The palace courtyard is jam-packed, the air tense with anticipation. All windows and vantage points are occupied long before three men with ash-smeared foreheads and iron spikes appear on the sand-strewn battleground. At a signal from the erstwhile prince, all three throw themselves into a fist fight. To thunderous cheers, the fight ends when only one man is left standing without any physical injury.
Simple, inclusive and essentially celebratory, the three-way fist fight is just one aspect of Mysore’s Dasara that has remained unchanged through the ages. Said to have been established around the 14th Century by the Vijayanagar rulers to emphasize the Hindu identity—then under threat from invaders—the tradition continued even as Mysore passed to the Wodeyars and then to Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan. It was with the restoration of the state to Krishnaraja Wadiyar in 1799, however, that the festivities took on popular magnificence—with the introduction of a special durbar and direct participation of the people.
Luminous past: Amba Vilasa, the Mysore Palace, is etched in lights during Navaratri.
In Mysore for the festival, I find myself caught up in a state of perpetual excitement. From the inconspicuously domestic to the sumptuously public, for 10 days, the city shakes off its wannabe IT-city status to embrace its raison d’etre, involving the stranger, welcoming the prodigal son, putting its best face forward.
Mysore is where many of my roots lie, but the secrets of the city never fail to thrill. “Each rangoli depicts the lakshana (characteristics) of the house,” wizened old Parvathiamma tells me, putting the finishing touches to an elaborate sindoor red-turmeric yellow-emerald green rangoli. “In my youth, it was the appearance of the rangoli powder-seller in his bullock cart that ushered in the festival season. Those days are long gone, of course, and now my grandchildren aren’t interested in the art.”
Indoors, the gombe habba, or doll festival, is undergoing yet another metamorphosis. Once upon a time, the themes for this little-researched tradition were drawn from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata and the Meenakshi Kalyana; today it could well be inspired by Mahatma Gandhi or A.P.J. Abdul Kalam. Last year, I was vastly amused to see a Barbie doll amid figurines crafted from clay, beads, stone and ceramic. But they were still arranged in steps of seven, nine or 11, the way they have been for generations.
Proletariat or pre-independence rulers, the festival draws in everyone.
Take a walk down the old city—through Ramanuja Road, JLB Road, Market Square, KR Circle, Bamboo Bazaar, Sayyaji Rao Road, localities dating back to the time of the Wodeyars—to gauge the festival’s significance for the common man. In the mornings, you will overhear the strains of classical Carnatic music wafting down from behind the wooden-shuttered windows, witness rangolis being drawn afresh every day; in the evenings, every façade and ledge will be lined with flickering oil lamps and candles.
In the heart of Mysore stands the Amba Vilasa, the Mysore Palace, reconstructed in the Indo-Saracenic style after a devastating fire in 1897. As with the rest of the city, the palace is lit up on all days of Navaratri, but the primary attraction is the royal throne, which is put on display during Dasara. With its wooden frame encased in gold and studded with ivory and precious stones, it is as much of a show-stopper now as it was two-and-a-half centuries ago when Aurangzeb presented it to the ruler of Mysore.
The present ‘ruler’ is a regular on Bangalore’s Page 3 circuit but, during Navaratri and Dasara, Srikanta Datta Narsimharaj Wodeyar slips back easily into the role of his forefathers. After doing the rounds of various temples dotting the city, on the 10th day, the Wodeyar couple perform a special puja for goddess Chamundeshwari—their family deity—on top of Chamundi Hill. This is followed by a special durbar, continuing the tradition initiated in 1805. Ironically, former subjects still turn up in hordes from all corners of the state, unshaken in their belief that the ‘king’ will sort out their problems.
For the bulk of the city’s residents as well as the hordes of visitors who descend on Mysore, though, all the rituals are merely a run-up to the jamboo sawari. The honours for the parade have passed from the city’s first family to the state, but the 5km-long procession led by 12 elephants is arguably still the most majestic of festive events in India today.
Be warned: Though the procession flags off at 2.30pm, all look-out points along the cordoned route—from the palace to the Bannimantapa, through KR Circle, Sayyaji Rao Road and Dhanvantri Road—are occupied up to six hours ahead. Be prepared, too, for rice flakes and scraps of coconut in the hair: These offerings are flung towards the elephants but don’t always reach them.
As in Bengal, these 10 days in Karnataka celebrate not the exploits of maryada purshottam Rama but the Sacred Feminine. An undertone of Mysore’s martial past also runs through the festival: The Banni tree is said to have sheltered the Pandavas’ arms during their years of living anonymously; it came to be worshipped by Mysore’s rajas on Dasara, as they launched their battle campaigns on this auspicious day.
For the religious-minded, the main attraction of the jamboo sawari is the idol of goddess Chamundeshwari—this is the only day the goddess comes into public view—on an 800kg gold howdah on top of a caparisoned elephant. (Incidentally, the howdah—still the property of the Wodeyars—is rented out to the state for a stiff fee).
For me, though, the biggest charm of the parade lies in those magnificent beasts: Led by a bull-elephant called Balarama, the team—Bharata, Gajendra, Mahendra, Abhimanyu, Mary, Kanti, Revathi, Varalakshmi, Gayathri, Sarojini—is spruced up the night before the parade. Using bright colours, artists paint their thick hides with symbols of local significance, embellish them with jewellery, roll lengths of silk down their sides.
As the massive elephants sway down the makeshift ramp of the streets—during the Wodeyar reign, the elephants were actually tested for their gait, temper and expression before being inducted into the parade—the front row bursts into cheers. There is something about the sight of these glamorous, lumbering creatures that energizes the crowd, an excitement that is only partly contained by the rest of the procession: masked artists and classical musicians, acrobats and dance troupes, police bands and school and college students, mounted horses and camels. The festivities culminate at Bannimantapa with a panjina kavayatthu (torch-light parade) and a stunning display of fireworks.
Try beating the gravitas, Rio.
How to get there
All major airlines connect to Bangalore from Mumbai and New Delhi. From Bangalore, there are multiple options to cover the 135km to Mysore. The Volvo bus service (a one-way ticket costs Rs190) is recommended; alternatively, hire a car: The going rate is Rs6/km.
Where to stay
I stayed at Sandesh the Prince (www.sandeshtheprince.com; Tel: 0821-2436777). Only a few minutes away from the palace, Sandesh is a four-star hotel with four categories of rooms. It has two restaurants and a well-stocked bar. Rates start at Rs3,595 a night. At the Lalitha Mahal Palace Hotel (lalithamahalpalacehotel.com; Tel: 0821-24704706)—built by Mysore royalty to accommodate the Viceroy—rooms start at Rs6,500 a night. The Royal Orchid Metropole (www.royalorchidhotels.com/metropole.overview.htm; centralized reservations: 080-41276667), 10 minutes away from the Mysore palace, was built as a royal residence in the 1920s. Rates start at Rs4,500 a night.
Getting around Mysore
Auto rickshaws are the easiest way to get around, but expect to be fleeced during festival time. Try a ‘jhutka gaadi’ (horse-drawn carriage) for the old world feel. Rates are negotiable.
What to eat:
Try the restaurants around the palace for excellent idlis, masala dosas, sambhar and, of course, ‘Mysore pak’. Devraj Urs Road and surrounding localities, a kilometre away, offer good upscale dining options.
What to do:
Charms of the crowd wearing thin? Head for a classical music concert. Season tickets for 10 days are available at Karnataka State Tourism Development Corporation offices. The Mysore Palace Museum is also worth a shot: There are some lovely Raja Ravi Varma paintings, instances of Ganjifa art and silver, gold and stained glass furniture. The palace itself has a splendid Durbar Hall; this is where the throne is displayed during Dasara. The Jaganmohan Palace Art Gallery displays Raja Ravi Varma and Svetoslav Roerich paintings as well as locally developed “gold-leaf” works. Check out the Brindavan Gardens located at the KR Sagar Dam, if only to spot locales from Hindi and Tamil movies.
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