May 08, 2015

Mysore Palace, Mysore

"We are not now that strength which in old days moved earth and heaven,
That which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts, made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield."
– Alfred Lord Tennyson, "Ulysses"

It was with memories of Delhi's unparalleled historicity, inimitable visual settings and unsurpassed monumental and architectural heritage that I made my way towards Mysore, the city of majestic palaces and exceedingly affluent Maharajas, and realized that the beautiful city – with its exceptional palaces, splendid gardens, delectable food, unequaled crafts and sculptural streetscape – can never possibly disappoint me.

A hundred years ago, in the years 1897-1912, inspired by an urge for the facilitation of posterity, Wadiyars/Wodeyars, the prosperous and far-sighted Maharajas of Mysore/Karnataka, constructed in the heart of the city at the exact location where an earlier wood palace existed and burnt to ground a magnificent palace christened "Ambavilas", whose numerous domed towers dominated the skyline and the stories of whose unimaginably rich opulence traveled far and wide. The emblematic palace complex, commissioned by H.H. Maharaja Krishnaraja Wadiyar IV (reign AD 1894-1940) at the insistence of his mother Maharani Vani Vilas Sannidhana and designed by the renowned British architect Henry Irwin in the unique Indo-Saracenic style (which involves an aesthetic infusion of traditional Indian architectural features to an otherwise largely Gothic/Victorian building plan) has since come to be considered as a remarkable exemplar of the building style and is, both as an exceedingly important heritage and visual feature, impossibly hard to miss as soon as one steps within the expansive city. The structure was further expanded by Maharaja Jayachamarajendra Wadiyar (reign 1940-50, following which he signed the instrument for the assimilation of the state of Mysore in the Republic of India) to its present majestic proportions.

Grace, granite and symmetry

Stepping through the ornate southern gateway, intensely decorated with elaborate plasterwork patterns culminating into numerous motifs, overhanging ornamental windows ("jharokhas") and sculptures of Hindu deities, one comes face to face with the mammoth palace diagonally visible. The feeling of excitement at witnessing the beautiful gateways and the intricately carved massive temple complexes that are scattered throughout the complex (including immediately opposite the gateway just a few steps within the complex periphery) spontaneously gives way to disbelief – the colossal three-storied palace looms indomitable in the distance, the subdued simplicity and graceful curves of the sunlight-yellow temples embedded along its sides and the flanking cream-yellow tinged with white ancillary buildings harmoniously contrasting and lending a masculine footing to the astounding magnificence of the splendid gray-red granite front facade – one realizes that none of the photos seen online or any of the stories about the structure's opulence can do justice to the marvel it really is. The inspiringly symmetrical facade with its nine giant arches (of which two slightly narrower ones flank the central) and the numerous smaller ones stretching along the ground floor are terminated by the soaring five-storied corner towers that are surmounted by onion domes whose vibrant pink-red tinge glimmers against the brilliant blue of Mysore's sky; the center, crowned by a complicated golden dome that sits on an enormously high and narrow base and supports upon itself a domed kiosk, is surrounded by clusters of smaller ornamental "chattris" (onion domes surmounted upon slender decorative pillars) and is further outlined against the breathtaking symmetry of the roof and the line of arches by a curved, gently upraised shrine housing in its bosom a beautiful sculpture of Gajalakshmi, the Hindu Goddess of wealth and prosperity being showered with milk and nectar by two impeccably carved elephants. To the credit and genius of the the architect and his team of builders, the visual depiction is unbelievably flawless, undeniably fascinating. In the distant background rise the sheer peaks of the renowned Chamundi Hills.

Delicate - The southern gateway, presently used for tourist entry

Heading closer to the palace building, one comes face to face, through an obstructive veil of ungainly net that keeps the birds away, with the alluringly detailed artwork adorning the numerous (slightly perceptibly) curved concave surfaces of the roof that stretch between each of the giant arches – the central one depicts, within an inconceivably excellent paintwork design consisting of peacocks strutting amidst numerous floral and vegetative motifs, a vivid blue expansive sky, interspersed with zodiac constellations and angels and cherubs. In the center of the unblemished blue blossoms a gigantic, resplendent, multi-petalled flower, whose center is divided into quarters, three of which illustrate the three supreme omnipresent, omnipotent Hindu deities – Brahma (the God of creation and learning and the progenitor of all soul and matter) seated with the two forms of his consort Saraswati (the Goddess of knowledge, learning and music) upon the celestial swan, Vishnu (the Lord of life and nourishment) seated with his consort Lakshmi (the Goddess of wealth and auspiciousness) upon the primal seven-headed serpent deity Sheshnaga and Shiva (the Lord of death and destruction) and his consort Parvati (Goddess of love, feminine fertility and devotion) flanked by their sons Kartikeya (the young God of war and victory) and Ganesha (the elephant-headed, pot-bellied God of auspiciousness). The fourth quarter depicts the eight-armed benevolent Goddess Durga astride her mighty lion – legend is that the nomenclature "Mysore/Mysuru" is derived from "Mahishasura", an incredible powerful demon lord endowed with immense physical and spiritual strength and sorcery who could exist either in human or buffalo form and was eventually slayed by the Goddess after he unquestionably defeated the divine armies and set them back with irreversible losses. Wadiyars consider the Goddess, or rather her alternate form Chamundeshwari (the fearsome primordial feminine spirit who revels in bloodbath and necromancy), as their patron mother deity. Though equally immersed in the intricacies of the artwork and impressed by its colorful grandeur, one doesn't as yet even begin to imagine a minute fraction of the palace's splendor nor conceive its overall awe-inspiring visual magnificence and aesthetic superiority. Nonetheless, Amir Khusro's famous quote comes to mind instantaneously –

“Agar firdaus bar roo-e zameen ast, Hameen ast-o, hameen ast-o, hameen ast”
("If there is a paradise on earth, It is this, it is this, it is this")

Paradise on earth?

The entrance to the palace is through a passageway on the other side, where, before proceeding any further, one has to take off one's footwear and deposit them at one of the numerous counters over which painted in capital, bold white against indig background are the words "Free Counters/Don't pay tips" (but then, it being India and rules being necessarily violable, the shoe keepers did ask for tips when I returned at the end of the day to collect my shoes – I did not pay, of course). On the ground floor exist two individualistic but interconnected stunning passages which together constitute a viewing gallery christened as "Gombe Thotti" ("Doll pavilion") and where housed within glass frames are numerous traditional Indian dolls dating from 19th-20th century along with several ceremonial objects, richly dressed, finely adorned sculptures of Hindu deities and royal regalia such as elephant "howdahs" (huge royal pavilions that used to be mounted on elephants for the King and his kin to sit in during processions and religious ceremonies) decorated with several score kilograms of gold.

Chiseled to perfection - One of the several jaguar sculptures that dot the palace complex

Wedged between the two passages is an enormously vast and immensely high double-storied octagonal chamber supported upon slender ornamental fluted pillars and sheltered from the elements by perplexingly beautiful stained glass windows whose numerous vibrantly colorful patterns mirror the mesmerizing beauty of peacock tails and are reflected in the outstanding multi-hued geometric-patterned kaleidoscopic mosaic that adorn the floor. The chamber, remarkably conceived, designed and crafted in its entirety in Scotland and referred to as "Kalyana Mantapa", functions as the religio-ceremonial hall of the royal family and is where all the marriages, christening ceremonies and birthday parties are organized. Impressive passageways running along the sides, demarcated from the central functional area by another line of pillars (this time considerably thicker, elaborately ornamented and supporting amongst themselves rows of arches that append additional grace and depth of character to the luxurious chamber) are lined with several elegant paintings of which some portray mythological scenes from the epics Ramayana and Mahabharata and others the erstwhile splendor of the majestic palace and its numerous regal ceremonies, including the renowned Dussehra/Dasara processions.

Behold stone peacocks - The Kalyana Mantapa (Photo courtesy -

Up a staircase past the second half of the viewing pavilion and through intricately, painstakingly crafted silver doors (outside which rests an extremely realistic life-size plaster sculpture of Maharaja Krishnaraja Wadiyar IV seated upon a chair) embedded with streams of floral artwork delineating numerous panels portraying divine images, one reaches the enormous "Diwan-i-Aam" (Public Durbar Hall) from whose massive balconies the King used to appear before his subjects on public occasions and ceremonies – it is a visual composition that the eye cannot fully contemplate and the mind cannot possibly forget – the warm profusion of gold, cream-orange and red soothes the eye and the extraordinary symmetry afforded by the seemingly limitless rows upon rows of highly embellished fluted pillars extending throughout the massive rectangular hall, supporting in their midst cusp arches adorned with an inexhaustible array of embossed stucco geometric patterns, floral bouquets and divine figurines and providing both structural support and visual composure to the numerous equally decorated concave surfaces along which are aligned rows of overhanging chandeliers sprouting from bases resembling golden floral outbursts in their entire magnificent glory, uplifts the weary spirits. The aforementioned minutely concave roofs stretching far beyond the confines of the hallway, decorated with representations of Hindu Gods and Goddesses and heavenly constellations, can now be visualized in their complete eminence since there is no net impeding the view – one realizes that it was the Diwan-i-Aam that one witnessed from the ground level and feels supremely wonderful as comprehension dawns that earlier one noticed the stupendous structure through the eyes of a common visitor, a view that hasn't witnessed any change in the hundred years or so since the palace's construction and would have been easily recognizable to those subjects, rich and poor, young and old, strong and frail, who would have clamored to set eyes on the Maharaja's regal abode soon after its construction was completed, and now one looks at the unprecedented monumental immensity through the eyes of the Maharajas themselves! The arched alcoves existing along the furthest wall of the exalted hall are embedded with vivacious paintings of Hindu deities most of which were conceived and executed by the renowned artist Raja Ravi Varma (lived 1848-1906).

Limitless - The Diwan-i-Aam (Public Audience Hall)

Connected to the Diwan-i-Aam via a long, dark, perennially crowded picture gallery fringed throughout with photographs and portraits of the erstwhile Maharajas and their families in distinguished attire and lavish settings, is the Mahraja's Private Durbar Hall or "Diwan-i-Khas", a beyond description resplendently ornate chamber bejeweled throughout its surface with copious quantities of gold, crystal glass and semi-precious stones. The luxurious chamber is supported upon and divided into portions by fluted pillars structurally not very different from those of the Diwan-i-Aam except in the exterior adornment which boasts of an abundantly luxurious finish of gold paint fringed with slightly off-blue highlights that only seem to magnify the overall visual impact of the gold to an extent where one cannot easily take one's eyes off the numerous embossed motifs and mosaic work. The scene is unblemished and spellbinding, to say the least; the chandeliers, their incandescent light reflected and refracted into infinite number of rays by crystalline glass that forms their core, further serve to maximize the optical composition and the perception of extravagant opulence and self-indulgence. This was the only room where the policemen didn't let me photograph the interiors (photography is prohibited in its entirety within the palace!), elsewhere they were kind to allow me to click 2-3 quick snapshots of the chambers upon hearing that I need them to write this particular article (permission is rarely, if ever, granted and it is highly advisable to ask for the same before clicking away berserk since numerous CCTV cameras are positioned along the walls and pillars of each of the rooms and passageways). Had the incredulous visitors who were incredibly crammed into the narrow picture gallery known that such a wonderful sight awaited them afterwards, they wouldn't have proceeded so unbelievably slowly through the passageway! (Yes, I'm very impatient and I hate standing in queues unnecessarily!)

The Maharaja's extravagant gold throne that is assembled annually in the Diwan-i-Khas Hall during Dussehra celebrations (Photo courtesy -

On the way out, after collecting one's footwear, one is directed to a narrow open courtyard flanked on one side by a museum depicting the Maharajas' affluent lifestyle and possessions and on the other by a small private temple, dedicated to the mythological Krishna (a flamboyant cowherd-king-statesman-warrior-philosopher who supposedly lived over 5,000 years ago and is considered to be an incarnation of Lord Vishnu), that is surmounted by a fairly moderately-sized, intricately sculpted pyramidal spire within an alcove of which is set an incredibly realistic sculpture of the God himself flanked by one of his beloved cows and playing his divine flute. The Wadiyars claim descent from Krishna and the temple was commissioned by Maharaja Krishnaraja Wadiyar III (reign AD 1734-66) who felt distressed at the absence of a temple dedicated to the former within the periphery of the palace that originally existed here. The courtyard opens to a wider green patch enclosed within a perimeter where patrons can avail for camel and elephant rides – it had been awhile since I saw an elephant and clicked happily for almost a quarter of the hour! For a little extra money besides that paid for the ride, one can even have one's photo clicked with the tip of the elephant's trunk resting on one's head in a manner characterizing divine elephantine blessings!

An entirely unexpected surprise!

One has left the huge sunlight-yellow temple complexes that dot the palace grounds for the last and now one comes face to face with the first of them – Sri Lakshmiramana Swamy temple, dedicated to Lord Vishnu and housing in its exalted sanctum a black-faced gold sculpture of the God along with several smaller brass representations. At the very outset, all three major temple complexes within the palace circumference – Sri Lakshmiramana Swamy temple, Sri Varaha Swamy temple and Chamundeshwari temple – possess the same external appearance with an exactly identical massive pyramidal towering gateway divided into seven individualistic levels, each of which, except the first and last, is set in the center with large twin portrayals of the Lord's gatekeepers flanked by geometric multi-tiered projections surmounted by mythological symbolism that run throughout the length of each level. This is where the similarities end. The Lakshmiramana temple, said to be the oldest temple in the city and constructed in AD 1499, is set within a considerably smaller circumference as compared to the other two, possibly owing to its immediate proximity to the palace complex's mammoth and highly symmetrical horizontal spatial projection. The central shrine, around which run the high-raised, simplistically whitewashed colonnades that facilitate circumbulation ("Parikrama") of the deity, proves to be even more gorgeous than the imposing gateway and (if your heart is into sculptural art and ancient architectural heritage like mine is) the grandiose palace – the rectangular structure's roof, again painted sunlight-yellow in uniformity with the peerless gateway and the boundary walls and supported upon simplistically carved granite pillars, is an epitome of stucco plasterwork culminating into arrays of small, highly embellished pyramidal spires, each inset with an alcove inside which stands a different incarnation of Lord Vishnu (my favorite remains that of the anthropomorphic Varaha – the boar-faced, four-armed God who rescued the Earth Goddess Bhudevi from a demon who had carried her to the bottom of the cosmic ocean) and decorated with numerous geometrical and floral motifs, peacocks, vines bursting into floral blossoms, mythological and mythical creatures and dwarf demonic figurines. The immediate perimeter of the relatively smaller sanctum located on the far-side of the shrine is surmounted by a substantially larger double-storied spire, again similarly designed and sculpted except with the singular exception of possessing large lions (which realistically do not resemble lions at all, a phenomena repeated in almost all the temple and palace complexes in south India, thereby prompting many architectural and cultural historians to conjecture that lions never existed here and the sculptors/artists never ever set eyes on them, therefore leading to such deformed representations) seated at each of its extremities.

Juxtaposed - Sri Lakshmiramana temple's spire and (background) gateway

Decorative sculptural panels crafted out of sheer stone compose the doorjambs and lintel in which is embedded the gateway leading to the sanctum – on the lintel is the depiction of Anantashayi Vishnu (Lord Vishnu reclining upon the endless seven-hooded serpent deity Anant Sheshanaga) being venerated by his two wives Lakshmi and Bhudevi. In a departure from the otherwise yellow color scheme, the exterior and interior walls of the sanctum are whitewashed and bear plasterwork embossments of a three-illustration cluster – a "V" sign with a vertical line dividing it into two halves (where the "V" and the line are emblematic of Lord Vishnu and Goddess Lakshmi respectively) flanked by depictions of Lord Vishnu's "Sudarshana Chakra" (serrated spinning disc weapon) and "Panchajanya" (divine conch shell) – symbolically portraying reverence to Lord Vishnu. Apart from the garlanded and silk-wrapped gold and brass idols within the sanctum, a smaller shrine embedded within the wall near the entrance gateway houses a silk-wrapped, black stone sculpture of Maharaja Shri Raja Wadiyar I (reign AD 1578-1617) himself – possibly he had something to do with the commissioning or expansion of the temple complex, which till date remains testimony to the unparalleled skill of the medieval architects and artisans, though the priests officiating here seemed to know next to nothing about the complex and could only enlighten me by divulging that the temple is supposedly ancient and was constructed by the very first Kings of the Wadiyar lineage. One legend states that a half-blind devotee was cured of his condition within the temple precincts at the intercession of Raja Wadiyar I! I find that hard to believe, but then that is the thing about lore, you can choose to believe or not to, but they continue to persist in the atmosphere and influence the way one looks at history and even architecture.

Details! - Gateway - Sri Varaha Swamy temple complex

The Varaha Swamy and Chamundeshwari temples, again exactly identical in their external appearance and located opposite each other along the front face extremities of the palace complex, were for some reason closed that particular time (possibly, it, being afternoon, was time for the presiding deities to rest), but the officiating priests in the Varaha Swamy temple (again dedicated to the veneration of Lord Vishnu) granted me the permission to wander around and photograph the temple complex and the shrine as long as I did not disturb the deep-red velvety curtain that now engulfed the sanctum. The temple complex, painted the usual brilliant yellow, is considerably larger than the Lakshmiramana Swamy temple and, besides the similar seven-tiered ornately chiseled gateway and whitewashed, simplistically-pillared colonnades circumbulating the central shrine, also possesses as a fringe around the extended roof those telltale rows of delicate pyramidal serrated spires with the alcove and the plasterwork figurine of the Lord's incarnations. The major difference from the other shrines being that the plasterwork sculptures inset within the alcoves are additionally intricately detailed and therefore rendered many times more captivating.

A tribute to the Lord - A stucco figurine, inset along one of the sides of Sri Varaha Swamy temple

Also the larger pyramidal spire surmounting the sanctum is a study in architecture involving immensely straight lines converging to a common pinnacle and in the process culminating into a fascinatingly detailed, highly elongated and extremely straight pyramid the monotony of whose vertical dimensions are punctuated by grooves and contours running horizontally against its surface and the smaller ridges and miniature shrines fashioned against its otherwise flawless surface. Standing in close proximity to the spire and eying its glistening yellow summit that seems to spontaneously and without premonition rise from the black-grey granite base as if of its own free volition without in any way disturbing the continuity of the pattern work lines and edges, one miraculously feels transported to the fictional space age where such numerous ridges and lines and incomprehensible motifs might have been commonplace. Interestingly, the frieze above the entrance gateway is decorated with a fairly colorful, well endowed and garlanded sculptural scene depicting Lord Rama, his three brothers, his wife Sita and his faithful friend Hanuman, the powerful monkey God. The interior walls too of the inadequately lit shrine display an amazing variety of vibrant, multi-hued mural artwork which, owing to their appreciable deterioration and flaking, appears to be quite vintage. Even more surprising is the presence of scenes from the epic Ramayana war where Lord Rama, the ideal son-husband-brother-friend-king-warrior-incarnation of Vishnu-and-who-knows-what-else, battled against the monstrous armies of the demon Lord Ravana who is often depicted as a ten-headed, twenty-armed, grotesquely mustached warlord wielding the bow and arrow with supreme efficiency and unsurpassed lethality – though both Varaha and Rama are considered incarnations of Lord Vishnu and supposedly (read mythically) existed in separate eons, one would have expected a temple dedicated to Lord Varaha Swamy to depict paintings related to his life and times instead of his successor separated by millions of years.

An escape from modernity - Sri Varaha Swamy temple's spire and (background) gateway

The complex, though belonging to the royal family, is managed by the Department of Archaeology and Museums of the Government of Karnataka which conserves and restores the interiors as deemed necessary, manages the tourists and the facilities made available to them therein and maintains the exteriors, the gigantic gardens and the numerous sculptures that exist throughout the estate. Recently, following allegations of corruption and the use of substandard materials in a conservation effort, the Government created a new post of Palace Board Director that will be handled by a state-level administrative officer. The Government also sponsors the annual 10-day long extravagant celebrations that are observed on the occasion of the Hindu festival of Dussehra/Dasara/Vijay Dashami (which have been a tradition since 1610) during which the entire complex is decorated, brilliantly lit up and converted into a host for a range of cultural and religious programs. An idol of Goddess Chamundeshwari is worshiped in the palace by the royal priests during this 10-day period following which, on the day of Dussehra, it is taken on a round of the entire city on the back of a massive, richly-adorned elephant. If one cannot make it to the palace grounds during Dussehra festivities, hope still abounds – it is advisable to visit the palace complex on a Sunday morning and top it off with a return visit in the evening when each of the structures within, including the gateways and the temples, are outlined with millions of incandescent bulbs that, much to the wide-eyed amazement and bewilderment of onlookers, glitter and glimmer against the background of sheer dark blue-black skies that further magnify the mesmerizing effect. The overall picture presented by the illuminated multi-storied structures is resplendently spellbinding, to be seen to be believed!

I wouldn't have missed it for anything!

Open: All days, 10 am – 5:30 pm
Entrance fees: Indians: Rs 40; Foreigners: Rs 200; Free entry for children below 7 years of age and Rs 25 entry charge for children between the age 7-12. Extra charges applicable for audio guides, elephant/camel rides and visit to the museum.
Palace illumination: Every Sunday and all Government holidays, 7 – 7:45 pm, Free entry during the illumination window.
Sound and Light show: All days expect Sundays and Government holidays, 7 – 7:45 pm, Same entrance charges applicable as day entry.
Photography/Video charges: Nil. Prohibited within the palace building.
Note: Footwear have to be removed prior to entering the palace building or any of the numerous temple complexes within the precincts.
Facilities available: Washrooms, drinking water, audio guides and souvenir counters within the palace building.
Other palaces in Karnataka –
  1. Pixelated Memories - Bangalore Palace, Bangalore
  2. Pixelated Memories - Nandi Hills (Nandidurga fortress and Tipu Sultan's palace), Chikkaballapur
Suggested reading –
  1. - Article "Government tightens grip over Mysore Palace" (dated July 6, 2014) 
  2. - Article "Four hundred-year-old 'curse' returns to haunt Wadiyar royals" (dated Dec 11, 2013) by Vanu Dev 
  3. - Article "Mysore palace private durbar on, but a change in tradition likely" (dated Sep 8, 2014) 
  4. - Article "Mysore palace will complete 100 years next year" (dated May 8, 2015) by Ravindra Bhat 
  5. (Official website of Mysore Palace)
  6. - Article "An empty throne this Dasara" (dated Sep 18, 2014) by R. Krishna Kumar 
  7. - Chamunda 
  8. - Maharaja Krishnaraja Wadiyar IV
  9. - Wadiyar Dynasty

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