The perfect getaway

Print edition : October 22, 2010

The illuminated Mysore Palace, or Amba Vilas Palace.-M.A. SRIRAM

Mysore has emerged as a great tourist hub, thanks to an air, road and rail network that connects it to all parts of the country.

MYSORE, situated 145 kilometres south-west of capital Bangalore, is the second largest city in Karnataka. Spread across an area of 128.42 sq km at the foot of Chamundi Hills, it has an old-world charm about it. Besides the Dasara festival, the city lends its name to a flower, Mysore mallige; the Mysore style of painting; a sweet, Mysore Pak; the traditional silk turban, Mysore Peta; and the Mysore silk sari.

With a population of around 8,00,000 according to Census 2001, it is rated the second cleanest city in India and the cleanest in Karnataka in a 2010 survey conducted by the Union Ministry of Urban Development.

Home to a number of dynasties the Gangas, the Hoysalas, the Vijayanagar kings, Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan Mysore imbibed the culture of each one of them. At the time of Independence, Mysore was the capital of Mysore, a princely state ruled by the Wodeyar dynasty (A.D. 1399-1947). Under a succession of progressive maharajas, who recruited even more progressive diwans, it became one of the well-governed principalities in British India.

The maharajas patronised musicians and artists and set up a number of educational institutions. Mysore counts among its sons Indo-Anglican novelist R.K. Narayan and his brother the cartoonist R.K. Laxman, social anthropologist M.N. Srinivas, veena player Doreswamy Iyengar, photographer T.S. Satyan, and poet and translator A.K. Ramanujan.

Chamundi Hills, which are 1,074 metres above sea level, form an excellent backdrop to the city. Atop the hill is the 12th century Chamundeshwari temple, which houses the presiding deity of the Wodeyars. Halfway up the hill is the gigantic Nandi (bull), the vehicle of Siva.

The Amba Vilas Palace, or Mysore Palace, is an iconic landmark in the heart of the city. One of India's largest palaces, it was built by the Wodeyars in 1911 on the foundations of a wooden palace that was destroyed in a fire in 1897. The three-storeyed exterior of the palace reflects a combination of Dravidian, Indo-Saracenic, Oriental and Roman styles of architecture. It has beautifully designed square towers, covered at cardinal points by domes (some of them ochre in colour), turrets, arches and minarets.

Designed by the British architect Henry Irwin for the 24th Wodeyar king, and said to be modelled on the Vijayanagar Palace at Chandragiri in Andhra Pradesh, it is 245 feet (74.6 metres) in length and 156 feet (47.5 m) in breadth. It is replete with carvings, rosewood and ivory inlays, and has a kaleidoscope of stained glass and mirrors, carved wooden and silver doors, and mosaic and marble floors.

The palace houses 12 temples built in the typical Dravidian style. Since its acquisition by the government, the palace has been under the supervision of the Department of Archaeology and Museums and is now a museum. The scion of the Wodeyars, Srikantadatta Narasimharaja Wodeyar, resides in a section of the palace.

Not far from the Amba Vilas Palace is St. Philomena's Church. Built in 1840, the church is said to be modelled on St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York and the Gothic Church in Cologne. Designed by French architects, the church has two spires that rise to 165 feet (50.2 m), while its interior has colonnades and riveting glass paintings depicting the crucifixion of Christ and a crypt containing a statue of St. Philomena, a 3rd century saint.

The Sri Jayachamarajendra Zoological Gardens, established in 1892, are home to a variety of animals bred in captivity and over 110 species of plants and trees from various countries.

Galleries and museums

Mysore also has a number of art galleries and museums. The Jagan Mohan Palace built in 1861 is now the Jayachamarajendra Art Gallery. It is a repository of paintings by artists such as Raja Ravi Varma, Rabindranath Tagore, Jilladin Ville and Svetoslav Roerich. It has on display many musical instruments, sculptures, brassware and antiques, and traditional Mysore gold-leaf painting. The city is also home to India's only regional railway museum. Other museums worth a visit are the Regional Museum of Natural History and the Folklore Museum.

Hardly 19 km from Mysore are the Brindavan Gardens. Laid out in typical Mughal style and adjacent to India's first irrigation dam the Krishnarajasagar dam across the Cauvery the gardens are transformed after sundown into a complex of coloured, musical fountains.

Nanjangud, the temple town on the banks of the Kapila, and the riverine island fort town of Srirangapatnam are over 20 km away. For those with a historical bent of mind, Talakkad, a city buried under sand dunes, is a 45-km drive. The Ranganathittu Bird Sanctuary is just 5 km away. Further away is the Shivasamudram Falls where the Cauvery cascades from a height of 75 metres into a rocky gorge to form two falls. Downstream is Asia's first hydroelectric power project.

The religious centre of Melkote, which is synonymous with Vaishnava history, is 20 km away, and the Chennakesava temple, built in the Hoysala architectural style, is 35 km away at Somnathpur. The Belur, Halebid and Shravanabelagola sites are rich in the Hoysala style of architecture and Jain monuments, including a 57-foot-tall statue of Gomatesvara.

Mysore is also close to two of India's best-known national parks the Bandipur National Park, which is a Project Tiger Reserve, and the Nagarhole National Park.

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