Into the palaces and monuments of Mysuru and Srirangapatna

At a recent event in Bengaluru, George Michell, founder-trustee of the Deccan Heritage Foundation, spoke about the built legacy of the Wadiyars and Tipu Sultan

January 22, 2024 09:00 am | Updated 12:44 pm IST - Bengaluru

Jayamartanda Gate, Mysore Palace.

Jayamartanda Gate, Mysore Palace. | Photo Credit: Surendra Kumar

George Michell talks about the inspiration behind Von deutscher Baukunst, German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe‘s seminal essay about Gothic architecture. At the end of the 18th century, Goethe found himself walking past the Strasbourg Cathedral of Our Lady, today considered to be one of the finest examples of Gothic architecture, a style prevalent in Europe during the Middle Ages before being dismissed as ugly and outdated by the torchbearers of the Renaissance movement that had swept across the continent between the 14th and 17th century.

Vikramajit Ram (left) and Dr. George Michell (right), during the  George Michell Talk at BIC.

Vikramajit Ram (left) and Dr. George Michell (right), during the George Michell Talk at BIC. | Photo Credit: SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

“No one had noticed it since the 12th century,” he says at a recent illustrated lecture titled From Royal City to Island Citadel at the Bangalore International Centre in Domlur on January 18. “Goethe wrote about it, and suddenly, people started looking at it,” adds George at the talk, which coincided with the launch of the new Deccan Heritage Foundation guidebook, the 14th such publication, titled Mysuru Srirangapatna. “This was one of the factors that led to the Gothic revival,” he says.  

Gumbaz; tomb of Haidar Ali and Tipu Sultan surrounded by graves, Srirangapatna.

Gumbaz; tomb of Haidar Ali and Tipu Sultan surrounded by graves, Srirangapatna. | Photo Credit: Surendra Kumar

People don’t always notice the heritage architecture of the cities they inhabit, believes George, a founder-trustee of the Deccan Heritage Foundation and one of the authors of this new guidebook, which delves into the built legacy of the Wadiyars and Tipu Sultan. “One of the purposes of the guidebook is to execute this task. It is going to be a preview of the architectural legacies and wonders of Mysuru,” he says.  

In an engaging virtual romp through the streets and monuments of Mysuru and Srirangapatna, George brings alive the history and people that shaped these architectural marvels, taking his audience straight into colonial India between the 18th and 20th centuries. Projecting an oil panorama by a British artist, which depicts the 1799 Siege of Srirangapatna that led to the killing of Tipu Sultan in the battle, the beginning of British supremacy in South India and the restoration of the Wadiyar dynasty, he says, “After this was when Mysuru comes up architecturally.”

Krishnaraja Hospital.

Krishnaraja Hospital. | Photo Credit: Surendra Kumar

A city of palaces 

The Amba Vilas palace, in many ways, is a perfect embodiment of Mysuru’s evolving history. Starting its life as a fort in the 16th century, it was repurposed into a palace in the 19th century after the 4th Anglo-Mysore War brought Mysore under the Raj and four-year-old Krishna Raja Wodeyar III eventually came back to the throne in a subsidiary alliance with the British. “They built this wonderful wooden palace,” says George, sharing a sepia-toned picture of the palace, drawing his audience’s attention to its lofty wooden columns, a feature of South Indian Royal architecture. “So dominant was this image of what a palace should be like, it even turned up in mural paintings,” he says of this palace, which, unfortunately, no longer exists in this avatar: it was burnt down in 1897 during the wedding of Princess Jayalakshammanni.

Hall used as a madrasa in Masjid-i Ala, Srirangapatna.

Hall used as a madrasa in Masjid-i Ala, Srirangapatna. | Photo Credit: Surendra Kumar

In its place came up an Indo-Saracenic structure, replete with the bulbous domes and towers so typical of this hybrid style, which “mingles Indian, Mughal and European architectural styles,” as George points out. The queen regent Vani Vilas Sannidhana, “a very capable woman”, immediately got in touch with the leading British architect, Henry Irwin (incidentally, also the man behind Chennai’s government museum, law college, high court and public library) and commissioned the construction of this new palace.

CADA Offices, Mysuru.

CADA Offices, Mysuru. | Photo Credit: Surendra Kumar

The palace, which was completed in 1912, has gone through numerous additions and modifications since then, but it continues to be “a fantastic idea of what a royal space should look like,” says George, sharing numerous photos of its exteriors and interiors, including the various temples in the complex and the magnificent kalyana mantapa, or marriage hall, whose octagonal peacock-embossed stained glass ceiling is supported by iron pillars made in Glasgow. “It is one of the imaginative interiors we have in Mysuru,” he says..

Amba Vilas is not the only royal residence in the city. George lists out some of others—the Jaganmohan Palace and Art Gallery, filled with wonderful pictorial art, including many by Raja Ravi Varma; the Jayalakshmi Vilas Mansion built for Princess Jayalakshmi, the daughter of Maharaja Chamaraja Wadiyar, which the Deccan Heritage Foundation is currently restoring; the Cheluvamba Mansion, built for a Mysuru princess, today housing the Central Food Technological Research Institute (CFTRI); and the Lalitha Mahal, built in by Maharaja Krishnaraja Wadiyar IV in 1921 to house European guests, now a luxury hotel. “They (The Wadiyars) must have had enormous sums of money,” quips George, alluding to the fortune that must have been spent to construct the numerous palaces in the city.  

 K.R. Circle, Sayajirao Road, Mysuru.

K.R. Circle, Sayajirao Road, Mysuru. | Photo Credit: Surendra Kumar

Other attractions 

Mysore’s architectural heritage goes far beyond her many palaces. George introduces his audience to some of them, including the Mughal-style dome at K.R. Circle; the gazebo at Kuppanna Park, originally named Nishat Bagh, after the Mughal gardens in Kashmir that inspired it; British buildings such as Government House, Hardwicke Church, the Krishnarajendra Hospital and the magnificent neo-gothic St. Philomena’s Cathedral, built thanks to the instigation of the Sir TRA Thumboo Chetty, the acting Diwan of Mysore back then, a staunch Catholic. “The royal city has a real presence architecturally, “ believes George.  

Tipu Sultan Museum, Srirangapatna.

Tipu Sultan Museum, Srirangapatna. | Photo Credit: Surendra Kumar

He also goes into the built legacy of Srirangapatna, the capital of Tipu Sultan and Hyder Ali, expanding on the ancient island town’s elaborate fortification.

“Bridges were required to reach it,” he says, exhibiting a photograph of the Wellesley Bridge, named after Richard Wellesley, who was the Governor-General of India when it was inaugurated in 1804. The town, he adds, gets its name from the Sri Ranganathaswamy temple here, an important pilgrimage site dedicated to the “reclining form of Vishnu, floating on the cosmic ocean.” The temple, which dates back to the 12th or 13th century, was well maintained even during the period of Hyder and Tipu, with the latter having donated two silver vessels to it. Also, Tipu, who was killed in the fort of Seringapatam, was buried here with full honours, says George, sharing a photograph of the interiors of the mausoleum where the Tiger of Mysore is buried alongside his mother and father. “The designs and decoration of this monument are exquisite,” he says, pointing to the walls and vaults of the tomb chamber, which are all covered with Babri or stylised tiger-stripe motifs. 

Cast-iron columns in the Kalyana Mandapa, Mysore Palace.

Cast-iron columns in the Kalyana Mandapa, Mysore Palace. | Photo Credit: Surendra Kumar

Fight for conservation

George ends his lecture by talking about a monument that is very much in the news right now: the Lansdowne Building or Range Bazaar, which, along with the Devaraja Market, is in danger of being demolished. “It is a major piece of architecture,“ he says, recalling how he had told the people who’d attended the Mysuru Srirangapatna launch at Mysuru on January 16 that they should fight for the conservation of this building.

“There will be a way of stabilising, restoring it and bringing it up to date, keeping the façade,” he says, pointing out that Italian hill towns are full of 15th-century buildings that have modernised the interiors, without jeopardising the exterior façade. While he admits that doing the same in India may be challenging, he firmly believes it is possible. “This is a building that I hope everyone in this part of the world will fight for,” he says. “Whatever they put up in its place will not have this architectural character.” 

Mysuru Srirangapatna can be purchased online at the DHF bookstore. Log into deccan-heritage-foundation.org for more details.

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