Welcome to the tropical Kingdom of Mysore. Lush and green, you start to wonder if you’re in paradise. And when you drive up to the Winter Palace to stay the night, you may actually be convinced you’re a guest of the King. Though not necessarily on a lot of first-timer’s to do list, don’t count this city out.
The Hotel – Lalitha Mahal Palace Hotel
No need to pinch yourself. You’re not dreaming. You’re about to stay in a palace. Don’t misunderstand – this is still India. Preservation efforts don’t seem to have the same funding as they do in Europe, so this palace-turned-hotel shows its age with cracked paint and a faint musty smell. But when you walk down the corridors, most open to the air for relief from the heat, you can’t help but feel transported to a different time. A hybrid of English architecture and regional tweaks, the palace was built in 1931 for the Maharajah’s guests (though it feels like it could have been built a few decades earlier.) Atop a hill, it provides an impressive view. Breakfast is in a blue two-story ballroom. And it wasn’t even our most expensive night on the trip! One memorable moment was stopping by the empty bar for a shared Kingfisher (beer). The bartender has been working there for decades and is putting his son through engineering school in Germany. He said the palace was really hopping on weekends when people came out from the city. He also chatted about the unbelievable cost of having a daughter and throwing her wedding. All around, an impactful experience.
Mysore City Palace
An expansive palace-turned-museum, Mysore City Palace is the second most visited tourist attraction in India with 6 million visitors annually! Tickets for foreigners are about $3.50 each. No photography is allowed inside. And watch out for tours of “secret” rooms… there have been reports of bribes. Oh – you also have to take your shoes off! Anything in the name of preservation! It truly is beautiful. The floor to ceiling peacock room was a highlight for me.
Something you’d notice without the help of a blog is a prominent architectural difference between Hindu temples in the north and south. In the south, the temples feature an ornate monumental tower with many tiers decorated with images/statues, called a gopuram. This temple was our first chance to visit the southern architecture up-close and personal. As always, you leave your shoes behind to go into the temple. After you offer your fruit and flowers to be blessed, you are supposed to dispose of them with respect – put the flowers in your hair and eat or share your fruit. This is a working temple with very few tourists, but many locals and pilgrims.
This temple sits on top of the Chamundi Hills. Half way down, stop by the Sri Nandi Temple – a 5 meter tall statue of a bull, the mount of Lord Shiva.
Sri Nandi TEmple – Bull statue
Decorated in yellow and orange carnations, the statue is quite the sight. Carved from a single block of stone in 1858, it’s one of the largest Nandi statues in India and sits at the foot of the long set of stairs the leads to the main temple up the hill. At its feet was a young man carving stone figurines from a chunk of rock, right before our eyes.
St. Philomena’s cathedral
Looking for some culture clashes? Check out the neo-gothic Catholic cathedral built in 1936 to resemble the Cologne Cathedral in Germany. I have lots of thoughts on the overlap of Hinduism and Catholicism, but one that is very clear is the decoration and veneration of statues; in this case statues of saints. Saint statues are adorned in garlands of fake neon flowers and bright Christmas lights. My absolute favorite was a completely made-up scene as a black felt painting depicting Mary bringing Jesus to America on either the Nina, Pinta or Santa Maria. As this is a working church, the crowd and street can be a bit overwhelming. The beggars were also unrelenting, so have your driver stay nearby and ready.
There was another temple that we opted out of once we arrived. The ground was muddy and mixed with trash. The locals and the pilgrims were a bit more unruly. As shocking as it sounds, you can burn out from temples, forts and palaces, so we passed on this one without feeling too guilty.
Guided by some city officials, we visited these terraced gardens adjacent to the Krishnarajasagara Dam. Large steps climb up a hill and a fountain flows downward creating what must be an epic site in the daytime. A very public place for the locals to hang out, there were families relaxing and gaggles of teenagers wandering, joking and flirting with each other. Vendors with snacks and light up toys at the front gate make it feel like a low key amusement park – like the Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen. I know these pictures are terrible, but we only arrived after dark and apparently that means I lose all sense of good framing.
Outside the city
Google Tipu Sultan to brush up on this well loved leader who died defending his kingdom from the British. He is central to two tourist attractions outside of Mysore.
Tipu sultan Museum at srirangapatna
I’m having a hard time confirming exactly what the historic building that now holds the museum used to be. Hand painted with murals depicting Tipu Sultan’s battles, the building itself is a work of art. Due to the fragile medium of the art, the entire building is shaded from the sun and photography is not allowed (though I took two non-flash photos). Inside are the ruler’s clothing, weapons and sketches of both his battles and his seven sons.
The Gumbaz at Seringapatam is a Muslim mausoleum at the center of a landscaped garden, holding the graves of Tippu Sultan, his father Hyder Ali and his mother Fakr-Un-Nisa. It was originally built by Tippu Sultan to house the graves of his parents. Tippu was himself allowed to be buried here by the British, after his death in the Siege of Seringapatam in 1799. The visit was short and peaceful, except for the stomach issues which had me focusing on other things… Just a note: They don’t have European toilets and you have to pay a few rupees for entrance to the bathroom.
This was just the beginning of my eye-opening introduction to the South!