Palace of palaces

Published : Apr 20, 2012 00:00 IST

The magnificent Mysore Palace, in its centenary year, remains an architectural marvel.

in Mysore

A century has passed since the Amba Vilas Palace in Mysore, simply known as the Mysore Palace, was constructed. This grand edifice is an enduring image of the pomp, splendour and glory of the former princely state of Mysore. It is also one of the most popular tourist destinations in India, with an estimated 35 lakh footfalls last year. Of the visitors, 70,000 to 80,000 were foreigners.

In terms of size and population, Mysore was one of the largest self-governed territories in the subcontinent in the colonial period. In regal stature, the Mysore king, as the head of one of the few salute states in India, enjoyed a 21-gun salute, the highest honour that the ruler of any native state under British indirect rule could wish for. The palace, the construction of which started in 1897 and ended in 1912, was conceived as a residence befitting the monarch of a state of such importance.

Mysore, which was laid out as the capital of the princely state, now part of Karnataka, retains a very strong connection with its royal past. With its wide boulevards, many heritage structures and generous greenery, Mysore is a class apart from most other smaller Indian cities. Even during the time of the Mysore kings, when administration had effectively moved to Bangalore, the king resided in Mysore. No wonder the city acquired the sobriquet of the cultural capital of Karnataka. It is also known as the city of palaces as it is home to many historic palaces.

On the day Frontline visited this magnificent palace, there was good news in store. In the just-announced State Budget, Chief Minister D.V. Sadananda Gowda, in his capacity as Finance Minister, had granted Rs.25 crore to the Mysore Palace Board (MPB), the 10-year-old body responsible for administering the tourism affairs of Mysore Palace, to mark the centenary.

T.S. Subrahmanya, Deputy Director of the MPB, said: We have many plans to mark this year, but our priority is going to be the protection' of the monument. He said sound waterproofing was required for the palace as water trickled down through its century-old bricks. In addition, we want to have a rose garden that will have blossoms of different hues throughout the year. Right now, the gardens are bare.

Stately presence

The Mysore Palace, with its four arched gateways, occupies 72 acres in the heart of Mysore (one acre is 0.4 hectare). By the time work on the palace was finished in 1912, the princely state was already experiencing an era of peace and prosperity. The reign of the sagacious Krishnaraja Wodeyar IV had begun a few years earlier, and Mysore was on its way to becoming a model princely state that was way ahead of its time. The Maharajah, for instance, recognised the need for affirmative action when he implemented the recommendations of the 1918 Backward Classes Commission and set aside a certain number of jobs for members of certain castes and communities. With dewans such as M. Visvesvaraya and Mirza Ismail, Mysore had made great industrial progress and also modernised its infrastructure. In 1911, when the palace was about to be completed, the population of the city stood at 71,306.

The main entrance to the palace is through the tall and imposing East Gate. Tourists enter the palace from this point. Mada Naika, Assistant Curator of MPB, says Gujaratis form the bulk of the domestic visitors while Europeans especially the French, Germans and Britons form the bulk of the foreign visitors.

Naika's life revolves around the palace. An expert guide, he has been working at the palace since 1985. He is usually the guide of choice when national and international dignitaries visit the palace.

Indo-Saracenic style

Naika says that the palace, built in the Indo-Saracenic style, was designed by the architect Henry Irwin. This style was popularised by British architects working in India, and several prominent late 19th and early 20th century buildings were built in this style. The best of Indian and Saracen architectural elements mingled with the grim Gothic architecture to create a fantastic colonial style. Irwin, by the time he started working on the Mysore Palace, was well known for the construction of several buildings in the Indo-Saracenic style. In Shimla, he had designed the Viceregal Lodge, which now houses the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies. In Madras (now Chennai), where he was the Consulting Architect to the Madras government from 1888, he had designed the Victoria Hall. He began work on the Mysore Palace after retiring from his position with the Madras government. The total cost of the palace was Rs.44,17,913.

From the outside of the palace, one can see red domes (domes are the most significant feature of the Indo-Saracenic style) on the turrets. They look like cherries from a distance and are the most attractive feature of the palace. They stand in stark contrast to the dull brass-coloured domes and the cream of the building. There are also several temples around the perimeter of the palace grounds. Before the present palace was constructed, much of the city was contained within the premises of the earlier wooden palace, which stood within the precincts of the Mysore fort.

A tour of the palace begins from the dolls pavilion. Visitors first get a glimpse of an excellent model of the wooden palace that burnt down in February 1897. The new palace was built exactly on the spot where the wooden palace stood; private rooms which were part of the older palace still exist in the innermost recesses of the present palace.

For a description of the older palace, one can turn to a contemporary edition of the Mysore Gazeteer. The palace of the Maharaja which is situated inside the fort, facing nearly due east, is built in the Hindu style and with the exception of a few paintings executed by European painters at various times in the palace employ, contains little trace of the influence of European art. The Wodeyar kings had made Mysore their capital from the 15th century onwards.

The royal paraphernalia displayed in the dolls pavilion attest to the magnificence and global connections of the Mysore royals. Marble statuettes of European origin jostle for space with Japanese porcelain decorative lamps. Several dolls are also on display. The Mysore royals displayed their doll collection during the Dasara festivities.

The dolls pavilion leads to a large brass gate with the emblem of the Mysore royals a double-headed eagle called Gandabherunda.

Also displayed in the collection is the golden howdah, which is used during the Dasara festivities to carry the idol of Chamundeshwari, the family deity of the kings. The idol is displayed in an adjacent bay. The feverish excitement that surrounds the selection of the elephant which carries this 80-kilogram solid gold howdah every year is well known. Before the abolition of the privy purse, the Maharajah himself sat in the howdah during the Dasara procession. But now it is the idol that is placed in the golden howdah.

The armoury in the palace displays close to 1,000 weapons that were part of the extensive and exotic weaponry of the Mysore kings. There is a large number of spears, swords, daggers, lances, maces, axes and samurai swords. A sword purportedly used by the warrior-king Tipu Sultan and another by his father, Hyder Ali, are also on display.

The treasure trove of war equipment does seem a bit excessive when one considers the fact that Mysore was not involved in any war and that its defence was guaranteed by the British, who extracted a heavy tribute and a subsidy from the Mysore royals to help retain their sovereignty. After the death of Tipu Sultan in 1799, his vast empire was fragmented with many peripheral areas going to presidencies that were directly governed by the British. There was an interregnum of direct British rule between 1831 and 1881, after which Mysore was restored to the Wodeyars.

Next to the armoury is the trophy room, which is a taxidermist's delight. There is the massive trophy of an African two-horned rhinoceros, which one of the Mysore kings reportedly shot on a hunting expedition to Africa. There are also 14 tigers, all shot within the territory of the Maharajah in his private hunting grounds and estates, which are now well known as the wildlife parks of Bandipur and Nagarhole. All in all, there are more than 50 stuffed animals on display.

A series of 26 three-dimensional paintings of a Dasara procession adorns the Kalyana Mantapa, a ceremonial hall with wrought-iron pillars and a stained glass ceiling with a prominent peacock motif. From the portrait gallery, which displays portraits of members of the royal family, the staircase leads to the Durbar Hall, or the Diwan-e-Aam.

The Durbar Hall forms the facade of the palace and overlooks a large square where ceremonial functions were held. The central part of this public hall connects two wings which had seating space for attending dignitaries and courtiers. The Durbar Hall leads to the smaller Ambavilasa, or the Diwan-e-Khas, a private chamber of the king. This hall has colourful wrought-iron pillars and an attractive stained glass ceiling. The tourists' trail ends here, as the last room, an inner recess and a vestige of the old wooden palace, is out of bounds for them.

The current resident

As the palace enters its centenary year, not all residents of Mysore are happy with the way it is managed. Dr P.V. Nanjaraj Urs, veteran Kannada film-maker and an old Mysorean who has authored a book in Kannada on the Mysore Palace, says: It is unfortunate that MPB officials do not have any vision about the management of the palace. In the name of heritage tourism', we are destroying the very ethos of the palace and Mysore. I feel the ownership of the palace should revert to the Maharajah as the palace was constructed entirely out of the personal income of the king.

A major portion of the palace is retained by the current Maharajah, who resides there. Many rooms in the palace are locked or cordoned off because they are being used by the Maharajah. The top floors of his quarters are visible from the wrestling quadrangle. The current Maharajah's role is restricted to making ceremonial appearances during Dasara.

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