The Markets, Palaces and Streets of Mysore

Mysore palace lit in the evening
The Mysore Palace illuminated in the evening

When you wander the quiet streets of the city of Mysore, you travel back in time. This city of big blue skies, grand pavilions, glittery palaces and age old markets was once the capital of the Mysore State, renamed to Karnataka in the year 1973.

I’ve been to the city a number of times and have always loved to linger longer than I planned. It’s a convenient escape from the more metropolitan hustle of Bangalore. It also provides a useful base to explore the hill stations of Coorg and Ooty and the National Parks of Bandipur and Nagarhole.

The cool air and the quiet, lazy pace of the city often lulls me into doing nothing. The food is great in every restaurant you go. From the melt-in-your-mouth dosas at Vinayaka Mylari to fiery Andhra thalis at RRR to the filter coffee at Cafe Aramane, one could spend entire days just eating and drinking.

But the city packs a gallery of easily accessible delights that enable even a lazy soul like myself to do some “sight-seeing”. Some of the places I genuinely enjoyed in my travel to Mysore are…

Mysore Palace

Tourists at the Mysore Palace
Tourists at the Mysore Palace

The biggest attraction in the city is, of course, the Mysore Palace. It’s the erstwhile residence of the Kings of the Wodeyar Dynasty and among the grandest buildings in India. Ornately carved ceilings, graceful arches, glittery chandeliers, mosaic tiles and historic paintings fill the colorful interiors furnished in the Indo-Saracenic style. The audio guide, available at the ticket counter, does a great job of making the Palace come alive with details.

The sprawling complex is populated with wide, open spaces and ancient temples. Elephants and camels roam around the green, expansive grounds of the Palace. Crowds of tourists lounge about and take selfies. And if you like solitude, there are plenty of nooks and corners where you can walk around peacefully.

On Sundays and public holidays, thousands of bright light bulbs illuminate the Palace in the evenings from 7 pm. They make an already beautiful monument even more spectacular.

Devaraja Market

Devaraja market
The old Devaraja Market

The busy, chaotic, aromatic market in Central Mysore might be over a 100 years old but it attracts customers in droves. Here you find flower sellers, vegetable vendors, fruit stalls, hardware, kitchenware, metalware, silk and sandalwood stores jostling for space.

This is the only place many of the city’s residents like to shop. Busy, bustling shoppers throng the shops, making small talk while haggling for deals. The vendors and customers have a knowing bonhomie because of relationships that have been cultivated over many generations.

Sadly, this is perhaps the most fragile of the city’s attractions. The market has endured innumerable fires and disasters and plans are afoot to demolish it altogether to make way for a new one.

Outside the market, there’s a large public square, perfect for people watching. It revolves around the historic, colorful Dufferin Clock Tower named after the Viceroy of India in 1884. Around the tower, more vendors sell fruits and vegetables, often at rates cheaper than inside the market.

Town Hall and Clock Tower

The clock tower of Mysore
The big clock tower

The Mysore Town Hall is an imposing monument with white walls and tall Corinthian columns. It’s also known as Rangacharlu Hall, named after the first dewan of Mysore.

Quaint old fashioned horse carts lounge on the gates outside. One of the gates leads to the statue of Chamarajendra Wodeyar in the wide traffic circle outside the Mysore Palace. The other takes you to the Big Clock Tower, a lot taller and grander than the Dufferin outside Devaraja market.

Chamundi Hill

Pilgrims at the ancient Chamundeshwari temple

No travel to Mysore is complete without a trip to the ancient Chamundeshwari temple in the Chamundi Hills. While the weather in the city is suitably pleasant for most of the year, the air around the temple is suitably cleaner and cooler. Here, street vendors sell coconuts, flowers and ritual items to devout Hindu pilgrims. Groups of monkeys prance around stealing food freaking people out.

The other attractions around the temple are a monolithic sculpture of Lord Shiva’s bull Nandi a few steps down the hill and a colorful statue of the demon Mahishasura in the main traffic circle. The views of the city of Mysore below are spectacular from just about anywhere in the vicinity of the temple.

The exercise freaks might want to take the 1200 stairs leading up to the temple. But the lazier ones can take bus 201, which takes you right up to the temple.

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In Kutta

The “tet” road. Road to the right goes to Wayanad Sanctuary. The one to left goes to Thirunelli.

After walking up and down the steep Nilgiris for a month and a half, my legs were ecstatic at finding themselves trotting on the flat roads of Mysore. My hub here has always been Hotel Dasaprakash, that sprawling old hotel, whose standards haven’t changed in the decades it has been in operation. It provides everything a budget traveller needs, a bed, a clean bathroom, a balcony and an excellent restaurant. It carries a whiff of the pre-1991 days, with a reception desk that looks more like a government office. It’s as old school as it gets and I was happy that I was meeting SS here as few people like “old school” more than SS.

There was more old schoolery in store for us as we chose to skip the 9 a.m. bus to Kutta and have the legendary saagu masala dosas at Vinayaka Mylari instead. After a sumptuous feast and gallons of coffee, we embarked on the journey to Kutta in Coorg. SS unwittingly entrusted me with the task of finding a bus that goes there but no one seemed to have heard of the place I was asking for until a bus conductor angrily (yet helpfully) pointed out that I was spelling it all wrong. We also learnt that, thanks to our laziness and gluttony, we had missed all the direct buses and now had to take the longer route via Gonikappal and switch there.

SS sat in the bus melancholically singing an old Hindi film song that only he, with his inexhaustible knowledge of Hindi cinema (up to the 90s as he corrected me later), would have known. I gave him a look that said “WTF” and asked him to pipe it down a bit. Maybe I shouldn’t have. SS was on one of his extremely rare holidays from a government job and should have been allowed to dance on the roof of the bus if he wished to. In fact, he should have been in the Himalayas, trekking up the Valley of Flowers with a group he had signed up with. But since that got cancelled and he had bought a fresh pair of trekking boots just for the trek, he felt a dire need to do something with them. I had just finished my Nilgiri sojourn and was headed to Coorg and he agreed to join me probably expecting adventurous walks in mountainous and jungly terrain.

A large pied wagtail in the "Spice Garden"
A large pied wagtail in the “Spice Garden”

The Spice Gardens Homestay is nested deep within hundreds of acres of coffee plantations in the Nellore Estate in Kutta. After the long journey that caused considerable butt-hurt, it felt great to get a warm welcome from NC and RC, who owned the place. If we were happy with our small, clean and cozy room on the first day, we became ecstatic when we saw the room NC offered us on the second day. It was massive with multiple rooms, a porch, a dining area and a verandah on the back-side. NC used to come for a chat every morning and evening and entertain us passionately with his bottomless reservoir of Coorgi stories, adventures and happenings. So we came to learn of the time he had to rescue a man accused of mowing down a chital with his car while it was being hunted by a leopard, of the wild boars that create havoc in his plantations justifying the ownership of guns, of his participation in the tiger and elephant censuses with the Forest Department in the Nagarhole National Park (he’s seen more than 70 tiger up till now), of the people who come to his place and spend days sitting on the tree-top machan and bird-watching, of how he hated the fact that there were so many “unregistered” homestays in the region while people like him had to run from pillar to post to get themselves registered, of how this was absolutely the wrong time to travel to Coorg, of the prevalence of heart disease among Coorgis thanks to eating all the cholesterol heavy pork etc. etc. Thankfully, the prevalence of heart disease didn’t affect our breakfasts and dinners as they were sumptuous feasts with all manner of Coorgi delicacies like pandhi curries, Coorgi egg curries, akki rotis and Coorg scotch on offer.

A sculpture on the doorsteps of Thirunelli

Because NC had to run the house, send their boy to school and take care of many acres of plantations, they didn’t serve lunch. So, all our trips were made on the pretext of going somewhere to eat. We chose to head to Wayanad first. Nestled deep within the Brahmagiri hills (and history and mythology), the Thirunelli temple in Wayanad, known for its great antiquity and isolation, should have been awesome. But we had no way of knowing because it was raining so heavily that all we could see were clumps of dark clouds blocking the views of the surrounding hills and some vague bits of rock resembling ancient sculptures being splashed with big drops of water from the sky. After a quick round of the temple and some grumblings and mumblings from SS about the pathetic state of archaeological conservation in this country, we scurried back to the restaurant nearby to have lunch.

Wayanad WLS

Disappointed by the temple experience yet undeterred, we decided to head to the Wayanad Sanctuary next. At the Tholpetty gate, we quickly and painlessly managed to get a jeep into the forest. The ranger who accompanied us was very enthusiastic initially, showing us some chital here, some gaur there, a tusker lurking behind the bushes but lost interest quickly and began gossiping with the driver in Malayalam. Every once in a while, one of us would see a bird flying or an interesting looking tree but our pleas to stop fell on deaf ears. The driver too, who went slowly at the beginning, was now in a hurry to finish the ride. In the end, it was a cheap joy-ride (torture-ride if you don’t like bumpy roads) into the jungle more than an actual “safari” and the few animals and birds we did see were a bonus and worth the money we paid for it.

A tusker behind the bushes
A fawn giving funny looks

I chose not to do “anything” the next day and just relax and enjoy the green surrounds of the estate. SS woke up at his usual unearthly hour of 7 a.m. and went for a walk. He had already finished drinking a cauldron of coffee by the time I woke up. After another spectacularly filling breakfast, we made the usual noises about not needing any food for the rest of the day. We couldn’t have been more wrong. Come 2 p.m. and hunger struck and we called NC and the whole town’s favourite rickshaw guy, J, for a round to the market, so we could grab something to eat. He dropped us near some dingy local restaurants that SS didn’t approve of. He said, with a beaming smile, “Why don’t we walk to Café Robusta?”

We’d been hearing a lot about Café Robusta since the time we got here. NC wouldn’t stop raving about the place and to him, a trip to Kutta was incomplete without a gastronomic tour of Café Robusta. It probably had something to do with the fact that he doesn’t serve lunch and that was the only place in and around the town that served edible food come lunch hour. So off we walked. And walked. It started raining and the road was never-ending. There were no helpful signboards to be found and we increasingly started suspecting that we were on the wrong road but since it was the only “road”, that probably wasn’t true. Calling J wasn’t an option because neither of us had signal on our phones. Turning back wasn’t an option because we had already walked too far. Being two guys with their heads up in the clouds most of the time, we gave each other angry glances and kept walking, with the rain coming down on our umbrellas. After what seemed like an eternity, we saw a hundred signboards directing us to “CAFÉ ROBUSTA”, a mere 10 meters away. Basically, all the signboards the café had invested in and there were many, were clustered together like a little road-side museum of signboards right next to the destination they were pointing to.

We were the only people there but if the owner is to be believed, it’s jam-packed during weekends and in the high-season, there’s a long queue to get in. SS had some more coffee, I had some dal and chapatti. We called J using the owner’s phone, bought some cheapo rain-gear at the market and went back to our room. We couldn’t take a tour of NC’s sprawling estate because of the incessant rains but regardless, a fun yet peaceful time was had. SS couldn’t use his boots to do any of the things he had envisioned for it, but that’s life. He most certainly won’t be using them in Kabini, where we were headed next.

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