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The young man dispensed a fragrant dollop onto my wrist from the perfume bottle he was holding: “It’s the same as Calvin Klein’s Eternity,” he said. I was in Devaraja Market, Mysore, a city famed for its silk, sandalwood, incense and perfume.
The scenic journey to Mysore from Bengaluru travels past silkworm farms and green countryside of wheat and sugar-cane fields, lakes, irrigation canals and rivers. Sheep and goats graze amid eucalyptus trees introduced from Australia, and jutting from the land are gigantic rock formations.
Mysore gets its name from the demon king of Hindu mythology and was ruled successively by the Ganga, Chola, Hoysala and Vijayanagara kings until 1399 when the Wodeyars ruled almost continuously for six centuries, interrupted only during a brief period when Hyder Ali and his son Tipu Sultan ruled in the mid 18th century.
Redolent of royal excess, Mysore is a city of palaces, the most sumptuous being the stunningly beautiful Mysore Palace, completed in 1912 just as the sun was setting on the extravagant way of life it enshrined. It was here that the Maharajah rode in his Rolls-Royce and enjoyed elephant parades.
The architectural style of the palace is known as Indo-Saracenic, blending Hindu, Muslim and Gothic styles of architecture built of grey granite and deep pink marble, with interiors that are a monumental kaleidoscope of brightly coloured stained glass, gilt mirrors, iron filigree and ornate ivory inlaid doors. The Marriage Pavilion soars upwards to an octagonal painted glass ceiling featuring peacock motifs and a bronze chandelier supported by colonnaded turquoise pillars. The vast public Durbar Hall, or ceremonial hall of the royal court, contains a priceless collection of paintings and opens onto an expansive balcony supported by massive pillars. The private Durbar Hall is exquisite; richly decorated with stained glass ceilings and chandeliers. And while I marvelled at the palace’s interiors, I returned that Sunday evening when the palace was illuminated as thousands of people converged together and a brass band played with considerable gusto.
Opposite the Jayachamarajendra Art Gallery in Jaganmohan Palace treasures are displayed in glass cabinets in a somewhat haphazard fashion, while the climb up a steep flight of stairs was rewarded by a richly decorated timber colonnaded hall.
Mysore is a friendly, easygoing city of low shuttered bungalows shaded by firecracker red Poinciana, the streets lined with shady trees, rates as India’s second cleanest city and is compact enough for exploring on foot. The main shopping street is Sayaji Rao Road where you’ll find bookstores, restaurants and the colourful Devaraja Market that stretches for several blocks. Cauvery Arts and Crafts Emporium is where you’ll find gifts and there are many impressive churches including St Philomena Cathedral, one of the largest churches in India.
Mysore also makes an ideal base for viewing the many temples, palaces and forests that are located nearby. Just outside the city are palaces built by the maharajahs to accommodate foreign guests including the huge Lalitha Mahal Palace and the Royal Orchid Brindavan Garden with expansive views of the Krishnarajasagar Dam, one of India’s largest, while Brindavan Gardens is bustling with picnickers enjoying the cascading waterfalls, bridges, fountains, lawns and flowering plants.
For those who enjoy hiking, the climb up to Chamundi Hill is rewarded by a giant Nandi carved out of solid rock that dates back to 1659 and at five metres high is one of the largest in India. At the summit is the seven story Sri Chamundeswari Temple a huge structure with a gopuram 40 metres high.
You can also visit the extensive ruins of the former capital, the fortress city of Srirangapatna built by Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan on an island and the beautiful temple of Somnathpur.
As the sandalwood and incense capital of India, you can see and smell the process of making incense sticks, not only from sandalwood, but from jasmine, rose and musk. You can also visit the Government Sandalwood Oil Factory where sandalwood oil is distilled.
Nagarhole and Bandipur are major wildlife sanctuaries known for bison, deer, tigers, leopards and elephants and while I only drove through Bandipur, I spotted deer and wild boar.
Back in May 1991 I was bound for Chennai to begin a journey that would take me to Mysore. It was not to be. The assassination of Rajiv Gandhi and the civil unrest that followed cut short my trip if not my resolve to go there. After all these years, I still have the letter to confirm my reservation from the Hotel Metropole originally built to serve as the residence of the Maharaja’s guests. The charming hotel remains much as I would have found it then, with a lawn, shutters, historic portraits and antiques. With the fragrance of several sticks of sandalwood incense I’d bought wafting in my suite, I retrieved the letter from my suitcase, and watched the sunset from the wide open verandah, glad that I had come this far.
Several airlines fly from Australia to Bengaluru. Beacon Holidays can suggest the best options Tel: 1800 667 791 or www.beaconholidays.com.au
You can arrange a bus transfer from Bengaluru airport to Mysore or from Bengaluru hop on a bus or the Shatabdi Express. Mysore is a compact city ideally suited for exploring on foot. Auto-rickshaws go by the meter with rides across the city costing around Rs.30.
Where to stay
The Royal Orchid Metropole (5 Jhansi Lakshmi Bai Road, Mysore) is a historic boutique hotel with spacious rooms and an exceptional restaurant. Its sister property, the Royal Orchid Brindavan Garden offers superb views of the gardens below www.royalorchidhotels.com. The Siddhartha and Dasaprakash are good budget choices.
There are several good bookstores in Mysore. Ashoks and Geetha are recommended. The vast Cauvery Karnataka State Arts and Crafts Emporium offers a vast array of sandalwood, soap, incense, perfume and other locally produced items. The Government Sandalwood Oil Factory and Silk Factory are close by.
Further Information Contact India Tourism Level 5, Glasshouse Shopping Complex,
135 King Street, Sydney 02 9221-9555 www.incredibleindia.org