A Southern Sojourn Through Gardens & Palaces

It was happy holidays for us after eight years and we zeroed in on a southern sojourn - Mysore, Ooty and Kodaikanal, the golden triangle of the south. We boarded the early morning Delhi-Bangalore flight, and from there we were to proceed in an air-conditioned Qualis for the onward journey. At the airport, the driver Ashokan met us. I liked him instantly and decided to retain him for all the nine days to do a stretch of about 1500 km on road.

The Mysore road is a nice, clean highway and the drive comfortable. What was disconcerting, however, was that throughout the stretch hundreds of old trees had been cut, apparently to make a four-lane highway. The acacia trees on the road had grown horizontally and looked spectacular as they wove a canopy overhead. The vivid gulmohar trees were a resplendent, inflamed orange. It felt sad to let them slip by.

We were stopping for the night at the Lalitha Mahal palace at Mysore en route to Ooty. Set on a gentle slope overlooking the city and visible from miles around, this neo-classical palace was built in 1931. The lift at the palace was pristine and had a huge cushioned seat on one side of the wall. The dining room, done up in Wedgwood style, made a very pleasing picture; the bedroom with a 30-feet high ceiling and a four poster king-size bed with scalloped diaphanous canopies in the middle looked stunning and its bathroom was bigger than an average room with an interesting, fully functional antiquated contraption for a bathtub and a washbasin cast in marble. All worthy of the Wadiyar king’s guest! The palace-hotel looks almost mystical at night with its all-white look sparkling against the dark background.

After a quick lunch, we decided to visit Srirangapatnam, set in the river Kaveri, 14 km north of Mysore. The Vijayanagars built a fort here in 1554, and in 1616, it became the royal capital of the Mysore Wadiyar rajas. Haider Ali deposed the Wadiyars in 1761 and along with his son, Tipu Sultan, ruled this island city till 1799. The fort at Srirangapatnam is now in ruins, but the Summer Palace of Tipu Sultan, Dariya Daulat Bagh, with huge wall-to-wall paintings is simply awesome. We also saw the Water Gate and the Gumbaz mausoleum, where Tipu is buried with his parents.

Three kilometres from Srirangapatnam is the Ranganathittu bird sanctuary, a haven for birds of different species. We saw painted storks, open bill storks, snakebirds, herons, egrets, ibis and many a lazy crocodile. The birds are visible only when you take a boat ride through the lake, as they are mostly perched on the small island within.

And, if you thought our day was complete with this, you are in for a surprise! Ashokan convinced us to visit the Krishnarajasagar Dam and the Brindavan Gardens. Though we were tired after the long day, the musical fountain at Brindavan Gardens looked interesting. The place has well-manicured lawns, but I guess the milling crowd did spoil part of the fun as it got over-crowded in the evening and there was an army of mosquitoes buzzing away to glory. However, I was most impressed by the imposing Krishnarajasagar Dam, a marvel of architecture and engineering. Pity there wasn’t much water in the river.

Next day after a leisurely breakfast at Lalitha Mahal, which comprised masala omelette, bread, butter, muffins and tea, we were off to see the slayer of Mahishasura, Chamundi Devi at the Chamundi Hill’s temple. The Chamundi figure inside is solid gold, outside in the courtyard stands the loathsome, if somewhat garishly attired, statue of the demon Mahishasura. The goddess looks powerful and has a tremendous presence, though one can only see her from across the many doors.

Our next stop in Mysore, before we proceeded to Ooty, was the Maharaja’s Palace. Designed in the hybrid Indo-Saracenic style by Henry Irwin, the British architect of Madras state, it was completed in 1912 for the 24th Wadiyar Raja. An extraordinary amalgam of styles from India and around the world, it does tend to stray into the realms of kitsch, sometimes, but is a fairytale fantasy. It is one of the most majestic palaces in the world and very unlike the forts in Rajasthan. Since Mysore enjoyed a period of relative prosperity, the palace boasts a surfeit of riches - its Diwan-e-Aam and Diwan-e-Khaas are spellbinding in their grandeur. The Diwan-e-Khaas features beautiful stained glass and gold leaf paintings. The palace has an amazing collection of paintings that sport a 3D perspective done by local artists commissioned by the Wadiyar Kings. I just cannot get over the 240 kg golden throne that I saw at the palace.

We had hired a knowledgeable guide who briefed us with understated wit on the history of the palace. Time slipped unnoticed. I found Mysore an old-fashioned, undaunted town dominated by the awesome Maharaja’s Palace.

(7th August, 2003)