Mysore : This ancient cultural center is a major reason more foreign visitorsare considering adding a South India visit to the Taj Mahal-centered touristtrack

Times Staff Writer

The least worst way to travel the 88 miles from Bangalore to Mysore is to rent one of the look-alike, Calcutta-built Ambassador sedans equipped with driver and a loud horn.

There is no best way.

Vayudoot feeder airline offers sporadic flights, but the airport transfers are time-consuming. Trains take 3 1/2 hours each way, and the crowded buses (cheap at about $1) take three hours.

The car (about $60 for the daylong round trip, including driver and room for one to four passengers) can negotiate the narrow, blacktop highway in a mere 2 1/2 hours, and the driver, with the help of his trusty horn, is adept at dodging and repeatedly passing the mass of buses, three-wheelers, scooters, pedestrians and peripatetic cattle.

He may even be able to point out the site where the make-believe caves for "Passage to India" were created and filmed.

South India's increasingly industrialized state of Karnataka has clearly outgrown its infrastructure. The trip along the teeming road from Bangalore to Mysore can only be described as harrowing. Bangalore is a British-built summer city developing into a modern manufacturing center complete with a Texas Instruments computer software factory and a Forbes magazine bureau; Mysore is an ancient cultural center whose main enterprise gives it the title "City of Incense."

But it is a trip that should not be missed.

By 1985 only 25% of foreign visitors to India traveled to South India, considered the "pure India" because its ancient Dravidian civilization was never invaded by the waves of Aryans who plundered, razed and rebuilt the northern two-thirds of the Asian subcontinent. By 1986 the number had risen only to 30%.

Mysore is a major reason for more foreign visitors to consider adding a South India visit to the Taj Mahal-centered tourist track.

Probably the nation's most beautiful modern palace is the Mysore maharajah's palace, a wonder of Indo-Saracenic architecture designed by British architect Henry Irwin and built between 1897, when its wooden predecessor burned, and 1912.

Twenty-five maharajahs ruled the Mysore area during the 570-year Wadiyar dynasty that continued, by special sanction under the British raj, until Indian independence in 1947 and a government declaration abolishing their final ceremonial functions in 1970.

The former maharajah still occupies an apartment in it, but most of the palace is open to the public as a museum--10:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, 15 cents admission. Check shoes and cameras at the door.

Inside is the dynasty's treasure-trove--Durbar Hall containing the nearly 400-year-old jeweled throne that Raja Wadiyar I snatched from the nearby Vijayanagara Empire, crystal furniture, mosaic marble floors, hammered silver doors, a portrait gallery and a stunning stained-glass domed ceiling.

The palace is outlined in thousands of tiny bulbs, much like an American home at Christmas, and illuminated Sunday nights and throughout October during the revived Mysore Dasara festival.

Mysore, a city of beautiful gardens, broad tree-lined boulevards and the aroma of its jasmine and sandalwood incense, still has 17 palaces. One is a museum, one has become the Sri Chamarajendra Art Gallery and three are hotels.

The superb Taj chain's 54-room Lalitha Mahal Palace Hotel (T. Narasipur Road, with air-conditioned singles from $30 and doubles from $36) offers a luxurious respite for rattled survivors of the Mysore road.

The fern-accented, vaulted lounges and dining room, painted in the delicate blue of Wedgwood china, provide well-served, leisurely tea or meals. Lunch for two including wine (fortification for the return drive) was about $16, considered high for Mysore where a full Indian lunch for two can cost less than $1, but well worth it.

Aside from the maharajah's palace, Mysore's greatest tourist attractionlies eight miles outside and above the city--Chamundi Hill. It is named for the goddess Chamunda, who slew the demon Mahishasura, from whom Mysore's name is derived.

Visitors can enjoy panoramic views of Mysore from there while moving from the 12th-Century Sri Chamundeswari Hindu Temple to the Mahishasura statue, a giant and colorful pirate symbolizing Chamunda's slain demon, and on to India's third-largest statue, the 16-foot Nandi Bull. The energetic can try an invigorating climb up the 1,000 steps used by devout religious pilgrims.

Any visitor bleary-eyed from too many Hindu or Muslim temples touted by tour guides throughout India may also want to stop by St. Philomena's Catholic Church at the north entrance of Mysore. Built in 1931, it is one of the largest neo-Gothic churches in the country.

Mysore is also known for its Zoological Gardens on Lalitha Palace Road where more than 1,500 varieties of animals and birds live. (Open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, admission 15 cents.)

A Fortress City

About 10 miles outside Mysore lie the remnants of Sriringapatam, a river island fortress city ruled by rivals of the Mysore maharajahs, Haidar Ali, who reigned from 1761 to 1782, and his more powerful son, Tippu Sultan, who ruled from 1782 until he was killed by the conquering British East India Co. in 1799.

Marked by Stone

Little is left of the Sriringapatnam fort, although you can see a small stone marker announcing simply: "The body of Tippu Sultan was found here."

Nearby is the Gumbaz, the domed burial place of Tippu and his father, and the Jame Masjid, Tippu's mosque.

A happier stop is the Daria Daulat Bagh, Tippu's summer palace whose name translates to "garden of the wealth of the sea," thought to allude to Tippu's military conquests extending to the sea.

The green, primarily wooden palace, built in Indo-Islamic style in 1784, is shaded by green shutters and contains murals showing Tippu leading his troops into various battles, some successful, some not. One exceptional mural depicts the father and son's victory over the British at Polilur in 1780, with a caption mocking troops who arrived too late to help the East India Co.: "They came like a boar and fled like a cow."

The palace's upper floor houses a museum displaying coins of that period and engravings and ink drawings of Tippu's family, including his three sons who died with him and his two young sons who survived the 1799 battle.

Resided in Palace

Arthur Wellesley, later the Duke of Wellington, lived in the palace for several years after the British victory.

A final stop in Sriringapatam is the Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple, one of India's oldest Dravidian temples, built in AD 894. The white stone structure, supported by hundreds of pillars, houses a reclining statue of the Hindu god Vishnu.

Although South India sees relatively few foreign visitors, the principal sites are well equipped to handle tourists, now mostly Indian. Public restrooms are readily available, and commercial stands offer sandalwood figures and incense, and bottled soft drinks or equally safe coconut milk, a refreshing clear liquid drunk by straw straight from the coconut.

Additional information can be obtained from Karnataka State TDC Tourist Office, 10/4 Kasturba Road, Bangalore (phone 578753). For anyone who prefers the cheaper (about $7 per person) group tour to Mysore, the state tourist office arranges 16-hour bus tours of Mysore, Sriringapatam and nearby Brindhavan Gardens with its dancing and lighted fountains, which some consider South India's rival to the Taj Mahal.

If you come to Mysore by train or bus, a daily 11-hour group tour for about $2.30 per person can be arranged at the tourist office inside the Hotel Mayura Hoysala, 2 Jhansii Lakshmi Bai Road.

Bangalore (the name derives from a phrase meaning "town of boiled beans") is a comfortable staging area for several South India tours and is easily reached via Indian Airlines from Madras and other major Indian cities.

For more information on travel to India, contact the Government of India Tourist Office, 3550 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 204, Los Angeles 90010, phone (213) 380-8855.

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