This February, I spent some time in Bangalore. Intending to delve into the city’s past, I made a trip to the iconic Bangalore Palace, the seat of the Wadiyar (or Wodeyar) dynasty. It may sound like an incredibly touristy thing to do, but if you’re a history buff like me, then exploring old museums and monuments is always a fun way to get to know a city better.
I had heard a lot of mixed reviews, but decided to keep an open mind and no expectations. Paying about Rs. 200-something for the entry ticket (it’s more for foreign nationals), with an audio guide included was fine, but being compelled to pay an additional Rs. 500 to be able to take photographs with my smartphone was not something I saw coming! It’s quite a heavy fee, but one I also imagine is necessary in order to maintain the huge costs that the Palace and grounds must be incurring for the basic general upkeep.
A Brief History
Initially built by an Englishman – Reverend Garrett, principal of Central High School – sometime in the 1860’s, it was bought soon after by Maharaja Chamarajendra Wadiyar X of Mysore, and put under renovation. The Palace was designed in Tudor style, complete with turrets and battlements which make it seem as if the whole thing had been picked up from somewhere in the English countryside and plopped down in the heart of Bangalore.
The Wadiyar Coat of Arms is seen everywhere – presented to Maharaja Chamarajendra Wadiyar X by the British – a mythological two-headed bird flanked by an elephant-lion hybrid creature, symbolising power and royalty.
The only son of the last ruling Maharaja of Mysore – Dr. Jayachamarajendra Wadiyar and Maharani Tripura Sundari Ammani – the late Prince Srikantadatta Wadiyar was the one to renovate and open Bangalore Palace to the public in 2005. He and his five sisters, the Princesses Gayatri Devi, Meenakshi Devi, Kamakashi Devi, Indrakshi Devi and Vishalakshi Devi took possession of their respective portions of the property in 1983, after an extensive legal battle in civil court with an outside party. Their childhood can be seen documented on one of the Palace’s photo-framed walls and their voices on the audio guide recall summers spent playing in the gardens, horse riding and trying to scare each other with stories of ghosts that roamed the halls.
Step Into the Past
The interiors of the Palace were originally done in Edwardian style (think Downton Abbey), with a lot of relief work (a sculptural technique, in which the figures portrayed have been raised to project above the background plane surface) on the walls and ceilings. Of course, most of this has been renovated and replaced with a more art deco style furniture (think Mad Men). Personally, I love both styles, though some argue that art deco is quite kitschy.
The Palace was constructed with a lot of wood, so you’ll find beautifully carved Rosewood staircases and patterned woodwork on the ceilings.
At the top of the first decorated staircase is the Durbar Hall, facing which is also the first elevator to ever be installed in Bangalore. The Maharaja used to hold court in the Durbar Hall – a grand room, richly decorated with gilt ceilings and gothic-style windows of stained glass. Across from where the Maharaja would be seated (sadly, there is no throne) is a wooden screen, behind which the ladies would assemble (purdah system was still in place) and discreetly watch the proceedings.
The Maharaja’s courtyard has a stunning blue bench and a fountain gifted to him by the King Alfonso XIII of Spain – who found solace at Bangalore Palace after being deposed in 1931. Handcrafted by the best ceramicists in Seville, these gifts were presented to the Wadiyars with gratitude for their warm hospitality.
The Ladies’ courtyard, separate from the Maharaja’s, has a fountain in the centre surrounded by flower beds. Designed for them to be able to repose and discuss the affairs of the day, it appears simpler than that of the Maharaja’s, but elegant.
There is a small gallery of paintings on display, but they are in quite terrible condition.
The Wadiyars were big on hunting, as that was a main pastime of the royals of that era, before animal conservation norms came into place. The Maharaja himself apparently culled about 300 tigers as well as elephants, and had a great fascination with taxidermy. On display are photos of the hunting escapades of the Maharaja as well as two footstools made from elephant feet and a vase made from an elephant’s trunk. It was quite macabre, really. Ironically, the Maharaja soon gave up hunting and became the first Chairman of the Indian Board of Wildlife.
A room at the end of one of the long corridors, meant to showcase the beautiful Mysore silks and garments belonging to the royal family, is in complete disarray and the lovely clothes have been piled most untidily into glass-fronted cupboards, making it impossible to appreciate them properly.
Garden Party, Anyone?
I took a walk around the side of the Palace and found an old greenhouse pavilion connected to it – lovely filigree metalwork on frosted glass must have made this a sight for sore eyes, back in the day. Now, it only houses some dilapidated old carriages, surrounded by an air of neglect.
The Palace Grounds are landscaped colonial-style, with their hedges, trellis archways and ponds dotted with statuettes and fountains. The old trees grow as if with arms outstretched down to the garden pathways. I could almost imagine the royals having a splendid garden party or a picnic under their shade.
Famous for playing host to some of music’s biggest names, including Elton John, Aerosmith, The Rolling Stones, Mark Knopfler, Roger Waters, No Doubt, Iron Maiden and Metallica, to name a few – the Bangalore Palace grounds were one of the best open-air concert venues in the city, until recently. They now lie quiet, as permissions and licenses have become unobtainable for them. I did notice one of the grand halls of the Palace being decked out for a private event, so I assume that some of their facilities are still available for hire.
Not So Happily Ever After
There’s a certain charm to the architecture and design of Bangalore Palace, which I fondly associate with the old Parsi houses and bungalows of Poona (although much has changed now). It breaks my heart to see such a classic piece of history fall into such a state. Only a handful of the 35 rooms are available to the public for viewing and they’re in less than ideal shape. Unfortunately, most people don’t treasure art and history like they should and I just hope someone pays closer attention to Bangalore Palace, before it’s too late.
Tip: Walk down from the Palace Grounds to the main road to catch an auto rickshaw if you need to – the ones waiting outside the Palace explained very nicely to me that they work on commission from local tourist-targeted shops and would not be able to take me elsewhere.