My memories of the Mysore Dasara have always been very fond and exciting. Often called “the festival of the people by the people,” it has rather been turned into a circus over the past few years, by both the state government commercialising the festival, and by the people visiting it. So, my colleague and I set out to Mysore to be the judge of the same.
Also Read: Our Experiences Visiting Mysore Dasara in 2019
As a child, I remember how much Dasara meant to my family. With our roots leading back to Mysore and Sringeri, we made an effort to celebrate the festival where good triumphs over evil by taking part in the festivities at the Royal Palace almost every year. Since then, Mysore has held a special place in my heart; its illuminated palace, the serenity of the Chamundi temple, tasty butter masala dosa from the Mylari hotel, and of course the celebration of Karnataka’s vast and beautiful folklore. Little did Malavika (my colleague) and I know that we were in for a huge surprise.
Can you have culture shock for somewhere you’ve already been?
It had been about 10 years since I had last visited Mysore during the Dasara celebrations, and we were both excited. We both took the local Shatabdi Express from Bangalore to Mysore, which was much as I remembered it. They used to give you this amazing tomato soup early in the morning and you sat in the comfort of an air-conditioned car chair. It was nice to see that had not changed.
We reached Mysore, greeted by the newly extended and expanded Mysore train station. Ten years ago, when you landed in Mysore, you were greeted with an old Victorian train station that had a few taxis, some autos and yes – horse-drawn carriages, that would drop you off at the city centre for just INR 60.
To my surprise, the station now had a huge parking lot, that has its own designated auto, cars, and taxi points. There was also an extension of the station to hold the higher volume of people that now visit. But, with no horse carriages in sight, we took our pre-booked car and left to experience the new Mysore.
Mysore Palace and the crowds in attendance
Traditionally for my family, Dasara started two days before when we would come down to Mysore to visit its many historic and heritage sites and prepare ourselves for the crowded Dasara parade. Thus, Malavika and I started our Dasara journey by visiting the beloved Mysore Palace. Completed in 1912, the main palace was home to the royal Wodeyar dynasty, the rulers of the (erstwhile) kingdom of Mysore.
Mysore Palace is open to the public to visit throughout the year, and is famous for its Durbar ceremony involving the royal family. But Dasara brings in hundreds of thousands of visitors from across the country, all hoping of getting a glimpse of the Durbar hall and the golden arches that house the statue of the goddess Chamundi.
Earlier, the entry to the palace was made in batches to limit the damage of heavy crowds. But now due to the massive influx of tourists, the state government has become very lax with its crowd control, allowing thousands to enter at once causing bottlenecks, overcrowding, pushing and shoving, and frankly, great irritation.
The palace is also the venue for various shows and cultural presentation of Karnataka’s folklore and heritage. The palace grounds turn into a cultural hub showcasing some of the best artists around the state, specialising in everything from Yakshagana, to Dhol Atta, Simha Kunita, Carnatic Music and Bombe Atta. Watching this celebration of Karnataka’s culture was always a treat. But currently, the crowds that come don’t seem to have much interest in the celebration of Karnataka, rather, they are concerned with getting a picture of the palace for the sake of novelty.
Everyone who comes to Mysore seems to be concerned about getting a picture of the Mysore palace for the sake of it. We even met a crowd that was so preoccupied with getting an Instagram worthy picture, that they were disrespecting festival antiques by entering parts of the palace clearly marked as vulnerable causing further damage to the already crumbling historic structures.
Our attempt to go up Chamundi Hill (and how it failed)
Chamundi Hill was no different. Previously known for its serene, calm and peaceful environment, the famous Chamundi Temple and the nearby Nandi Monolith located halfway up the hill, are now nothing but a photo-op filled with vendors selling everything, ranging from light up novelty horns to photoshopped instant picture services. Added to this, there were large crowds, garbage and waste tossed around everywhere, and unbearable chaos. What was most surprising was the Nandi Monolith. One of the oldest and most iconic statues in Mysore it was commissioned by Dodda Devaraja in early the 17th century and carved out of a single glistening black granite rock. It is now a dull grey statue with multiple cracks and damage made by incoming tourist population.
Similarly, the viewpoints over the city on the hill were now blocked by hundreds; standing not only in the designated areas but also on the main roads and sitting on the edges of the barriers, disrupting ongoing traffic and causing a nuisance to those who had come to visit the temple.
Also here were young motorists who often speed around the narrow turns on the hill on two-wheelers, catcalling and jeering at innocent bystanders, inviting unnecessary trouble. Despite our multiple attempts to view the illuminated Mysore Palace from the hills, overcrowding got the best of us.
Dealing with “Savari” crowds
Come Dasara Day, it was more than evident that Mysore’s historical event had now changed into a mega show. One which was uncoordinated, overcrowded and commercialised. Crowded roads are not a new thing for Mysore Dasara, however, the people of the crowd were.
10 years ago, the crowd to the Dasara Parade (Jambu Savari) was a mixture of both families and singletons. I remember waiting early in the morning near the palace main gate to get a seat near the bleachers to watch the parade start off. Even though the crowd was overbearing, with constant pushing and stepping, it was never filled with people who behaved inappropriately.
This time, in our second attempt to brave the crowds after our visit to the palace, we set out to the Aramane (palace) Main Gate, where the crowds were huge, but policed. After waiting for ages and being unable to get in (you can head all about that here), we moved towards the Hanuman Gate where there were ten times the people, and no police at all to keep them in check. We tried to get from the road to the gate itself only to be inappropriately groped, hit on the head, and experience the uninviting smell of cheap liquor.
“I think I’m ready to go home”
With Mysore’s rich culture clearly taking the back seat, Dasara has become nothing less than a big dysfunctional party, hosted by the state representatives of Karnataka. Marketing helicopter rides, paragliding, food festivals, and concerts, and celebrating big multinational companies that have nothing to do with the people of Mysore or its heritage and roots.
Clearly, the people’s festival that was once a celebration of good triumphing over evil, and its vast cultural history has now turned into a street party filled with day drinking, commercial activities, lack of coordination on the part of the local authorities and most disappointingly ,robbing the locals of what was once known as the pride of Mysore.
But nevertheless, kudos to places like Mylari Hotel, St Philomena’s Church, Rangayana and Guru Sweet Mart who all have adapted to the mass tourism without allowing for their connection to Mysore’s history and heritage falling through the cracks.