My driver for the day, Manohar—a clean-shaven, decent South Indian boy—loves Punjabi rap. This makes me wonder if Mysoreans lead double lives—as the sweet, cultured populace from the memories of my childhood travels and as newly debauched daaru, Dj, dance floor-fiends. Before observing the evolving Mysoorinavaru, there’s the city itself that I appear to have nurtured faulty memories of. The Mysuru I recall had the giant statue of the buffalo-demon, Mahishasura, in the middle of the city. I still have a picture of my sister and me posing with masala cucumbers at the feet of that looming demon with a snake in one hand and a sword in the other. I am determined to click a ‘same location, 20 years later’ selfie, but it turns out that the idol of Mahishasura is, and always was, atop Chamundi Hills, 13 km from the city centre.
I head there immediately, a bad decision on a Saturday. The hill is packed with local tourists. There’s a motorable road going right up to the Dravidian-style temple, but we park on the other side of the hill, in a throng of humanity thatis trudging up the tougher route—1,000 steps—to pay their respects to Mahishasuramardini, the avatar of Parvati who killed Mahishasura, thus giving the city its name and a reason to celebrate the 10-day nada habba or Dasara festival. Nursing a tendon injury, I opt out of the mid-day climb; in any case, it seems like the sort of thing that would be best enjoyed early morning. So we drive back to the city for the long tour of the century-old Sri Ghamarajendra Zoological Gardens, aka Mysuru Zoo, one of the best in the country.
It’s close to 4 pm, a good time to observe the animals emerging from their siesta. There are the usual suspects: parents, children, a very patient photographer and a gang of young men who move from one enclosure to another, making kissing sounds at the animals and shouting, “Eyyy, lion!”, “Eyyy, monkey!” The enclosures are massive, and there’s plenty of space within the 157-acre campus to move at your own pace, while taking a break on the many benches provided. There are loos too. Selfie sticks are prohibited. Overall, an excellent way to spend the afternoon.
I espy a white tiger slinking behind an artificial waterfall and rush to that section. He doesn’t come back. The void is filled by the 16-year-old Royal Bengal Tiger, Brahma, who circles the enclosure, sprays the trees repeatedly and has a little bath at the waterfall. About 200 metres away, the lion enclosure is coming to life. The adult male poses in profile and yawns magnificently, while two lionesses roar gutturally. A supine cheetah, barely 50 metres from me, stares philosophically atone spot for over 10 minutes until I realise he’s been staring at a mongoose in the distance.
There is a pair of zebras: Sudheer is a Scorpio-Sagittarian cusp and Riddhi is a Virgo. Most enclosures bear nameplates with the birth dates of the animals, as well as the names of patrons who have adopted them. After ambling around, gawking at wild dogs, bears, rhinos, otters and giraffes, my legs finally give way. It’s too late to visit Karanji lake next door, which has a butterfly park and India’s largest walk-through aviary, home to over five lakh bird species. But the languid zoo ramble has worked its magic. I’ve cut the umbilical cord to those—now dodgy—childhood recollections of the city and am all set to make fresh ones.
The evening is spent at By the Blue, the poolside restaurant on the roof of the Grand Mercure Hotel, with live music, mojitos and a rich Northwest Frontier meal, featuring a sublime Mugewala Kukkad, chicken cooked and baked inside fluffy egg whites. I’m staying at the hotel, which opened just a few months ago on a prime piece of real estate on Sayaji Rao Road, providing its guests a vantage view of Mysuru’s biggest draw, the grand Jumbo Savari (elephant procession) on the 10th day of Dasara.
My company for this night is a merry bunch of imports to the city; a Mumbaikar, a Delhiite who’s worked in Pune and suggests I satiate any vadapav pangs at Bombay Tiffany’s many outlets in Mysuru. The Bengaluru hipster at our table introduces me to a stylish Instagram account. It belongs to the 27th Mahajara of Mysuru, Yaduveer Krishnadatta Chamaraja Wadiyar. (His Insta handle is ‘ykcwadiyar’, follow away!) The young Boston-educated scion of the illustrious Wadiyar clan, who was officially crowned in 2015, married TVishika Kumari of Dungarpur in 2016 in a glittering ceremony at the Mysuru Palace. I’m told they’re the type of blue-blooded millennial couple who could just drop by at the hotel’s coffee shop unannounced.
SHOOTING STARS AND TREND-SETTING MAHARAJAS
“He studied in America, what does he know about the city!” This isn’t a harsh indictment of the suave new maharaja, but a gentle observation made by Sachin, a voluble, light-eyed engineering student, of Royal Mysore Walks. Founded and run by enthusiastic young Mysoreans, this walking tour company offers insights into the heritage and culture of the city.
We meet at the Town Hall where he adorns my wrist with a ‘Royal Mysore Walks’ stamp, and quickly figures out that trivia is not my strength. We walk towards the palace, Sachin talking me through the fascinating military ingenuity of the father-son duo, the beloved Haider Ali and the more controversial Tipu Sultan. Tipu laid the foundation for modern-day rockets by crafting iron tubes, filling them with gunpowder, fastening them to swords/bamboo poles and unleashing them in a range of two km, scaring the living daylights out of the British—particularly Arthur Wellesley, soon to become the Duke of Wellington—during the Second Anglo-Mysore War in 1780. Tipu’s taramandalpets (rocket research centres) in Srirangapatna, Chitradurga, Bengaluru and Bidanur infused tech prowess into the Mysorean army which held its own against the might of the British empire until 1799, when the Tiger of Mysore was finally defeated.
While Sachin may not be overly impressed by contemporary Boston-returned royals, he has plenty of delightful stories to share of the Wadiyar dynasty that ruled the state of Mysuru from 1399 to 1947. Like that of Krishnaraja Wadiyar IV custom ordering seven Rolls-Royces (because seven was his lucky number), prompting the British carmaker to thereafter dub bulk orders as ‘doing a Mysore’! Not only was Krishnaraja one of the wealthiest men in the world and a great patron of the arts, he was an ideal statesman (Mahatma Gandhi called him a rajrishi) under whose reign Mysuru became the first state to generate hydroelectric power in Asia, and Bengaluru became the first Asian city to get street lights.
Krishnaraja’s descendants, locked in a dispute with the state government, now live in a wing of the Amba Vilas Palace, a magnificent blend of Hindu, Rajput and Gothic architecture. Sachin’s bag of Mysuru trivia spills over as we move from the Gome Thotti (Dolls’ Pavilion) to the sunlit wrestling courtyard (a big draw during Dasara festivities) and on to the Kalyana Mantapa. A magnificent ode to the Wadiyar dynasty’s globe-trotting swag, this ceremonial hall sports a stained glass ceiling courtesy of Scotland, tiles from England, mirrors from Murano, chandeliers from Czechoslovakia and an electric fan from America. The three-dimensional paintings are my favourite element in this palace of wonders; it’s surreal to have Krishnaraja Wadiyar IV’s benevolent gaze locked with my eyes as I move from one side of his life-size portrait to the other.