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The gleaming metallic BMW, decorated with marigold garlands and banana leaves, like the rest of other luxurious cars in the parking area, had something superiorly significant, which others vehicles lacked. Next to the number plate was affixed the official insignia of Mysore royal family; a double headed mythological bird called the Gandaberunda. The emblem freshly dabbed with kum kum, as a part of the on-going festival, exuded pride and authority that is synonym to anything that bears the royal touch. The fleet of cars, mostly Mercedes and BMWs gave an explicit hint of greater pomp and splendour bordered by the mighty walls of the grandiose Mysore palace.
It was Thursday afternoon and I was sitting near the private entrance of the palace watching the exhaustive preparation going on for the final day of Dussehra, which was to be celebrated the next day at the sprawling royal residence. It was the ninth day of the ten-day celebration, and despite much efforts I had, unfortunately missed khaas Darbar; an absolutely exclusive affair when Maharaja sat on the golden throne, the royal seat of the rulers of the Kingdom of Mysore. Entry strictly was for relatives of the royal family or those specially invited. Ironically, I neither had any links to the royal lineage nor I was lucky enough to get an invitation, the only connection was an acquaintance, on whom my fragile hope of stepping inside the palace, which otherwise was closed to the public, rested. While I waited for the contact person to get in touch, I whiled away time, taking in as much I could from exterior of the palace which exuded an extraordinary charm.
Dussehra, or Vijayedashmi is the state-festival of Karnataka. It is one of the most significant events in the Hindu calendar, celebrated to mark the victory of good over evil. It is also called Navaratri, meaning nine-nights. Mysore is particularly famous for celebrating Dussehra as an elaborate and extravagant affair more so because of the participation of the royal family which adds special pomp and pageantry to the festival.
As time passed, my hope to gain access into the palace began to dwindle; I however consoled myself by watching elephants sheltered within the palace. If not the Maharaja, I could at least rejoice looking at his elephants which had their trunks decorated with painted patterns for the occasion. They were being fed and prepared for the next day grand parade by a team of mahouts. I wondered if the lead elephant Arjuna, was there too, who reportedly weighed 5,445 kgs and was trained to carry the golden howdah (elephant seat) weighing 750 kg through the parade, covering five kilometres.
I would have gladly continued my admiration for the massive creatures, had I been not called by a uniformed man, an attendent sent to call me and three of my companions to be taken inside the palace. What unfolded henceforth was an overwhelming experience that brought me closer to the splendour of Mysore royals and the richness of the culture and heritage that prevailed inside. The first awe-inspiring moment came about in a grandiose hall furnished with imperial style of decorative interiors; there stood Maharani Pramoda Devi, widow of Srikantadatta Narasimharaja Wadiyar, the late Maharaja of Mysore. Before I could cast a deeper glance at her, I was led to the inner quarters of the palace. It took a while for me to recover from the exhilaration of watching Maharani, and at the same time I hoped to see from close quarters the new Maharaja who was recently adopted by Pramoda Devi and Srikantadatta Narasimharaja Wadiyar as they did not have children of their own. Yaduveer Krishnadatta Chamaraja Wadiyar, the 23 years old new titular maharaja of princely state scion is a MIT graduate and grandson of Gayatri Devi, sister of the late maharaja. This was his first dusshera after accession of the royal throne and he was naturally at the cynosure of everybody’s imagination and attention.
I now stood in a magnificent hallway, swarming mostly with women, beautifully dressed in their fineries; Mysore silk sarees appeared to be the ultimate choice of majority, clubbed with gold ornaments. A few men seen were dressed in white traditional attire, along with a turban, called Mysore Peta; a dress code, mandatory for them to gain admittance in the khaas darbar.
A while ago I was wandering in the premises and now was catapulted into a glittering gathering; surely I was delighted at this promotion but deep down regretted for not being dressed aptly. Braving curious glances darting at my way, I somehow found a spot near a window, opening into a courtyard, where many ladies had gathered waiting for the ritualistic fight, Vajra Mushti to commence. The fight, a hallmark of the celebration in the royal circle, involved two or more fighters, who would wrestle till one of them succeeded in knocking the other one dead. However, with time, it had been toned down significantly as the new rule dictated, even if a drop of blood oozed from the skull of either fighter, he would thus lose the battle.
The hype around the event was escalating as more and more ladies came and found a convenient spot to watch it in the arena, where a mini crowd had gathered around a makeshift sand pit sprinkled with flowers. But it would not start until the customary auspicious time, mahurat, was determined and also the weapons to be used awaited puja. A sudden hullabaloo brought everyone on the feet and I could see the two wrestlers, red eyed and straight faced warming up by circling the arena, amidst loud chanting of slogans.
The lady standing next to me, distantly related to the royal family, told me it was just a ritual, inversely proportioned to the hype being built up. “It is a blink and miss affair… you will not see any blood… somebody close there would spot it and announce the winner,” she briefed me and inadvertently terminated my interest in the fight which was already taking a long time to commence.
However, what I found worth watching closely and keenly was the place where I was standing. The opulent jaw dropping and eye popping embellishment of the palace simply made me marvel at the exquisite craftsmanship, spent on creating an architectural masterpiece. The majestic chandeliers, gigantic ornate pillars and lavishly embellished walls in red, blue and gold hues gave an immensely rich feel, and made me wonder how it would feel to call such a place home.
I had hardly walked a few steps when a member of the security staff hurriedly entered the hallway urging people to move aside. While he cleared the path and simultaneously stopped all those who reached out to their cameras, all eyes followed his back; it was evident that somebody important was about to enter. It was a moment of awe and sheer reverence when Maharaja Yaduveer walked in wearing saffron coloured traditional silk attire, the garb suggested he had some religious rituals to perform. Gracious enough to acknowledge greetings of people with a gentle nod of his head, he walked past, leaving behind countless eyes longing to see more of him.
I am told it was a hectic day for the royal members as they conduct extensive puja sessions throughout the day; Maharaja specifically had a pivotal role in offering these pujas. Ayodha puja is specially performed on that day, which essentially is about worshipping tools and weapons, used by the ancestors. The most prominent weapon being the state sword made of gold.
The sudden uproar at the fighting arena, combined with beating of drums, created a cacophony which reverberated in the huge hall, packed with minsters, security officers and guests. All anticipated the much awaited entry of Maharaja into the grand hall to perform Ayodha puja. Once again, the atmosphere was gripped with the same feel of respect and admiration as Maharaja walked in flanked by his aides. Now dressed exquisitely in silken elaborate attire; his regal appearance was greatly enhanced by the sparkling jewels and an embellished turban. He was guided to a curtained spot, where in the presence of royal priests; he finally commenced the puja presumably the last for the day.
While I followed the hustle bustle around the Maharaja’s entry for puja ritual, I completely forgot about the fight which truly turned out to be a short lived affair, as many missed it despite being present around. But what I managed to see was the sight of four fighters standing in Namaste pose reverently to greet the Maharaja who was on his way to acknowledge their presence. What happened next, affirmed my view about how much affection and veneration people shower on royalty; the four wrestlers prostrated on the ground as soon as they caught sight of the Maharaja. The commotion reached the crescendo at the arena and within minutes the royal unit headed out to visit the temple within the premises to wind up the puja rituals.
Now, it was time to step out of the palace, where I had spent a memorable time witnessing ceremonies and amply soaked myself in the gorgeousness of the place. By the time I came out after crossing huge corridors and passages, it appeared the Maharaja had already stepped inside the adjoining temple as his carriage was present there along with the band and of course a zealous crowd awaited him there. I too joined the group, hoping a catch a few more glimpse. In a short while, the police band began to play a beautiful symphony, an infallible indication that Maharaja was on his way out and we better position ourselves accordingly. He stepped out with his escorts to be greeted by people standing in awe and admiration to offer a respectful Namaste as they humbly called out Maharaj…Maharaj. As he ascended the royal carriage, to be taken back to the palace, it was time for all to disperse.
The sun had set, enveloping everything around in darkness. But the palace dazzled richly with nearly 100,000 light bulbs, which enhanced its grandeur in manifolds. The palace was shining so was Mysore with its rich history of Maharajas and Maharanis.