Mysore

 


 

The Taj Mahal is India’s most iconic landmark and biggest tourist attraction. Foreigners flock to the monument in India’s north, but few visitors to the subcontinent are familiar with a little known palace in the south, designed by an Irishman, that pulls in just as many visitors as the Taj Mahal each year.

Designed by Irish architect Henri Irwin, the Amba Vilasa or Mysore Palace began construction in 1897 and finished in 1912. The palace is a mishmash of art deco gothic European features and Indian-Muslim flourishes with domes and arches and towers- similar to a grander, boxier version of England’s Brighton Pavilion.

There’s much contentious debate over which of India’s premier attractions- The Taj Mahal or Mysore Palace, attracts more visitors.  My guide is adamant that Mysore Palace attracts more visitors than the Taj Mahal, but his enthusiasm for the Palace and staunch support for the royal family who own it lead me to make a mental note to Google the facts later on.  Regardless the palace is an impressive sight. On weekends and holidays, the Palace is illuminated by over 100,000 exterior light bulbs that twinkle briefly for just 45 minutes before being shut off to conserve energy.

Like most attractions in India, Mysore Palace works on the two-tier payment system. If you’re a local you pay 20 rupees for the pleasure of seeing inside it, if you’re a foreigner, it’s 200 rupees. Shoes and bags have to be checked at separate ends of the grounds before you enter and no photography is allowed inside- although so many camera phones with paparazzi flashes pop while you’re inside you’d think Brad and Angelina were roaming the halls looking for another child to adopt.

What makes the palace interesting is a large number of materials sourced from Britain for its construction. Eight bronze tigers, commissioned from a sculptor from the Royal Academy of Arts in London guard each entrance to the palace.  The most beautiful room in the whole building is the Marriage pavilion with it’s soaring stained glass roof. Arranged in an octagonal shape, the supporting pillars were wrought in Glasgow, while a large peacock mosaic in the floor was completed with speciality tiles from England.

On the inside, the palace has an incredible collection of Czech crystal chandeliers, stately royal portraits, doors forged from 150kg of silver and Italian marble statues gifted by the British.  At the time of its completion, the palace was considered cutting edge, with GE fans installed to combat the steamy monsoonal heat of India. Today, the Palace offers an interesting look at what the Maharajas were up to in their last days of power after British rule; a spectacular display of wealth and indulgence tinged with vulgarity.

An oval mirror placed on special display is framed by ivory tusks, while a throne pimped, adorned and bedazzled with 80 kilos of gold sits gathering dust inside the next room (another throne, adorned with 200 kilos of gold, jewels and with a tortoiseshell bottom, is trotted out once a year for the annual Dasara Festival).  I’m unimpressed with both articles. Just the day before my visit I’d seen wild elephants roaming in the former Palace hunting grounds and been enraptured with their gentle grace, I unapologetically think ivory has a better purpose than being used as a frame for someone’s vanity. But the golden throne really irks me, given that generations have starved in poverty just beyond the gates of this palace while that wealth of gold sat inside going to waste.

It is a beautiful palace worth seeing if you’re travelling in the South of India, an insight into an indulgent and exclusive way of life that is now thankfully fading into the past. But much to my guide’s horror, I couldn’t enjoy the experience as much as my guide seemed to think I should- but I reassuringly told him one thing I had noticed- there certainly was a bigger crowd at Mysore Palace than I’d ever experienced at the Taj Mahal.

Disclosure: The writer travelled with the assistance of Small Luxury Hotels: slh.com