Mysore is not only one of the most popular destinations for birders, it also boasts of a splendid cultural heritage, given the grand palaces in Mysore, beautifully chiselled pilgrimage spots, and glorious festivals.
History of Mysore
Mysore traces a historic legacy, ruled from 12th century by the Wodeyars, the Hindu Rajas, who empowered it as the capital of the erstwhile Mysore state with the blessings of their chosen deity — the goddess Chamundi. When Mughals broke their reign, the first Wodeyar rule ended in 1761; however, in 1799 with the death of Tipu Sultan at the hands of the British, the Wodeyar power was restored in full glory and with splendid architectural achievements that face-lifted the cityscape to its modern day splendours.
Amba Vilas Palace
Today, this undaunting town centres on the palace completed by the twenty-fourth Wodeyar Raja in 1912, the leafy boulevards radiating out from this spacious northern roundabout into the labyrinth of streets and markets, famous for their sandalwood carvings and silk. The Mysore palace, now converted to a state-run museum, is veiled in a fantasy on Sundays and special events — lit up with no less than 5,000 bulbs. In the afternoon, I am finger-tracing, albeit imaginarily, the gentle curves of the well proportioned arches and the crowning dome atop the central tower. On closer gaze, the naked bulbs bordering the trims and edges pop out like air blown bits of bubble gum against the monsoon skies. I am a day late, it’s a Monday. How I wished to have chanced upon the electric meters whizzing with fairytale bulbs fancying the magnificent palace.
Architecture of the Palace/Museum
Inside the museum, the polished marble floors inlaid with floral motifs lead through spectacular exhibits of lavishness. Stained glass from Belgium, Bohemian chandeliers, cast iron pillars from Glasgow, and a grandiose array of period furniture endorse upon the sensual pleasures the former rulers reveled in. Halfway through, the imposing elephant gate adorns the main entrance to the palace centre.
Past gilded colonnades, I approach the Darbar like hall from where the Wodeyar Raja addressed his audience, seated on a throne made of solid 280 kg of gold from Karnataka. As the sun sets, I stroll out once again awestruck at the sight of the palace. The windows have come alive in incandescent glow against the cobalt sky. Small street lights dot the pathway leading from the shut gates all around the perimeter. The archaic frame gets complete with a solitary tonga – the horse drawn chariot cart, an ancient mode of short transport, its charioteer in desperate pursuit of a customer.
Street food in Mysore
I oblige and take a paid ride to the clock tower along the broad boulevard, whose one side is lined obscured in fizz from blazing tawas serving the southern staple: idli-dosas served on banana leaves. Down along the cartline is a gastric amalgamation of carts serving Chinese noodles and chhola bhaturas too, to be sweetly topped over with a helping of the famous Mysore pak mithai.
Mysore is misappropriated from ‘Mahisur,’ so called in the tenth century as the buffalo demon Mahishasura was slain by Goddess Durga here. The victory is commemorated annually as Dussehra festival, for which Mysore is equally famous. The near year-end festival celebrated in grand style, progresses in a procession of bejewelled elephants and horses – a spectacle eagerly sought by the peninsular Indians thronging in large numbers.
One may wonder why the distant Srirangapatnam is part of the itinerated day excursion of Mysore city tour. In 1616, the Wodeyar Rajas shifted their capital to Srirangapatnam, 14 km away from Mysore, on an island over the river Kaveri. With the rajas deposed in 1761, the Srirangapatnam fort was besieged by Haider Ali and his son, Tipu Sultan. In a short span, Tipu converted this small Mysore state into a major power-centre, threatening the British dominance over India. Thus, followed the bloody battle of Srirangapatnam in which Tipu fought like a true warrior against the overwhelming British soldiers. On May 4, 1799, the British excitedly declared ‘India is ours’ on finding Tipu dead amidst bodies of both sides slaughtered in this historic battle. Such was Tipu’s dreaded aura.
Today, the underground dungeons where chained British prisoners were made to stand in neck deep water are grim reminders of his feats. Believed to having killed a tiger bare handed, his soldiers idolised Tipu as the Tiger of Mysore, which he obsessively embraced decorating himself in finery of royal stripes and other symbols of the tiger. His tomb at Gumbaz, where he was laid to rest next to his father Haider Ali, is hand painted on the inside in similar tiger patterns.
Tipu’s once Summer Palace, the Dariya Daulat Bagh houses an impressive collection of his memorabilia – hand sketches of his invincible enterprise and his advisory. The vibrant battlefield paintings spread over 70 ft along the outer walls of the palace, commemorates Tipu Sultan’s and Haider Ali’s victorious combats.
At the Karnataka Tourism-run Mayura Hotel along the Kaveri, I am re-reading Tipu’s history from a small booklet bought outside his mausoleum. Sipping a cold lager, I buy myself into a teppa (coracle) – round wicker hewn basket boat that glides gently over the Kaveri – and step off on an island formed by heaped boulders. I am left in perfect solitude of Mother Nature in her elemental best: vivid greenery against the perfect monsoon skies as the Kaveri gently flows past. Like the awesome Tipu, but rather tipsily, I feel as the possessor of this petite island, his sword though substituted by my empty bottle of lager. Back at Mayura for lunch, I take a recess from history and soon am riding the auto-rickshaw across the width of Srirangapatnam for a rendezvous with birds at the Salim Ali-established Ranganathittu Bird Sanctuary.
It’s a weathered skiff this time, busy with ten farers skimming down the tiny islands of Kaveri. I am struck with the crowded birding haunts, a migratory haven for ornithologists. My co-passengers are least eager of the avian flocks – they enquire in Kannada with the oarsman for the possible sighting of crocodiles. He points at the dark, stonelike outcrops bobbing in the distant waters. Approaching closer, we silently stare into the unmistaken slits of the eyes. The crocodile acknowledges our jaw-dropping gaze with a distinct coldness, as he slithers by. The boat erupts with a frantic aftermath, unsteady voices deliberating on the shocking intimacy of the reptile. Breathing afresh, we sight a wonderful flock of painted storks on one island. They seem playful in an audible riot. The raucous cause becomes apparent as we round the island. Another large crocodile is basking too close to the storks’ nestlings. Hitching back to Srirangapatnam, the ramparts of Tipu’s fort stand silhouetted against the evening clouds.
Wishful thinking has its own ways. This time, the rains refuse to let go of the clouds. I thank my stars. The moon peeps through momentarily; I tip into a déjà vu. Up at the Chamundi hills in Mysore, a display in the museum states abashedly, ‘World drama repeats itself identically every 5000 years; you had visited this place the same way you are doing now exactly 5000 years ago.’
How to reach
Although Mysore has been granted an airport recently, its connectivity is still nascent. Mysore is best approached from Bengaluru, about 160 km, where pre-paid taxis can be hired at the airport or the city. The excellent KSRTC bus service from Bengaluru to Mysore is a more viable option. Mysore is serviced by trains from major cities across India. To visit the places of interest within the city, you can hire a full-day taxi or an auto-rickshaw to get around town. The inter-city bus connectivity is quite good and reliable.
Where to stay
There is no dearth of accommodation in Mysore to suit every budget. However, during the Dasara festival, it is best to book well in advance. You can stay at some of these luxurious hotels: Fortune JP Palace (Tel: 0821 3988444), Royal Orchid Brindavan Garden (Tel: 41276667), The Windflower Spa & Resorts (Tel: 2522500), Lalitha Mahal Hotel Palace (Tel: 2526100).
By Vartika Kaushal
About the Author
Vartika Kaushal loves to travel and pick up new cooking recipes on the way. She is an inveterate shopaholic and loves collecting souvenirs from her travel.