Beyond Bangalore: The Magic of Mysore

A quick train ride from Bangalore, this historic southern city, Louise Nicholson reveals, couldn’t be further from that technocapital.

After Bangalore, Mysore is the second-largest city in Karnataka, but it has little of its brash big brother’s worldly glitz and modern sheen. It does have plenty of history, however. This laid-back city of less than a million people was the capital of the independent Wadiyar kingdom from the early 1600s to 1761, then again from 1799 to 1830. In between, the Muslim usurper Haider Ali ruled, succeeded by his son Tippu Sultan, who leveled the city intending to build another. As a result, the town’s present-day center, with its gigantic palace complex surrounded by wide streets and parks, is the creation of the late-19th-and early-20th-century Wadiyar rulers who were sponsored by the British.

Upon your arrival in the still-prosperous city, Amba Vilas Palace, set in the middle of Mysore’s radiating boulevards, should be the first stop. Designed by Henry Irwin in the crazy conglomerate of Muslim, Hindu, and Gothic Revival styles known as Indo-Gothic and built between 1897 and 1912 for the 24th maharaja, the structure leaves the more famous Rajasthani palaces looking like modest homes. Belgian stained-glass peacocks and Scottish cast-iron pillars decorate the ground floor, and upstairs the doors are inlaid with mother-of-pearl.

The buildings around the palace include a dozen little temples and several museums, not least of all Jayachamarajendra Art Gallery, which displays 20th-century photographs and paintings—among them works by the early modernist painter Raja Ravi Varma. Amba Vilas Palace itself looks best when lit with fairy lights, as it is every night during the Dasara festival. This year the event begins on September 30 and ends with a grand celebration on October 9.

Wadiyar rulers were great patrons of sports and games, and the legacy continues in Mysore today. During the winter months, there are matches at the city’s cricket pitches, most notably at the historic Maharaja College Grounds, established in 1901. And the Jayachamaraja Wadiyar Golf Club, created in 1906, is laid out around the pretty Mysore Race Club, itself worth visiting during the August-to-October racing season. It’s a Bollywood kind of place, as actors have their horses trained nearby.

Devaraja market, meanwhile, on Sayyaji Rao Road, sells sacks of flowers, piles of spices, and beautiful arrangements of fruits and vegetables. And a climb up the stepped path of Chamundi Hill brings hikers past a huge 1659 sculpture of Nandi, the bull ridden by Shiva. At the top is a temple dedicated to Mysore’s titular deity, Chamundeswari, whose image here is said to be made of solid gold.

Mysore is also where gurus Sri T. Krishnamacharya and Puttabhi Jois popularized the rigorous Ashtanga Vainyas yoga. Studying at the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute (ayri.org) requires commitment and time, but the reliable and well-run Indus Valley Ayurvedic Centre (ayurindus.com) provides more casual study and practice.

From Mysore it’s a 30-minute drive north to Srirangapatnam, the 16th-century island fortress where Tippu Sultan built a delightful royal pleasure resort—and where he met his end while defending the fort against a 1799 British attack. A 90-minute drive southeast of town, past villagers raising silkworms, lies the tiny village of Somnathpur and the exquisite, densely carved Keshava Vishnu Temple, built in 1268 by the Hoysala rulers. It’s a longer trip to Shravanabelagola, 60 miles north of Mysore, but worth it. There, pilgrims and other visitors climb the hill to see a 58-foot-high statue of Gomateshvara; carved out of rock in a.d. 981, the work depicts a Jain saint who meditated for so long, forest plants twined around his legs. Good stocks of elephant, meanwhile, live in the 250-square-mile Nagarhole National Park, a 60-mile drive southwest of the city. To have enough time to experience the herds and other wildlife, as well as to boat on the Kabini River, a three-night stay during the drier November-to-June season is best.

Mysore in Brief

How to Get There

The trip from Bangalore is best made by rail. It’s a two-hour ride on the daily Shatabdi Expres.

How Long to Stay

Plan on at least two nights in Mysore to allow for a day trip out of town.

Staying Put and Eating Out

Green Hotel This spot-an oasis of calm, with delicious food—occupies the restored Chittaranjan Palace and its gardens. Visitors to Mysore should dine here regardless of where they stay. From $65 to $150. At 2270 Vinoba Rd.; 91-821/425-5000; greenhotelindia.com.

Kabini River Lodge On the edge of Nagerhole National Park, this spot offers waterfront meals and evening bonfires overlooking the Kabini River. Simple, rustic rooms surround the original lodge, where the maharaja stayed during the annual kheda, or elephant roundup, before independence. $160, including food and all park excursions; 91-80/2559-7021; junglelodges.com.

Lalitha Mahal Palace At this voluptuous palace, built in 1921 for the maharaja’s visitors, guests have tea or cocktails in the first-floor rooms or take drinks up the sweeping staircase to enjoy the balcony’s city views. The restaurant can be skipped. From $95 to $820. At Siddhartha Nagar; 91-821/252-6100; lalithamahalpalace.com.

Royal Orchid Metropole A restored twenties stucco building, this hotel has 30 rooms; the best is the 1,000-square-foot Maharaja’s Suite. Meals are especially delicious after lounging on a planter’s chair on the veranda with a cold Indian beer. From $110 to $180. At 5 Jhansi Lakshmibai Rd.; 91-821/425-5566; royalorchidhotels.com.