Mysore: a dazzling indian summer in Karnataka

In the south of India, little-visited Karnataka has plenty of surprises, from the bright lights of Mysore Palace to rare wildlife sightings in the jungle

Outside the Maharajah's palace a collective intake of breath was followed by an outburst of joyous applause from the large crowd. About 100,000 light bulbs had been switched on. They instantly transformed the royal complex into a host of linear illuminations, picking out silhouettes of the domes, pillars, arches and more. The net effect looked remarkably like Harrods lit up at night – only more opulent, bigger and with the exotic distinction of including illuminated gateways and temples.

Mysore on Saturday and Sunday nights is uplifted by this light show. It is a major visitor attraction for the new breed of middle-class tourists who come here from across India. And their spirit of enthusiasm is intoxicating. On the day of my visit there were very few tourists from further afield. The southern corner of the state of Karnataka is not much of a feature on the tourist map of the wider world. Which is odd because there is a fabulously rich mix here, from silk and sandalwood in Mysore (to say nothing of regal lightshows), to elephants and big cats in the jungle-lands beyond. And should you need to catch your breath after that, there's a serene health retreat in the area, too.

I started my trip at Bangalore (officially now Bengaluru) – conveniently a non-stop flight from Heathrow. For all the hype about this being the IT capital and hip bar venue of India, I found it an unexpectedly laid back, leafy city, in parts almost quaintly old fashioned. Tree-lined avenues grace the old area of town while to the south is the expansive Lalbagh botanical garden, complete with a glasshouse built in 1889 and modelled on Crystal Palace.

I visited the engaging Nandi Temple, constructed in the 16th century by the city's founding father, Kempe Gowda, and containing a huge granite statue of a bull. It has been turned black from being rubbed with peanut oil in acts of reverence for the creature, said to be the vehicle of the Lord Shiva.

I took in the old fort and the teak-carved palace of Tipu Sultan, Muslim ruler in the 18th century and ferocious enemy of the British. Then I retreated to the sleek surrounds of the Park Hotel where contemporary cool gets a twist of Indian panache with great splashes of colour. The vibrant i-Bar pulsed with music – which was, every so often, interrupted by highlights from an international cricket tournament.

Moving on to Mysore the next day the effects of Road Safety Week enlivened the three-and-a half-hour drive: "Road safety is a mission, not an intermission" announced one of the notices dotted along the way. Arriving (safely) in this pretty city you can't but dither slightly over which site to explore first.

To the south, Chamundi Hill is one of the eight most sacred hills in southern India. Topped by the Sri Chamundeswari Temple and with the intriguing Godly Museum adjacent to the car park, it was drawing bright streams of pilgrims as I arrived. I moved on to the Maharajah's palace so as to see the place by daylight before returning for the evening illuminations.

Built by the English architect Henry Irwin in 1912 it is an almost bewildering confection of Mughal-style architecture with dashes of Scottish Baronialism. Yet perhaps best of all are the retail outlets. The city is liberally endowed with handicraft shops selling silk and sandalwood goods, and it is also a key centre for "agarbathies", or incense sticks. Meantime for an intense fix of colour, head for Devaraja market. Most Indian markets are absorbing, but this flower, fruit and veg centre is in a class of its own.

I wandered by wonderful stalls piled high with aubergines, tomatoes, squash and chillis; I paused to take in the aromas of spices; I marvelled at piles of bright powders for bindis (dots decorating the forehead); and I stood spellbound watching flower merchants weave intricate garlands of marigolds and jasmine.

From flora to fauna, I continued about three hours further west to Nagarhole National Park, once the hunting preserve of the rajahs of Mysore. Literally meaning "snake streams", Nagarhole backs on to three other wildlife reserves which together form a protected area totalling 2,000 sq km and harbouring elephants, gaur (an Indian type of bison), wild dogs, the odd tiger, leopard and much more.

The Bison camp on the edge of the Nagarhole Park is a swish, tented outfit on the banks of the scenic Kabini River. Here you enjoy creature comforts that evoke the lavish days of safaris in the 1920s. In the large canvas villas there are huge open-air shower areas, dressing tables and full-length mirrors, while meals in the generous public areas are a delicious spread of subtly spicy mains and old-fashioned puddings.

But it is the camp's 4x4 safari drives that you're really here for. I went on three long ventures into the park where I was amazed by the beauty of the bamboo, rosewood and sandalwood forest and of course by the wildlife: exquisite roller birds with bright turquoise wings; trees teeming with langur monkeys; female elephants marshalling tiny young so tenderly yet firmly, it was tear-jerking. We even tracked a leopard, finally viewing it up a tree where it was draped across a fork in the branches looking as comfy as if in a familiar old armchair.

I was considerably less graceful than the tree-leopard a day later. I ended my trip at the Shreyas Retreat near Bangalore. It is essentially an upmarket ashram offering every luxury (except alcohol and meat) that most people could possibly want, but with an emphasis on spiritual calm and regeneration.

Yoga beginners are welcome, although as something of a novice my own first session was, frankly, unremitting torture. Yet recuperating afterwards was a serene pleasure. I sat in shaded tranquillity in the vegetable garden, well kept by volunteer guests as well as the ever-kindly staff, while images of lounging leopards, flower weavers and palace illuminations washed through my mind – a parade of the remarkable kaleidoscope that is southern India.

 

Travel Essentials

Getting there

The writer travelled with Greaves Travel (020-7487 9111; greavesindia.co.uk). The company offers eight nights in Karnataka taking in Bangalore, Mysore, wildlife at Nagarhole and two nights at Shreyas Retreat from £2,199pp (based on two sharing). The price includes BA flights from Heathrow, private transport, breakfast at the hotels below, meals and two game viewings.

 

Staying there

The Park Bangalore (00 91 80 25594666; theparkhotels.com) doubles from R7200 (£95) including breakfast.

Mysore Windflower Spa Resort, Nazarbad, Mysore (00 91 821 2522500; thewindflower.com) doubles from R4650 (£61) including breakfast.

The Bison, Nagarhole (00 91 80 41278708; thebison.in) from R5250pp (£69) per day including all meals.

Shreyas Retreat, Nelamangala, Bangalore (00 91 80 2773 2102; shreyasretreat.com) doubles from US$370 (£240) including all (vegetarian) meals.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Bid / Tender Writing Executive

    £24000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: With offices in Manchester, Lon...

    Guru Careers: Marketing Executives / Marketing Communications Consultants

    Competitive (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a number of Marketi...

    Recruitment Genius: Marketing Executive

    £20000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This well established business ...

    Ashdown Group: Management Accountant - Manchester

    £25000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Management Accountant - Manchester...

    Day In a Page

    Where the spooks get their coffee fix: The busiest Starbucks in the US is also the most secretive

    The secret CIA Starbucks

    The coffee shop is deep inside the agency's forested Virginia compound
    Revealed: How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Loch Ness Monster 'sighting'

    How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Nessie 'sighting'

    The Natural History Museum's chief scientist was dismissed for declaring he had found the monster
    One million Britons using food banks, according to Trussell Trust

    One million Britons using food banks

    Huge surge in number of families dependent on emergency food aid
    Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths 2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

    2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

    Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths trove
    The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey, 25 years on

    The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey 25 years on

    The space telescope was seen as a costly flop on its first release
    Did Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

    Did Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

    A document seen by The Independent shows that a week after he resigned from the Lords he sold 350,000 shares in an American company - netting him $11.2m
    Apple's ethnic emojis are being used to make racist comments on social media

    Ethnic emojis used in racist comments

    They were intended to promote harmony, but have achieved the opposite
    Sir Kenneth Branagh interview: 'My bones are in the theatre'

    Sir Kenneth Branagh: 'My bones are in the theatre'

    The actor-turned-director’s new company will stage five plays from October – including works by Shakespeare and John Osborne
    The sloth is now the face (and furry body) of three big advertising campaigns

    The sloth is the face of three ad campaigns

    Priya Elan discovers why slow and sleepy wins the race for brands in need of a new image
    How to run a restaurant: As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food

    How to run a restaurant

    As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food
    Record Store Day: Remembering an era when buying and selling discs were labours of love

    Record Store Day: The vinyl countdown

    For Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
    Usher, Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert as part of the Global Poverty Project

    Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert

    The concert in Washington is part of the Global Citizen project, which aims to encourage young people to donate to charity
    10 best tote bags

    Accessorise with a stylish shopper this spring: 10 best tote bags

    We find carriers with room for all your essentials (and a bit more)
    Paul Scholes column: I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England

    Paul Scholes column

    I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England
    Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

    Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

    The heptathlete has gone from the toast of the nation to being a sleep-deprived mum - but she’s ready to compete again. She just doesn't know how well she'll do...