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Incredible India: Mysore
http://periscopepost.com, May 13, 2010

We arrived in Mysore, the second largest city in the state of Karnataka, India, in the late afternoon and checked in at the luxurious Windflower Resort. This luxury hotel is lovely. Its white-washed buildings with sloping roofs are all set in lushly landscaped grounds. The one building that immediately stood out from the rest was the reception area; a square building with sleek, modern lines, it nonetheless fit perfectly within its environment. The surface of the building was completely covered in horizontally laid palm trunks, giving the stark form a strangely rustic effect. The most pleasant spot was the restaurant, an open-air pavilion with a cathedral wood ceiling where we had a late lunch, which for me consisted of a grilled chicken sandwich made delectable by gentle flavoring, without any reliance on strong spices.

I found my room down a long trellised walkway, and was immediately surprised by it’s capacious proportions, vaulted terra-cotta ceiling, and red fabric-covered cushioned banquettes. The balcony overlooked a man-made, rectangular lake bordered by palm trees jutting into the water. The bathroom was a gigantic wood-paneled affair with marble floor and counters.

After getting settled in, we set off for the Mysore Palace, which was built at the turn of the last century, after the previous palace of the maharajas of Mysore had burned down. As we entered the palace, the first thing we noticed was a collection of delicate ivory carvings and sandalwood jewelry boxes, the latter decorated with ivory figures of Hindu gods or with emblems of the Mysore maharajas or the East India Company. The maharajas’ study, farther on, featured three chairs made of silver, two smaller chairs with crystal legs and a main chair with a mirrored back bordered on each side by a large elephant tusk. There were grand rooms with stained-glass ceilings from Belgium and crystal chandeliers from Britain, where the walls were painted in the official color of the Mysore maharajas: peacock green. And you can see the influences of three civilizations: Hindu- and Western-style columns supporting Islamic arches.

We took our time walking through the palace, led by our genial guide, Raj, who had endless patience and an encyclopedic knowledge of local history. The last room we entered was a grand hall used for “public audiences.” Soon it was time to go, and the other visitors started for the doors. Intent on explaining the important points about the hall’s history and architecture, Raj talked on, oblivious to the three guards standing behind him, waiting for him to finish. We were among the last to leave the palace, but we lingered on the grounds for a bit, taking pictures before boarding our bus. Then we left the grandeur of the maharajas for the poverty of everyday India, as our bus took us through streets with rows of crumbling one- and two-story buildings housing shabby, makeshift storefronts. This squalor lay under the shade of majestic Gul Mohar trees, which are common in the region.

After a short stop back at the Windflower to freshen up, we went to the Royal Orchid Hotel for dinner. There was a mix of Indian and Western specialties, the highlight of which was their delicious Mulligatawny soup. But the main attraction lay outside. This grand hotel is perched above the Brindavan Gardens, symmetrically laid-out gardens on the site of the Krishnaraja Sagar dam, which was built across the Cauvery River in 1924. The gardens are famous for the nighttime illumination of their fountains, and it seems that we got there at the right time. After dinner, we walked down wide pathways alongside a canal that had lots of fountains lit with colored lights. Frankly, I was not very impressed. It was all a bit kitschy for me. When we were near the far end of the gardens, all the lights went off without warning. Most of the crowd hastened against our direction, apparently to the exits, as we cautiously made our way to the steep stairs back up to the hotel.

We had breakfast the next morning at the Windflower, in the same open-aired restaurant. It was the usual fare of mixed Western and Indian food that one finds at Indian hotels (dal, baked beans, fruit, boiled eggs). Then we checked out of the hotel, as our day’s itinerary would gradually take us out of Mysore.

The next stop was to another palace, much smaller than the last. This was the summer palace of the Tipu Sultan, who ruled Mysore from 1782 until his death in a battle against the British in 1799. Known as the “Tiger of Mysore,” the sultan was a determined opponent of British rule. But he was betrayed by his own minister of defense, who let British troops onto the palace grounds. Although the sultan had a means of escape through underground tunnels, he chose to stand his ground, and was killed for his troubles. This exquisite two-storey palace is made completely of teak wood, leaving one to wonder how it survived this long. Every last inch of every surface, including the ceilings, is covered with faded painted decoration. On closer inspection, I saw the richness and detail of the patterns, and began to imagine how opulent the décor must have been in the palace’s heyday. My favorite bits were the elegantly filigreed balconies.

The palace visit completed, we went on to Chamundi Hills, 13 km north of Mysore. At the top of a hill that’s about 1,100 meters high is one of the most sacred Hindu places in southern India, a temple devoted to Chamundeshwari (also known as Kali), a warrior goddess who was the wife of Shiva. You can reach the temple via the 1,000 stone steps laid by the Maharaja of Mysore in 1659, but we traveled in comfort in our small bus, gradually making our way up a winding road. When we arrived, our first sight was Nandi, Lord Shiva’s Bull, a 4.8 meter-long monolith tinted black with a mixture of charcoal and oil. Apparently, Shiva’s bull is a common site near temples devoted to his wife. A little farther up the hill, we found the temple, a pyramid-shaped 12th-century structure made of carved brick and decked with delicate figures of the goddess in various poses.

The last site we visited in the Mysore area was the Somanthapura Temple, about 35 km east of the city, and well worth a side trip. This star-shaped stone temple to Vishnu is amazing. Built in 1268, it’s covered top-to-bottom with intricately carved figures of deities, including Vishnu in different forms, and warriors and animals in battle. Many of the carvings depict scenes from the classic Indian epics Ramayana and Mahabharata. I couldn’t appreciate the temple much at first, as it’s set in a courtyard covered with stones that were too hot for my bare feet. We had to remove our shoes just outside the courtyard entrance, so I ran back there to put my socks on, then went back inside and walked around the entire perimeter of the temple in comfort.

I then entered the temple, and found the low-ceilinged interior dark and stuffy, especially with the other tourists there, but I was curious to see the temple’s three “Sanctum Sanctorums.”In each of these sanctorums, which looked like small chapels, there was an elegant statue that one could only view from at least a dozen feet away. I later learned that the statue in the central sanctum, straight ahead from the temple’s one entrance, represents Vishnu; the one in the sanctum on the right depicts Lord Janardhana; and the one of the left depicts Lord Venugopal. Jarnardhana and Venugopal are actually alternative manifestations of Vishnu. Of the three idols, I much preferred Venugopal’s. Its gestures suggested that he was playing a flute, though there was no longer any instrument in his hands. The figure’s outstretched arms, however, gave it the appearance of graceful movement, in contrast to the other two statues, which seemed rather stiff. That was our last stop in the Mysore area. We returned to our bus and settled down for a long drive to Bangalore, 140 kilometers to the northeast.

For a private guide in Mysore and Bangalore, I recommend Raj, whose name is actually Shreedhar Rajapur. His mobile number is +91 9880362601, and he can be reached by e-mail at Shridharrjpr@yahoo.com or at SGholidays@reliancemail.net.

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