Er, firstly we liked to apologise. In Mysore we no have acres of golden beach to loll around on. sip chilled beer and pig out on chili crab. (There are a few little rivers but I’m not sure how they’re stocked up on crabs). No healing hot springs, no exhilarating mountain views, no night spots, no shopping worth talking about and to top it all cuisine that has as its star performers a dosa and a not-very pretty looking sweet called Mysore pak. But – and this is where we stop apologizing – we do pack in a wallop of centuries in pedigree. Mysore is most likely the “Mahishamandala” mentioned in the ancient Buddhist texts, the place to which the emperor Ashoka sent the monk Mahadeva to propagate Buddhism. And that fact that we were till recently the capital of a kingdom ruled by a 600-year old dynasty of Lord Krishna’s Yadu vamsa shows. A clutch of fabulous palaces (at least 2 of which you can stay in) and royal mansions in the pink of health scattered around nonchalantly like so much chopped coriander on bhelpuri. (Every government office worth its weight in red tape is housed in one). Naturally, with such ancestry (how many can claim to have a throne which, as one story goes, once belonged to the Pandavas?), we don’t forget easily. That we were once terrorized by the terrible demon Mahishasura and that the Devi took it upon herself to liberate us. Who then, because we have such pretty weather, decided to take up residence atop a charming little wooded hill as the goddess Chamundeswari, a sobriquet acquired because her habit of slaying demons had made short work of 2 other fearsome demons, Chanda and Munda. So, in gratitude, we named the hill Chamundi in her honour, built her a fabulous temple with a 120 ft high gopuram that you can see from almost any point in Mysore. And in case the demon had any ideas of resurrecting himself (demons are known to do such things), in a cunning sleight of hand, we put up a massive likeness of him on top of the hill so that he’d scare himself away. We also called ourselves Mahishasura Ooru, now corrupted to Mysore, because in a way, we’re indebted to the demon too. After all, he did bring us the attention of the Devi!
So, first to the palaces. Now we Mysoreans are a modest lot and bragging doesn’t come easily. But, I must say, we’re rather good at palaces. Of the two most spectacular, the first one is simply called – what else, the Mysore Palace. When the old palace was partially destroyed in a fire in 1897 just after his elder sister’s wedding, the then heir to the throne, Krishnaraja Wodeyar IV was just 15 years old and his mum, the Regent Queen decided that if they had to build a new one, it should be something fit for a er, king. So, what began in 1897 finally emerged in splendid glory 15 years later, its massive central golden dome imperiously poking the azure blue Mysore sky. With five imposing gates, the largest 45 feet in breadth and grandly called the Jayamartanda Gate, and in the protective embrace of 8 temples of varying antiquity, the oldest more than 6 centuries old, the palace itself is a stunning example of Indo Saracenic architecture. (Which is a politer way, perhaps, of saying a khichdi of Western, Indian and Moghul architectural styles). Three ceremonial halls, the first for the royal weddings with a ceiling made entirely of stained glass with a peacock motif and a floor to match. The second reserved for private audiences by the Maharaja with 3 massive doors, 2 of them silver. And the third, a magnificent 155 ft by 42 ft Durbar Hall or the Diwan-e-Aam in breathtaking turquoise and gold arches and columns, lined on one side with paintings, many of them by Raja Ravi Varma, framed in semi-precious stones under a painted ceiling depicting amongst other things, the 10 avatars of Vishnu. This was the astonished comment of a British visitor. “No short description, if any, can do justice to the beauty of line, wealth of material, blaze of colour and exuberance of decoration in the great Durbar Hall…” And in case you don’t get the point, we light up the palace on Sundays, government holidays and festivals with 97,000 light bulbs.
The thing is, when you build a palace like this on, it can become a habit. So, the maharajah decided that the Mysore palace was all very well, magnificent seat of power and all that, but even a king needed a bit of privacy now and then where he could potter around in peace and quiet, undisturbed by pressing matters of state. Besides, there was the British Viceroy to also keep happy. So, away from the heat and the dust of statesmanship, nestling cosily at the feet of Chamundi Hill, he built another palace. Nothing very posh, mind you, just a little summer cottage, a cross between an English stately home and an Italian palazzo (with marble imported to match) with a piffling 54 rooms, a ballroom and a viceroy room (whatever that is) on an estate that sprawls over lush acres of land and situated so that when he could keep a longing eye on it whenever he held durbar in the Diwan-e-Aam. Lalith Mahal Palace. Which it is called to this day, except that now it is a 5-star hotel, with the original stunning architecture and interiors beautifully preserved. Naturally, the prices match. So stay there if you don’t mind paying upwards of 6000 rupees a night to find out what it is to live like a king and if you really want to go all the way, plum for the turret rooms at the top of the palace.
Now if staying in palaces are a turn on but your pocket isn’t of kingly proportions, then there is the Chittaranjan palace, a beautiful little mansion which the maharaja built for his princesses, now called the more prosaic “Greens Hotel” to cue its eco-friendliness. Ergo no telly, telephone, elevator, air-conditioning and no mosquito repellant, just small ponds stuffed with tilapia, the mosquito-eating fish. If you can afford it, stay in the main building where the tariff is a stiff upwards of 3750 rupees but the rooms having been painstakingly restored to their original beauty; their names should give you a clue - Marigold Room, Rose Room, Princess's Room and The Honeymoon Suite complete with a 4-poster bed! And if you can’t, there is the “garden block” with rooms rather less well, princess-y but nice all the same (1300Rs. a night). Whatever you stay in, make sure you take a peek the Bollywood rooms (large and small!). And the hotel has one other thing that gives you an idea of what kind of holiday it expects you to have – a quaint little library complete with stained glass window, easy chair and R.K. Narayanan. Rated by the Independent newspaper as one of the best 50 budget hotels in world, the hotel is run by a UK charity that donates all profits to charitable and environmental projects in India. Two other ex-royal residences - one on top of Chamundi Hill and the other at Brindavan Gardens - used to be hotels but have since been closed down. (The one at Brindavan has a view of the garden from all the rooms!) The good news is that there are plans to revive at least one of them, together with the very elegant Hotel Metropole, which used to something of a landmark and a must-stay in Mysore.
But if you really want a great getaway, your best bet is the Village. At the base of Chamundi Hills, it’s an exquisite property, winning it the both the National and South Asian Award for excellence in architecture. Sprawled around a perfectly manicured, emerald green expanse of lawn, the rooms are large and beautifully airy with French windows that overlook this or the other verdant patch. Some of the rooms even have their own little sunny terraces. Bamboo, guava, grapefruit, frangipani, acra and coconut palm jostle hundreds of little flowering and other plants and shrubs. Brick and wood and terracotta blend simply and beautifully into the gorgeous surroundings. A gym, a tennis court, a bright blue jewel of a swimming pool with a little Jacuzzi and here and there, garden furniture inviting you to do nothing except soak up the sun. Actually it’s all there in the self-effacing little tariff card – “Work out, chill out. Dive or dream. Walk, jog, saunter or swing. Feast on a morsel, a hug, a book, a game or just on the smell of fresh earth...”
Right. So you’re all settled in, the free welcome drink is down the hatch, now what’s to do?
Well, apart from palaces, we’re pretty good at gardens too. (We have something of a reputation in flowers, growing a jasmine so sweet-smelling that it is named after us. Mysore Mallige.) There’s one called Brindavan – if you can call an acre a garden – complete with dancing fountains and lights. A garden so pretty, it used to be the favoured location to shoot Hindi film songs (remember “Kehna hai” and a besotted Sunil Dutt serenading the pertly pretty Saira Banu in Padosan?). Till Yash Chopra discovered Switzerland. We must warn you though - to get to it, you have to walk a 3km stretch over spectacular cascading waters across India’s very first irrigation dam. The Krishnaraja Sagar Dam which tames and harnesses the waters of 3 rivers - the Kaveri, Hemavati and Lakshmanathirtha – all in one masterly swoop. Then there’s the Mysore Zoo. Or rather a zoological garden that houses animals in what would be more or less their natural habitat. It’s over a century old, some of the trees are older, but newborns really in comparison to the tree stump, carbon dated as having been around since a few million years ago. Zoo or garden, it’s the perfect place to lazy day, strolling around and looking at the spectacular display of both flora (85 different species of plants and trees) and 35 species of fauna –, everything from king cobras, tigers (Royal Bengal and white), elephants (Indian and African), lion-tailed macaques, Australian emus, giraffes, Himalayan black bear, Indian bison, Egyptian baboons and a rather boastful bunch of peacocks; about the only unashamed braggarts in Mysore…..
Which leaves the art gallery, studded with Titian and Rubens and Roerich and Raja Ravi Varma, housed in yet another palace (I told you, this palace thing can be catching) the Jaganmohan Palace, which the maharaja built because he was in between residences and needed a place to crowned and married in. And if by now, you’re not yet suffering from an overdose heritage buildings, there is the St. Philomena’s church, said to have been modeled after the Gothic cathedral in Cologne, its exquisite twin spires delicately stretching 165 feet up. And if you are, then you can take off. To Srirangapatna, to visit Lord Vishnu, taking time off from the increasingly difficult job of Divine Preserver for a well-deserved lie-in under the protective hood of the mighty Anantha in the fabulous Ranganatha Temple. Or Tipu, perhaps still dreaming of battles yet to be fought, lying buried near his gently dilapidated but still beautiful summer palace, the Dariya Daulat. . “It’s better”, he said, "to live once like a lion, rather than have ten lives like a sheep". Or then to one of the 2 national parks, (Nagarhole or Bandipur) to check out what the tigers and bison are up to. Or to the Ranganathittu bird sanctuary where after peeping at egrets and kingfishers and ibis and whistling teals (some of them coming all the way from Siberia and Australia), you can munch on a picnic lunch and drift dreamily down the river in charming round boats made of cane.
That’s the lot then. And now that I have done my bit as a tourist guide, dutifully selling palace-temple-garden-bull ( oh dear, I did forget the bull-on-the-hill; name - Nandi, 48 feet high of undiluted black granite, preferred wheels of Lord Shiva.), I’ll let you a little secret about Mysore. Don’t get fooled by the odd glittering showroom or Johnny-come-lately supermarket or the gaggle of excited, rickety mopeds rushing to Nowhere. Remember, as you watch that shiny-rude Santro trying to overtake that bullock cart, that in these parts, the bullock cart has right of way. In the fast lane. What I mean to say, me darlings, is this. When you’ve been around as long as we have, you kinda figure that a century is just an apologetic drop in Time’s backwaters. So, more than anything else, come to Mysore to learn to just be. Twine the scent of a Mysore Mallige around your nostrils and listen to your thoughts thinking. The air is air-conditioned, the sunshine just hot enough to lovingly toast your skin and ….. well, let just say it’s all there on the signboard outside a nearby Tibetan monastery. “It’s better to be 15 minutes late in this world than be 15 minutes early in the next. Speed 10kms per hour.” Our sentiments exactly.