Rudyard Kipling once blamed Providence for having
created the maharajas just to offer mankind a spectacle, a
dazzling vision of marble palaces, tigers, elephants and jewels.
Other Western critics have grumped about the legendary extravagance
and personal eccentricities of the pampered princes. But regardless
of their vices and virtues at least some of the rulers were
well-educated, broadminded and aware of their responsibilities in
administering their subjects.
In Mysore, once one of
the most flourishing and colourful princely states, celebrating
Dussehra is an ancient tradition. Come October, the streets and
boulevards of Mysore are ablaze with colour. It is the advent of a
special season of pomp and pageantry.
In most parts of India,
especially northern India, Dussehra is celebrated in commemoration of
Lord Ramas victory over the ten-headed demon king, Ravana. But
Mysore celebrates the festival in honour of Goddess Chamudeswari who
felled in fierce battle the great demon, Mahishasur.
Chamudeswari is the
family deity of the royal house of Mysore and during Dussehra her
idol is taken in procession. Her howdah, wrought in solid
gold is the piece de resistance.
It was in 1931 that the
late Maharaja of Mysore went on one of his several pilgrimages to
Mount Kailash and Badrinath. On his way back my late father, whose
student the Maharaja had been in the Princes College, was
invited to visit Mysore as a state guest during the festival season.
This rain cheque was encashed a decade later when our family had to
migrate from northern India to Bangalore.
A great upheaval was in
the offing at the time. The ominous clouds of World War II still
hung over the subcontinent. The end of the mighty British Empire
appeared around the corner. While India was on the verge of gaining
independence, the fate of the 500 and odd maharajas, rajas, and
nawabs looked dismal. Yet, ancient traditions live on.
When my father wrote to
the then Maharaja, asking whether we could visit Mysore for a glimpse
of the great event, the latter did not reply. Instead, His Highness
sent Col. A.V.Subramanyaraj, his ADC, to escort us in a Rolls Royce
Silver Ghost ! It was a memorable drive.
Although the festival was
still a week away we saw brisk activity in the countryside.
Villagers could be seen painting the mud walls of their huts with
fresoces of gods, demons, men and animals in yellows , ochres and
umbers. Cartwheels were being oiled and freased for putting
the massive bullock-carts in good shape for carrying the villagers to
the festival site. Strains of nadswaram music and drmbeats
could be heard from the roadside temples. In some of the affluent
villages elephants could be seen foraging for their beloved pakar
leaves, their mahouts leisurely dozing atop.
Arriving at Mysore, our
escort put us up in the State Guest House, leaving the Siliver Ghost
with its chauffer at our disposal. We were free to roam around,
visit the neighbouring wonders which included the eyefilling Cauvery
Falls, the historic fort of Tipu Sultan is Sriangpatnam, Somnathpuram
temple of the sculptor of the Hoysala kings, the terraced Brindaban
Gardens, the Chamundi Hill and several other pleasant.
The ADC told my father
that His Highness would give him an audience only on the eve of the
Dussehra as he was required to participate in the nine day long puja
most of the time.
My father spent most of
his time in the palaces library and the local club where several of
the Maharajas kith and kin, former students of my father,
assembled in the evening. We with our mother drove around the city
visiting temples and going on a shopping spree. The chauffeur, who
spoke English as well kitchen Hindustani, acted as our interpreter.
One day aware of our
presence in the Guest House, His Highness sent Lt. Bahadur of the
Mysore Lancers, to fill us in on the glorious past of the state. Lt.
Bahadur literally a handmaiden of the Maharaja, was a goldmine of
folklore. Needless to say we spent a few sleepless Arabian Nights
listening to the legends.
Before the present
dynasty Wodeyars took over the reign in Mysore the Hoysalas, known
for their expertise in architecture and sculpture, had lent their
magic touch to forts, palaces and temples. The Wodeyars trace their
origin to two brothers, Yadura and Krishnadeva who had migrated from
Dwarka. Chamaraja, the local chieftain, had just died and his widow
and daughter were left at the mercy of an usurper, Maranayak.
Responding to the widows appeal, Yadura married Chamrajas
daughter, killed the usurper and thus became the ruler in 1399 AD.
In the backyard of the
palace used to be the royal stable housing thousands of elephants and
horses, most worth their weight in gold. From the Guest House roof
we could see the morning drill of these animals being bathed,
massaged and paraded around before being fed.
The number of elephants
in the royal stable would have put the late Hannibal to shame
more than 1,500.
Elephants have played an
important part in Hindu mythology and figure widely in art and
sculpture. Besides, the animals have always been used as mounts of
state in all parts of the country. The animals, splendidly
caparisoned in rich brocades, decked with ornaments and bells, their
head-plates studded with gems, the eyes and trunks painted in
patterns from time immemorial and surmounted by ornate howdahs
continue to form the chief attraction of every typical Indian
From time to time, the
Royal Mysore Forestry organized kheda operations for
capturing wild elephants from sprawling jungles where the pachyderms
abounded. Wild elephants were driven into a stockaded enclosure and
then gradually broken down to obey the commands of their mahout.
When trained, the animals were used for replenishing the stock of the
It was a well known
practise for the ruler to give away elephants as gifts to priests and
local feudal chiefs during sacred ceremonies. The state also earned
useful revenue by selling the surplus jumbos to other states, various
zoos and circuses. Saboo the Elephant Boy, who made his sensational
appearance in Hollywood once grew up with elephants in the forests of
Lt. Bahadur was kind
enough to show us project bearing the stamp of the Maharajas
farsightedness and the rich contribution made by stalwarts like the
late Sir Mokhgundam Visvesvaraya and Sir Mirza Ismail Beg.
Visvesvaraya, a gifted
engineer, rose to be the Diwan (Prime Minister) of Mysore at the turn
of the century. It was his pioneering vision that transformed the
sprawling, sleepy state into a progressive, dynamic entity. He set
up the Bellary Steel Plant and commissioned the countrys first
hydroelectric power generation plant at Shivsamudram. Sir Mirza who
played an equally important role in modernizing Mysore, was an
enthusiastic town planner and a very efficient administrator.
Both Visvesvaraya and Sir
Mirza infused a cosmopolitan spirit in provincial Mysore. Sir
Mirzas association with the government contributed a lot to
fostering communal harmony in the predominatly Hindu state. He
enjoyed the confidence of the British therefore his innovations were
When we got up in the
morning aromas of choicest Karnataka cuisine drifted in through the
window. The backyard also had a huge section, partly open, which
served as a general kitchen for guests as well as for His Highness
personal household. Breakfast, and also other following meals, were
served in our rooms arranged in a spacious trolley inlaid with
mother opearl and ivory.
We were later told, too
late indeed, that all guests in the Royal Guest House were expected
to walk away with the silver while departing ! With each meal was
served a steaming pot of coffee brew and a silver trayful of paans,
betel nuts and mouth-fresheners.
Just on the eve of
Dussehra, the Maharaja kept his word and our family was given an
audience in the Durbar Hall of the palace, also known as the Dussehra
hall. It was customary for the ruler to show himself to his people,
seated on the solid golden throne, at the end of the Navratri
(nine days preceding Dussehra).
The throne was
remarkable. Originally fashioned out of fig wood and overlaid with
ivory and studded with precious stones, the throne was presented to
the Raja of Mysore by Aurangzeb.
It was customary for
everyone meeting the Maharaja to offer nazranas (present).
But when my father offered His Highness a gold coin, he merely
touched it but declined to accept the nazranas. You have been
my guru, so how can I accept money from you ? It is my duty, he
said, and presented a silk turban, an ivory handle dagger and a small
velvet bag of gold coins to my father. My mother received a pair of
gold bangles and the rest of us were given 100 rupees each for
buying things of our choice.
Finally, the big day
arrived. From early morning the procession route was being spruced
up. Roads were swept several times and glistened like skating rinks.
Lush green trees stood on both sides of the path and a very large
crowd had already begun to collect. Hucksters were doing brisk
business by selling balloons and flowers, which the enthusiastic
crowds were to toss at the procession.
Thanks to our status of
Maharajas personal guests, we were provided with
ringside positions for whatever ceremonies we desired to watch.
The Maharajas puja
of the patron deity was supposed to be a very private affair. In
fact, even relatives barring the Maharani and the royal offsprings
were kept away from the function lasting hours. The idol was carried
out from her temple in an impressive procession of caparisoned
elephants and incense burned.
The royal purohit, or the
chief priest, led the procession, spraying the path with the holy
water from the Ganges. On both sides of the privileged elephant
carrying the idol walked servants with braziers in which sandalwood
powder and incense burned.
His Highness and his
family had observed fast during the Navratri and were to break
it only after the puja was over. When he came out of the prayer
room, despite his opulent regalia, the Maharaja s face appeared
tired. Yet a broad smile greeted the relatives and
guests who awaited his
final audience before the procession. Once again the nazranas
were offered to the ruler and present given back in return.
The Maharaja then
returned to his dressing room to change into his ceremonial attire.
In the meantime, hundreds
of elephants draped in gold tapestries and their foreheads painted
afresh had lined up in the front courtyard. One massive bull
elephant was being decked up for carry in the idol of Chamundeshwari.
As for flowers, one had to wade through the thick layers of rose
petals strewn on the ground. Whiffs of slow burning musk, sandal and
jasmine buffeted across the spacious courtyard.
Spectators stared as a
21-gun salute boomed. Amidst the peal of bells and rolling of drums
the Dussehra procession started. Dressed in his ceremonial best, the
imposing figure of His Highness Shri Jai Chamaraja wodeyar, rode the
elephant following the animal carrying the deity.
Hundreds of other
elephants flanked by the Royal Mysore Lancers and a tall trail of
liveried soldiers followed. The soldiers carried obsolete weapons of
war muskets, scimitars , heavy swords, shields and lances.
Some sported armour. Another platoon carried Lee Enfield rifles and
appeared more modern.
The entire palace in the
background, and all other important buildings were illuminated to
such perfection that the entire panorama appeared like a giant set of
a Disney spectacular. Fireworks streaked across the horizon like
The spectators were
enthralled. They sang praises of Chamundeshwari, clapped and hurled
flowers and wreaths at the great elephants rumbling forward. The
Maharaja kept waving back at his subjects.
Like marching soldiers, a
blend of old and new, pipe and drum
accompanied traditional music provided the marching music.
It was impossible to
estimate the number of people who were watching the procession
probably more than a million. One could only admire their patience,
having spent hours on their feet, just to get a glimpse of the great
Since my first glimpse of
the great Mysore Dussehra half a century ago, I have visited
Karnataka at least five time. Twice during post-independence
Dussehra. There are several changes now. The state governor now
presides over the official function instead of the
Maharaja. The olde charm is missing. The traditional
gold howdah for the leading elephant belongs to the erstwhile ruler.
The latter lends it to the state government in return of a stiff fee.
For me, at least, a
glorious chapter of the Arabian Nights has closed. I shall not see
the like of it again.