By LESTER LEDESMA
“Holi Hai!” the people shout as the colors descend in a cloud of brilliant hues. It may be high noon, but the revelry is well underway on this spacious hotel courtyard. Fed by a shirtless DJ, a squad of speakers is pumping out bhangra beats while this massive crowd heaves to the frenetic rhythm. Everyone is wet and splattered with colors—and everyone is armed with water guns and handfuls of multi-hued gulal powder. These are the tools for the frenetic water and color fights that this occasion is known for. It is the middle of March, the season of Holi, one of India’s biggest religious celebrations, and we are right in the midst of this annual revelry.
This is only our first morning in India and admittedly we have yet to reach our main destination—and already we are being treated to an intense cultural experience. I am leading a group of avid photography enthusiasts on a four-day shooting trip into the South Indian city of Mysore. This PhotoTrek is one of several I arrange every year to some of Asia’s most exotic destinations. Whereas in the past I’ve taken my photography groups to countries like Bhutan, Myanmar, and Vietnam, this is the first time that we are exploring the realm of the Indian rajs.
At this point, however, we are still in the big city of Bangalore, the capital of Karnataka State, and we have still to catch an express train to neighboring Mysore. We change our gulal-stained clothes and clean the colors from our faces before catching our ride at the train station. It will be a three-hour journey to Mysuru (its local name), and as the iron horse chugs steadily along its rails, our local guide—a young photographer named Manju—tells us about the place we are headed for.
The Princely State
“People refer to Mysore as the city now, but centuries ago it was an entire kingdom that was larger than modern day Karnataka,” our companion starts off. He recounts how Mysore evolved from an independent kingdom to a princely state—a territory that was loyal to the British during the colonial era, and one that was governed by the fabulously wealthy Wadiyar Maharajahs.
“Mysore lost its sovereignty to the Brits in 1799, but what it lost in political power, it more than made up for with the art and culture that continued to thrive,” Manju continues, “much of our traditional Carnatic music and literature was developed in the royal courts.” This illustrious era remained until Indian independence in 1947, after which the state of Karnataka was established, with Bangalore as its new capital. The city of Mysore remained a cultural center, though, and to this day it remains a showcase of regional identity.
Just how genteel this locale is, we notice not long after we arrive at our destination. Exiting the old colonial-era station, we walk out to a city gleaming with grand antique structures. Mysore seems to revel in its past connection to England, its period architecture a rather pompous mix of classical South Indian, Moorish, and European designs.
We get a closer look at these later in the afternoon when we roam the streets of downtown.
Here, larger-than-life sculptures of past maharajahs look out to a neighborhood lined with proud structures. There’s a stately town hall and government house, a massive Victorian styled clock tower, not to mention a handful of minor palaces befitting that of a princely state. Afterward, we make our way to a spot brimming with humbler (yet no less interesting) folks. At the Devaraja Market, we walk through narrow passageways lined with baskets brimming with colorful merchandise. This century-old center of commerce is where traditional incense makers peddle their wares alongside flower vendors, pooja (prayer) stalls, and hawkers selling everything from produce to handicrafts. Naturally, our cameras are front and center, and we are hard at work documenting these everyday sights.
The Quiet Side
In contrast to the busy streets of downtown, the next day finds us amid calmer surroundings in the neighboring fortress of Srirangapatna. Located just outside Mysore, this city of ruins served as the kingdom’s capital for a few years, before it was destroyed by the British in 1799. No doubt it was a glittering seat of power in its time, yet today it survives as a sleepy rural backwater. We explore its old fortress walls, and saunter down dusty roads traversed by farmers and bullock carts. On the banks of the nearby Cauvery River, we watch local achaka, or Hindu priests, conduct morning rituals at a centuries-old temple. Later on, we drive on an automobile up to the summit of Chamundi Hill—a famous pilgrimage spot lying 1,000 meters above the countryside— where we join a crowd of devotees paying respects to the Hindu gods at the Chamundeshwari temple. Sitting before this sacred shrine, with the South Indian countryside spread out behind us, we savor the view and these supremely exotic environs.
Jewel of the Crown
The sights get even more impressive on the following day, our last in India, when we visit what many say is the jewel of the Mysorean crown. The current Maharajah, his highness Yaduveer Krishnadatta Chamaraja Wadiyar, may no longer hold political power, yet his title still commands respect in modern-day India. This is evident in his official abode, the Mysore Palace, which has housed generations of rulers since 1912. We enter this grand, sprawling complex, and are quickly overwhelmed by the extravagance on display. Deep pink marble domes stand amid a 145-feet tower topped with a gilded cupola. Inside this granite, IndoSaracenic styled building, we gasp at ornate hallways lined with carved mahogany ceilings and beautiful stained glass windows. At the Darbar Hall, or throne room, intricately-painted columns glisten in pink, yellow, and turquoise hues. We raise our cameras in awe, and click away. Every angle, every corner oozes with magnificence—and every shot we take, it seems, is a postcard-perfect one.
The Mysore Palace is so huge, it takes us most of the day to completely explore. By the time we emerge from the exit, we are all stoked, our cameras smoldering from the eye-popping sights in this amazing and picturesque land. Quite reluctantly we return to our hotel to prepare for our return trip to Bangalore and its international airport. We’ve merely spent a weekend in India, yet we’ve already garnered memories that will stay with us for a lifetime. From unbridled Holi revelry, to devout expressions of Hindu faith, and a ruling dynasty’s fabulous wealth—Mysore is a showcase of stunning contrasts and amazing superlatives.
Singapore-based photojournalist Lester V. Ledesma is the 2009 and 2007 PATA Gold Awardee for Excellence in Photography. He regularly organizes photography workshop-tours to some of Asia’s most exotic destinations. Upcoming PhotoTrek destinations include Myanmar’s Inle Lake on Oct. 3-7, and Indonesia’s Mt. Bromo and Mt. Ijen this coming Nov. 21-25. Visit www.facebook. com/phototreks for more information.