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Slice of history

The Mysore of yore was about political power and religion in equal measure -- a trait the city still bears, with gods and palaces jostling for space around every corner says Denise D'silva

travel Updated: Jan 22, 2010 20:24 IST

Just when you think you're entering yet another crammed city centre, Mysore's crowds part enough to give you a glimpse of the beautiful Maharaja's Palace. Once home to Mysore's Wodeyar kings, the palace is a living symbol of the opulence of India's royal past. But it was nearing tummy-rumbling lunch time when we were at the palace and aristocracy had to take a backseat as we headed to a nearby rooftop restaurant instead that offered a great view of the Chamundi Hills. A delicious meal of Kerala seer fish curry later, the surprises began.

Red letter day
We headed 45 km from Mysore to Somnathpur. This quiet village is renowned for its beautifully carved Keshava temple. A giant banyan tree is stationed at its entrance and has a small, red postal letter box fixed on it. You can drop in a postcard or letter to anywhere in India here and it will get a lovely pictorial representation of the temple stamped onto it. The actual temple, a few feet away is nothing short of awe-inspiring. Built in 1268 AD by Somnatha -- a high officer under the Hoysala king Narasimha III, it is a stunning example of Hoysala architecture. The temple has been built on an elevated star-shaped platform and has intricate depictions of gods, goddesses, dancing girls, musicians, warriors and animals from the Hindu puranas. If you look up at the roof once you are inside, you will see 16 uniquely carved ceilings. Sadly, the idol of Lord Keshava, whom the temple is built to venerate, is missing from the sanctum. But if it's God you're looking for, you won't leave Mysore disappointed.

Temple town
Just a few kilometres off the state highway, large green signs announce the entrance to 'the historic city of Srirangapatnam'. Once the capital of Mysore state during Tipu Sultan's rule, it was a city within a fortress. Some of the buttresses and ramparts can still be spotted amidst the profusion of 21st Century dwellings. Home to the impressive Dariya Daulat Palace and the ancient Ranganathaswamy Temple, Srirangapatnam is a wonderful day-trip to the past.

Meet the Butter Krishna
Our guide, who seemed as ancient as the temple walls, lovingly described each carving as we walked through the dimly-lit, corridors of stone. Fairly large, the Ranganathaswamy temple is not just a marvel of ancient craftsmanship, but also a very popular place of worship today.
Walking through the inner sanctum of this temple is an other-worldly experience.
Thanks to the stone used to build it, the temperature inside the sanctum dips favourably. There isn't any electricity and all you have to light your path are narrow beams of sunlight that manage to squeeze in through the gaps in the stone ceiling. The constant chime of temple bells reminds you that you are not alone in this labyrinth of darkness.
Grottos carved along the temple's massive walls house a pantheon of Hindu deities and are manned by priests who are eager to bless you. Also resident here is the famous 'butter Krishna'. According to lore, the temple's carving of Lord Krishna is said to have miraculous powers. Hundreds make wishes here and once they come true, they return to generously slather the god with his favourite indulgence -- butter.

Tipu Sultan's vacation home
A short drive from the temple leads you to the impressive Dariya Daulat Mahal that was the summer palace of Tipu Sultan. The palace is mostly made of teakwood and its most stunning feature is that all the space available -- pillars, canopies, walls and arches -- is covered with frescos of battles, court scenes and floral motifs. In fact, the battle scenes are spectacular in their detailing; right down to the expression of worry on the British Colonel's face as Tipu Sultan and Hyder Ali's armies surround him.
Back on the highway on our way back to Mysore, we stumbled an eatery serving fantastic Manglorean sea food that had us enjoying fried lady-fish, gassi and crab. Needless to add, we only managed to leave for Mysore after a nice siesta.

Old tracks
Early next day, we finally visited the Mysore Palace, but were stopped in our tracks by this quaint miniature replica of a steam engine. On closer inspection, we discovered it was actually a cutely designed trash can at the entrance to the Railway Museum. And what a treat this place is. The first of its kind in India, the museum was set up in 1979. Beautiful engines dating back to the British Raj line the lawns. But the piece de resistance in this museum has to be the Maharani's teak-lined saloon carriage, which has a pretty dining car, bedroom, a kitchen and a royal toilet.

Mysore Palace
Much like happy children after a day in the park, we left the museum and headed to the Mysore Palace. A three-storey stone structure, with marble domes and a 145 feet five-storied tower, the current Mysore palace is the third and arguably most opulent attempt at rebuilding this seemingly jinxed seat of power.
The entrance is through a Gombe Thotti or the Doll's Pavilion, an unusual gallery of traditional dolls from the 19th and early 20th Centuries. There are many unique rooms throughout the palace; like the Diwan-e-Khas, a spectacular room used by the king for private audience. An elegantly carved rosewood doorway inlaid with ivory opens into a Ganesha shrine. The centre has ornately gilded columns, stained glass ceilings, decorative steel grills, and chandeliers with fine floral motifs. The Kalyana Mantapa or marriage hall is a grand octagonal-shaped pavilion with a multi-hued stained glass ceiling with peacock motifs. The entire structure was wrought in Glasgow, Scotland. Paintings of the members of the royal family and the elaborate Dassera celebrations grace the walls. A peculiar feature of the art that you shouldn't miss is the illusion of movement that the artists managed to create in that era. The subjects of the paintings always point towards you, whichever direction you move to.

Fairy tale cathedral
Another bit of stunning architecture in Mysore is the Saint Philomena Cathedral that was built in 1956 and is one of the largest churches in India. Replete with tall Gothic towers and beautiful stain glass windows, the cathedral looks straight out of an illustrated fairy tale.
It houses a relic of the third Century Saint Philomena in a beautiful catacomb under the alter. The best time to walk into this structure is in the evening, when the sun casts an other-worldly light as it pierces through the church's stained glass windows.

Dinner in a palace
Feeling full on religion, we now headed for an experience of another kind -- dinner in the Lalitha Mahal Palace. Built by the erstwhile Maharaja of Mysore to host his most important guest, the Viceroy of India, it is now one of India's most opulent hotels, offering an experience of princely living in a real Maharaja's palace.
Sitting in a large dining hall, serenaded by classical singers, this isn't an experience to be missed.

Where Mysore shops

The next morning, we made a trip to the Devaraja fruit and vegetable market -- a vibrant, bustling place full of narrow lanes overflowing with fruits, flowers, vegetables and people. Outside this bustling ecosystem, do stop by at Bombay Tiffany's, whose Mysore Pak is the stuff of legend. Don't forget to take a trip to the Cauvery Arts and Crafts emporium for some serious shopping of all things beautifully Mysore -- exquisite saris and sandalwood sculptures. Another mandatory stopover is the sandalwood factory. Run by the go