We landed in Bangalore, where we were met by our next guide, Sudhakar. Bangalore, with 6 million people, is India’s “Silicon Valley.” Impressive buildings lined broad streets of the bustling city. But crowded, modern Bangalore was not our destination. Karnataka was once known as the State of Mysore, and it was into the Mysore district, the heart of the one-time Kingdom of Mysore, that we headed. Boulevards lined with jacaranda trees, mimosa, flame trees, and frangipani soon led us out into a lovely and constantly changing countryside. We passed the impressive, granite Ramanaga Hills, which were featured in the movie “Passage to India.” On all sides, there was much to delight the eye: markets, small villages, carts drawn by ponies or Indian cows, workers, children, temples, fields, and farms.
We stopped outside of the city of Mysore to visit the summer palace of Tipu Sultan, one of the last holdouts against British rule. This teakwood beauty was gorgeous inside, with murals, tiles, inlay, carvings, and arches in the Mughal style. The palace is a small gem in a setting of lovely gardens. We were then off to Tomb Gumbez, where Tipu Sultan and his parents are buried. This white marble confection is sometimes known as the “mini Taj Mahal.” Then it was on to Mysore, the “Sandalwood capital” of India.
On the approach to our hotel we did not, in fact, realize we were approaching our hotel. The gorgeous Lalitha Mahal Palace is actually a real palace. It was built by the Maharajah of Mysore for visiting rajas and ambassadors. However, the current Maharajah leases this palace to the government to run as a hotel. The A/C was a little less reliable than at the more modern hotels, but the joy of staying in such a spectacular place far outweighed so small an inconvenience. The doorman was attired in the formal dress of the Maharajah’s household. The ivory-inlaid teak elephant in the lobby was surrounded by a carpet of jasmine and roses, which perfumed the air. The rooms and baths were spacious and elegant, and meals were served in a vast, Italianate room of Wedgewood blue and white with stained-glass, domed ceiling. It was just glorious.
After an excellent lunch (the most extensive buffet I’ve ever seen, with an impressive array of Indian delicacies, accompanied by live sitar music), we were off to visit the Maharajah’s palace. We learned that there is a current prince of the family living at the palace, but parts of the palace are still available for viewing. One quickly runs out of superlatives when faced with such a place. Sudhakar told us that there is a saying: Jaipur is the palace city in the north; Mysore is the palace city in the south. One of the women in our group who has seen both said that the palace before us was more glorious than the one in Jaipur. The huge, opulent Mughal-style building is built to impress, with ground-floor ceilings high enough to permit the passage of the royal elephant surmounted by the 80-kilogram Golden Howdah. I just wanted to stand and stare at the exterior for a few hours, but we had to keep moving. Inside, we saw stunning rooms with glass ceilings, silver chairs and a golden throne, endless halls and fabulous chandeliers, teak doors inlaid with ivory and doors of solid silver. It was glorious and astonishing.
Because this area is renowned for its sandalwood, there were a couple of stops to buy sandalwood carvings and sandalwood-scented soaps (I love sandalwood). Then, we headed back to the hotel. The monkeys running along the hotel’s ledges and balconies made us realize that they weren’t kidding when they posted the signs near our balcony doors about keeping monkeys out of the rooms.
Once a week, the Maharajah’s palace is lighted up at night, outlined with tens of thousands of light bulbs. As we ate dinner, the lights in the hotel dimmed for a moment, and we were told that that meant that the lights had been turned on at the palace. We soon joined the throngs who turned out to see the splendid display, enjoying with them the live music and sparkling beauty of the palace and the warm, fragrant night.Our second day in Mysore actually found us heading out of Mysore. We rolled through fascinating villages, which became smaller and sometimes poorer as we got farther from the city. The roads were lined by gorgeous rice paddies, fields of sugar cane, and stands of banyans and jacaranda trees. Women carrying pots on their heads walked down lonely roads amid this astonishing beauty. We passed bicycles loaded with sugar cane and carts drawn by bulls. It was all too wonderful for words. We stopped in a village market to see “real life” as Sudhakar said. For sale here was far more than vegetables, though those were abundant. There were also chickens, goats, bulls, sheep, rice, cloth, betel nut, dyes, and necessities. Sudhakar got us samples of puffed basmati rice, a favorite snack, and jaggery, a locally produced sugar that is formed into large, hollow cubes the color of honeycomb, with a taste of molasses.
Then it was on the road again, continuing through the splendid countryside. There were touches of color everywhere: folk paintings on trucks and wooden carts, occasional pastel-colored houses, washing lines covered in bright saris, and flowering tress and bushes. And the air is as fragrant as the land is beautiful.
We visited two of the region’s most splendid temples. It would take hours to describe the intricate carvings, the rank upon rank of mythical animals, real animals, histories, warriors, gods and demons, musicians, dancers, and other artwork decorating the interiors and exteriors of these temples. The carvings are incredibly detailed: skulls are hollow; necklaces are separate from the bodies of dancers. It is truly amazing.
I felt that there was far more that I would have enjoyed seeing in Mysore, but we were off again the next day, this time headed for Goa.