Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 30 November 2020

Inside Bangalore's British-inspired palace: How maharaja took notes from Tudor architecture

Exploring the architecture of Bengaluru’s Windsor Castle-inspired attraction, which mirrors the flamboyance of the maharaja who built it in the 1870s

A grand staircase is embellished with complex woodwork featuring flowers, stars and royal crests, flanked by a lemon-yellow wall. Courtesy Ronan O'Connell
A grand staircase is embellished with complex woodwork featuring flowers, stars and royal crests, flanked by a lemon-yellow wall. Courtesy Ronan O'Connell

Iron Maiden playing heavy metal in front of 38,000 people on the grounds of Windsor Castle? Surely not. Well perhaps not in the original English royal residence, but anything goes at the replica of Windsor in Bengaluru.

Bangalore Palace has a lively history. It has hosted raucous rock concerts, is decorated with stuffed animals, was built by a flamboyant maharaja in the 1870s, has been dogged by controversy for decades and is now one of the city’s best offbeat tourist attractions. Oh, and it’s also linked to an ancient curse.

Within minutes of entering the palace, my eyes become so busy that my ears go to sleep. The audio playing through my headphones is explaining the palace’s history, but I’m not registering, on account of being mesmerised by the interiors. I would not call them classy and they definitely are not understated. If I were being generous, I’d define them as eye-catching, although my most honest assessment would be gaudy. Most importantly, though, they’re interesting.

In the palace foyer alone there are myriad motifs, colours and design schemes vying for my attention. Beneath my feet are ceramic tiles with green, yellow, cream and orange geometric patterns. Looming over me is a grand staircase embellished with complex woodwork, featuring flowers, stars and royal crests. Flanking those steps is a lemon-­yellow wall.

Bangalore Palace blends elements of Scottish Gothic and English Tudor architecture. Courtesy Ronan O'Connell
Bangalore Palace blends elements of Scottish Gothic and English Tudor architecture. Courtesy Ronan O'Connell

White stucco, burgundy inlays, intricate awnings, arched windows and glazed reliefs compete for wall space with paintings of members of the Mysore royal family, who owned this palace. And that is only one wall of one room, of one wing, of this giant complex.

As you might imagine, enormous costs were incurred while building Bangalore Palace, which blends elements of Scottish Gothic and English Tudor architecture. The lower part of its facade is covered in lush green ivy, above which are a sequence of turrets and towers. Money was no issue for its owner, Chamaraja Wadiyar, the former ruling maharaja of the Kingdom of Mysore.

The Wadiyar dynasty commanded much of southern India for hundreds of years before the country became a republic in 1950, three years after gaining independence from British rule. Chamaraja Wadiyar purchased this enormous 184-hectare estate in Bengaluru’s suburbs from a wealthy Englishman. He opted not to build an Indian-style palace, such as the magnificent Bangalore mansion of Tipu Sultan, a previous warrior ruler of Mysore. A low-slung structure decorated by a sequence of teak wood archways, Tipu Sultan’s Summer Palace is subtle and traditional compared to the brash Bangalore Palace. Intent on highlighting his wealth, Wadiyar modelled it on the Tudor castles of the UK.

White stucco, burgundy inlays, intricate awnings, arched windows and glazed reliefs compete for wall space with painting of members of the Mysore Dynasty that owned the palace. Courtesy Ronan O'Connell
White stucco, burgundy inlays, intricate awnings, arched windows and glazed reliefs compete for wall space with painting of members of the Mysore Dynasty that owned the palace. Courtesy Ronan O'Connell

It is inside the palace, however, that the full extent of its kitsch is revealed. Wadiyar, apparently, an admirer of taxidermy, placed stuffed animal busts throughout this palace. He even reportedly had a stool made with the paw of a giant cat. Similarly unusual is an old sofa within the palace, designed to weigh whoever sits on it.

When I catch sight of the central courtyard, splashed with so many colours, arches, artworks and mosaics, I’m astounded. I utter a curse, but when your ears are blocked by headphones, it’s hard to moderate the volume of your voice. My blunt critique echoes down the hallway and reaches a security guard, whose face stiffens as he shakes his head in disapproval. I raise my hand as an apology and remind myself I’m in a royal abode.

The palace was built by Chamaraja Wadiyar, the former ruling Maharaja of the Kingdom of Mysore. Courtesy Ronan O'Connell
The palace was built by Chamaraja Wadiyar, the former ruling Maharaja of the Kingdom of Mysore. Courtesy Ronan O'Connell

The gardens of the palace are more refined, however. They were designed by John Cameron, the English botanist responsible for redesigning Bengaluru’s serene Lalbagh Botanical Garden in the 1880s. It was Cameron who installed the glass house that became the focal point of Lalbagh, which showcases more than a hundred species of native Indian plants and flowers.

Cameron must have turned in his grave when these meticulous grounds began being rattled by rock concerts. In 2007, Bangalore Palace was the venue for Eddfest, one of the largest rock-metal musical events in Indian history. Headlined by Iron Maiden, it was originally meant to be attended by 25,000 people; a number that swelled to 38,000.

World-famous musicians and bands, such as Santana, Bryan Adams, Metallica and Enrique Iglesias, all performed giant concerts at the palace before it was shut as a music venue in 2012. The closure coincided with a long, ongoing legal battle over ownership of the premises between the Karnataka government and descendants of the Wadiyar dynasty.

The Wadiyar royal bloodline has reportedly been cursed for 400 years. The legend of the Curse of Alamelamma dates back to the 1600s, when Raja Wadiyar dethroned Tirumalaraja, an ailing ruler of another Indian kingdom. Rather than surrender to the Wadiyars, Tirumalaraja’s wife fled with her family’s royal treasure.

Clutching these jewels, she leapt off a cliff. Her final words were a curse on the Wadiyar dynasty, asking the gods to make their land barren and deny them heirs. This curse has remained famous due to the family repeatedly failing to produce a new male heir to their throne.

Yet this dynasty lives on, albeit without the power and riches it once possessed. Wandering the opulent halls, offices and dining rooms of Bangalore Palace, it is easy to imagine the lavish lifestyle led by Chamaraja Wadiyar.

While those days are gone, the splendour of the palace remains intact. It was renovated by the Wadiyars a decade ago. Now, for a small fee, curious visitors like myself can inspect most of the grand structure. The concerts might be over, the dynasty ousted and the architecture questionable, but Bangalore Palace is a joy for any lover of the bizarre.

Updated: November 18, 2020 12:06 PM

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