Mysuru Palace: Raising a Royal Residence

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    One of the most unforgettable images of Karnataka’s royal city is one of the Mysuru Palace illuminated against the night sky. Bathed in a golden glow powered by 95,000 light bulbs, its 145-foot, five-story tower soaring to the heavens, the palace by night is a highlight of tourist itineraries.

    The Mysuru Palace, in southern Karnataka, is set in the midst of beautiful gardens in the centre of the city and was once the seat of the Wadiyar Dynasty. But the opulent palace you see today is not the original one built at the dawn of the dynasty, not even close! It’s the fourth royal residence constructed on the same site and dates back to the early 20th century. What happened to the earlier versions of the palace and why were there so many?

    Before we get to that, here’s a brief backstory of the city and the dynasty that ruled it for close to 550 years. Mysuru takes its name from the mythological buffalo demon, ‘Mahishasura’, who is believed to have ruled this region in ancient times. He was killed by Goddess Chamundi (a form of Durga), and she later became the protector deity of the Kingdom of Mysore governed by the Wadiyar rulers.

    The Wadiyar Dynasty was founded by Yaduraya Wadiyar (r. 1399-1423 CE) and was initially a vassal state of the mighty Vijayanagara Empire (1336 - 1646) headquartered in Hampi around 400 km to the north. Yaduraya Wadiyar built the first Mysuru Palace as part of a wooden fortress.

    When the Vijayanagara Empire began to fall apart after the Battle of Talikota in 1565, the power vacuum was exploited by Raja Wadiyar I (r. 1578-1617 CE), who transformed Mysuru from a feudal principality into a kingdom. He declared independence and shifted his capital from Mysuru to Srirangapatna, an island in the Kaveri River just 20 km north of Mysuru, as it provided natural protection against military attacks.

    In 1638, the wooden palace was struck by lightning and rebuilt by Kanthirava Narasaraja Wadiyar I (r. 1638 – 1659 CE), who expanded the structure and added new pavilions. But the glorious new palace did not last very long. The death of Chikka Devaraja Wadiyar (r. 1673 - 1704 CE) plunged the kingdom into a period of political instability. And, from 1760 to 1799 CE, Mysuru was virtually ruled by Hyder Ali, a general in the army of Krishnaraja Wadiyar II (r. 1734 – 1766 CE), and then his son Tipu Sultan (r. 1782 - 1799), who expanded the kingdom aggressively. During these turbulent times, the Mysuru Palace slipped into a state of neglect and was eventually demolished by Tipu Sultan in 1793.

    However, in 1799, Tipu Sultan was killed by the British in the Battle of Srirangapatna. The British returned the Wadiyar to power by installing five-year-old Prince Krishnaraja Wadiyar III (r. 1799-1868) on the throne. After that, the Wadiyar Dynasty ruled as a subsidiary of the British.

    The capital shifted back to Mysuru and one of the first tasks of the new king was to commission a new palace – the third one. However, the hastily constructed palace went up in flames due to a fire that broke out during the wedding of the Chamaraja Wadiyar X’s (r. 1868-94) oldest daughter, in 1897.

    It was during the reign of Krishnaraja Wadiyar IV (r. 1902 – 1940) that the current Mysuru Palace was built – the fourth one – under the commission of his mother, Maharani Kempananjammanni of Vanivilasa Sanndihana, who served as regent from 1895-1902.

    The Mysuru Palace Today

    The grand palace, standing three storeys tall, was designed by noted British architect Henry Irwin and was completed in 1912 at a cost of Rs 41.5 lakh. The palace was designed in Indo-Saracenic style, a gorgeous blend of Hindu, Islamic, Rajput and Gothic architectural elements.

    The main gate and arch boast the emblem and coat of arms of the Kingdom of Mysore, around which is written the Wadiyar Dynasty’s motto in Sanskrit: ‘na bibheti kadachan’ (‘never terrified’). Above the central arch is a sculpture of Gajalakshmi, the Goddess of Wealth, with her elephants.

    No image of the palace is complete without its iconic tower, which rises 145 feet from the ground. The palace also has square towers at cardinal points, each one topped by a dome.

    The major attraction of the palace is its Kalyana Mandapa, an octagonal hall, where royal weddings, birthday celebrations and ceremonial functions used to be held. The stained-glass ceiling has peacock motifs and floral mandalas held in place by metal beams.

    The floor has beautiful geometrical patterns created by using shining glazed tiles imported from Britain. On display are 26 paintings depicting Dasara processions. They are based on actual photographs and executed between 1934 and 1945.

    Mysuru has a centuries-long tradition of celebrating the Dasara festival in grand style. A special durbar, or public gathering, was held by the Wadiyar king, where the royal sword was worshipped, and there were processions involving elephants, camels and horses along with marching bands and dance troupes. The king rode atop the royal elephant, sitting on a howdah, (a seat and canopy mounted on the back of an elephant or camel), while greeting the citizens. The howdah is decorated in 84 kg of gold and is on display in the palace.

    Jayachamarajendra Wadiyar (r. 1940 – 1947), the 25th ruler of the royal family, was the last to ride the howdah. In 1947, when India gained independence, the monarchy was abolished and although a grand procession still takes place on Dasara, the howdah is occupied by an idol of Goddess Chamundi.

    Other noteworthy rooms in the palace are the king’s Public Durbar Hall and Private Durbar Hall. The Public Durbar Hall contains an oil painting of Sita’s swayamvar by the celebrated artist from Kerala, Raja Ravi Varma. It also has pictures of Goddess Devi in eight forms.

    The Private Durbar Hall, also called Amba Vilas, has on the floor between each cast-iron pillar, marble inlaid with semi-precious gems in scrolled floral work. It is this room that has the royal throne, made of 200 kg of gold.

    There is also a wrestling courtyard, as the kings of Mysuru were great patrons of the sport, and competitions were held during the Dasara festivities. There are 12 temples inside the palace complex, dating from the 14th to the 20th centuries, built in different architectural styles.

    The Mysuru Palace is among the most magnificent royal residences in India today, exuding both opulence and fine taste. It is a living reminder of the grandeur of a bygone era.

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