurbished in 1940 to continue on its tone of opulence.
Entry to the palace is through the Gombe Thotti (Dolls’Pavilion) which is now a gallery of European and Indian sculpture and ceremonial objects such as the golden howdah, an elaborately decorated throne made of 84 kg of gold and set with precious stones.
The interiors are no less than lavish with carved mahogany ceilings, stained glass windows and glazed tiled floors.
The most awe-inspiring sights in my humble opinion (one that is shared by the jostling crowd around you) is the reason why many willingly endure the elbow-poking and grunting, shuffling footsteps encountered during Mysore palace visits especially at the time of Dussera. First is the Kalayana Mantapa or the marriage hall – an octagonal structure with Belgian stained glass ceiling, peacock motifs, cast-iron pillars from Glasgow and a dome painted with Dussera procession.
Next on the block is the Durbar Hall with its vividly painted colonnades and ornate ceilings that connects to a massive balcony with an equally impressive art collection on the ceiling and a massive view othe parade grounds. Stick to the selfie mode when you are on the breezy balcony. Trust me, you will not be disappointed!!!
Third and last would be the room that leads to the secure area where the golden throne, also known as the chinnada simhasana or ratna simhasana, is kept away from public display. You have to pay a nominal fee of 50 INR to see a close-up of it, but photography is strictly not allowed. The throne is officially brought out for public display during the annual Dussera festival when the royal scion ascends it to conduct a symbolic darbar. Legend has it that the thrown was originally in Hastinapura and belonged to the Pandavas. It was brought to Penugonda in current Andhra Pradesh and buried. In 1636 AD, a priest named Vidyaranya showed the spot to Harihara I, the founder of the Vijayanagar Empire. After 150 years, the throne shifted hands into the Wodeyar family.
Don’t miss out the snarling symbol of the Wodeyar family!
Within the palace premises, there are 12 temples located which are accessible through six gates. These temples were constructed during various periods between the 14th and 20th century and hence are ASI protected. Since these are all active temples, it is ideal to be respectful of temple customs. Shweta Varahaswami temple is the most easily accessible due to its close proximity to the popular Varaha gate. The temple was constructed in the early 19th century using materials from the Hoysala period.
Lakshminarayan temple is the oldest temple that exists within the Palace complex, dating back to 1499 CE and is highly revered amonst the royal family as it was the place of coronation of the 5-year old prince Krishnaraja Wodeyar III, when the Wodeyars regained control over the kingdom.
Pro Tip – In short, you can easily spend close to 2-3 hours in the palace complex, based on your inclination towards photography and crowd jostling rate. Since the palace opens at 10 AM, I would recommend to cover the temples and the church at the earliest, so that you can try avoiding majority of the crowd and finish the palace complex by afternoon.
- Beyond the nominal fee of 40 INR for adults (200 INR for foreigners), another additional rule that has been impleemnted is to deposit your footwear right beside the gateway to palace entry. It would have been good to provide foot covers as well (like how it is done in Taj Mahal) since the aim is to preserve the palace integrity.
- Many websites currently will state that photography is forbidden inside the palace. It is not so at all. There is no additional camera charges as well. The only place which is camera-unfriendly would be the secure throne room.
- All the temples are located on the palace ground and can be easily accessible.
The next must-visit feature on your itinerary should be the Jaganmohan Palace, a three-storeyed structure which houses the Jayachamarajendra Art Gallery. The palace was built in 1861 and was said to be a focal point of major social activities in Mysore. When the main palace, the Amba Vilas, was destroyed in 1897, the royal family moved to this palace while reconstruction was going on. Hence, the coronation of Nalvadi Krishnaraja Wodeya was conducted in this very palace grounds in 1902, which was attended by the Viceroy and Governon-General of India, Lord Curzon.
For an art gallery, this was the most disappointing experience of all times for me. Absolutely no photography allowed; no way to document the impressive and some of the unique collections that is housed within the palace – poorly illuminated, poorly labelled and barely visible. Well, I did manage to sneak few images here and there, but the furtive glances made me feel as if I am committing a theft. But if you do visit the palace, then here are the recommended, not-to-be missed artifacts:
- Wooden door at the main hall with its carvings of Dashavatara, the ten incarnations of Vishnu.
- One-of-a-kind French Musical Calendar Clock, a product of the genious collaboration of two men – Krishnaraja Wodeyar III and the English clockmaker George Hardaker. The iron is the British regiment that is said to work in tune to French clockwork mechanism.
- Raja Ravi Varma art gallery which consists of Sixteen original Raja Ravi Verma paintings including the celebrated Malabar Lady, Galaxy of Musicians, Sairandhri, Victory of Meghanatha, Lady in Moonlight, Suckling Child, and Harishchandra.
Having a lunch or dinner is another way to enjoy the splendor of Lalitha Mahal Palace, a two-storeyed, Renaissance style building that was designed by EW Fritchley (of Taj Hotel, Mumbai fame). The palace took 9 years to be completed and currently features as a heritage hotel maintained by the tourism department. Unfortunately, I couldn’t make it to the location because of having a full plate itinerary, but it comes of as a highly recommended tourist experience!
Museum de’Tour: A curated experience
Mysore is also where RK Narayan lived and wrote his acclaimed English novels set in the fictional town of Malgudi, a town he conceptualised in 1930, right here. His literary works made India both accessible and comprehensible to the rest of the world. However, both my Mysore visits have been marked with a failed attempt at visiting the RK Narayan’s House. It’s like a conspiracy theory, which unfortunately makes me more dogged to succeed!! Maybe third time is the charm?
Rail Museum is a charming glimpse of bygone times of royalty. Established in 1979, it houses several decommissioned steam locomotives and coaches from the train that was once run for the Maharaja of Mysore, a salon that dates back to 1899, and various other railways related artefacts salvaged from Karnataka. Tickets are sold from an adapted goods carriage that was built in England in 1923.
With a theme based on music, Melody World Wax Museum boasts of being the largest collection of musical instruments in India. Currently, a growing collection of 1500 musical instrument has found home in a 100-year old heritage building. All the statues exhibited are of life-size in wax, draped in traditional native clothes. The only con that I can point out would be the fact that the artifacts do not have ample space or proper lighting to shine.
Sand and me have enjoyed a love-hate relationship. While I enjoy a beach outing on any good day, it doesnt change the fact that I have lost a good number of shoes and clothes because of sand particulates. But nothing takes away the pleasure of creating miniatures of castles and expressing lament over watching a wave crash over it. However, Mysore Sand Sculpture museum stands true to the testament that with time, patience and creativity something very unique and mind-blowing will be your reward.
Meet MN Gowri, a 30-year-old postgraduate in Fine Arts [Sculpture] from Mysore and the only woman sand artist in Karnataka who started this endeavour in the year 2014 with a loan of 20 lakhs INR and a lease of one-acre plot on Chamundi Hills. Sculpture themes made from 115 truckloads of sieved construction sand, in this 13,500 sq.ft museum plot range from Mysore’s heritage and religion to wildlife and ancient civilizations.
On a similar sandy notes, another speciality addition to the museum circuit of the city would be the Guinness World Record Sea Shell Art Museum, an ingenious brainchild of Radha Mallappa. Since this is as new as 2017, I really wasn’t expecting much to be honest. But trust me, you will be surprised for sure!!
If you still have some time left in the evening, you can check out the Flower show that is put up on the Palace ground. This way, you will be primely positioned for the Lighting of the palace and the Light and Sound show that occurs.
The first experiments in providing electric lighting to the palace date back to May 1878, which coincided with the occasion of the marriage of Chamarajendra Wodeyar. If the daytime view was a magnificent treat, then you will be spellbound at night when the palace exterior literally comes alive as over 97,000 bulbs are lit simultaneously. The lighting up of the palace only happens on Sundays and public holidays and will be available to witness only for an hour. The light and sound show happens in both English and Kannada, not simultaneously, but on alternative days of the week.
From the palace, you can stroll around watching all the streets lit up for the festivities. It is as if the city has put up its own Light and Sound show. Honking does count, okay?!!!
The alternative option is to head for Brindavan Gardens, where every evening, at an interval of half hour till its closing time, a musical fountain will serenade you. Dating back to 1932, the terraced gardens are the handiwork of Mirza Ismail, Dewan of Mysore during the reign of Maharaja Krishnaraja Wodeyar IV. The garden adjoins the Krishnarajasagara Dam built over the Cauvery river, where you can also opt for a boating experience.
Can it really be a travelogue, if a homage is not paid to the gastronomical delight that a place has to offer? Here are the must-haves for the foodies out there!
- The iconic Mysore pak from Guru Sweet Mart is an absolute must!
- Malgudi cafe, located on the premise of The Green Hotel, formerly known as the Chittaranjan Palace, is known for its organic cakes and puddings, multi-grain bread, and the unique all-woman crew from the Balmiki Dalit community.
- Kodava or Mangalorean cuisine lunch can be experienced at Simply Kodavas or Bopy’s
- Mysore mylari dosa at either Vinayaka mylari dosa or Tegu mess
- Mutton pulav at Hotel Hanmanthu original
Happy to add more to the list, but I think this is a good one for couple of days in Mysore don’t you think?
Related (and not-so related) Posts: