Located in the sugarcane rich district of Mandya, Srirangapatna makes a fascinating day trip from the royal city of Mysore. Tales of valour come vividly alive for any tourist visiting this tiny, historic town located where the Cauvery river divides itself into two streams and curls around an island. The island fortress from which Tipu Sultan fought the British was once the capital of the kingdom of Hyder Ali and his son Tipu during the second half of the 18th century.
It took us a day for a detailed exploration of the tourist attractions in the fortress city. With scattered ruins such as battlements, gates, ramparts, tombs, and places of worship, the town has earned the sobriquet of ‘open-air museum’. River Cauvery meanders past nonchalantly, providing a welcome relief to the starkness of the ruins in and around Srirangapatna.
Coracle rides on the Cauvery
We began our trip of the fortified island site in the Cauvery by offering worship at the imposing Ranganatha Temple enshrining a large reclining image of Vishnu. At the heart of the fortress is the temple, a mute witness to the turbulent history that has flowed around it. Srirangapatna derives its name from the temple of Sri Ranganatha. This temple is a unique blend of the Hoysala and Vijayanagara styles.
We entered the temple via an imposing gopura with a five-storied pyramidal tower. The temple is dedicated to Vishnu as Ranganatha, and in the sanctuary the god’s immense black stone idol reclines on Adishesha, the seven-headed serpent, whilst at his feet the local river goddess Cauvery holds a lotus. Although they were both devout Muslims, Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan showed great respect for Hinduism. Hyder Ali donated the chariot that stands outside the temple, and Tipu Sultan presented the temple with a sword and ritual vessels of silver. It is believed that in accordance with Hindu tradition, Tipu would never sit at the table until he had heard the temple bell ring.
North of the Ranganatha Temple a marble stone indicates the steep steps which descend to Colonel Bailey’s dungeon, an underground prison where the river surged in to lap at the captives chained there. British officers captured by Hyder Ali at Pollilore in 1780 were imprisoned here.
Colonel Bailey’s dungeon
One of the interesting sites in the town worth visiting is the famous Jama Masjid, whose slender minarets are visible from several kilometres away. An unusually tiny dome and two lofty minarets (each with 200 steps to the top) give the cream painted mosque an unconventional external appearance; equally unconventional is the first floor location of the sanctuary. The 99 names of Allah are inscribed in Persian, together with the mosque’s construction date of 1787. Tipu offered namaz here in the prayer hall which has a row of cusped arches and a ceiling embellished with grapevine designs. Today, an Arabic school is located in the prayer hall where we saw students religiously chanting holy verses.
The Summer Palace of Tipu Sultan, very aptly described as Daria Daulat Bagh – Garden Palace of the Wealth of the Seas, is the most remarkable of the monuments of Srirangapatna. Built in 1784 in the Indo-Saracenic style, the palace has a natural, cool interior that is both exquisite and elegant. The low, wooden colonnaded exterior of the building, located in a Moghul-style garden, looks spartan, but the superbly preserved interiors, displaying ornamental carved arches, tiger-striped columns, liberally gilded wall panels, charming frescoes, floral decoration on every inch of the teak walls and ceiling takes one’s breath away.
An “absolute jewel”, the palace is embellished with colourful frescoes of battle scenes, gilded paintings on the teak walls and ceilings, which are full of interesting details. Externally, the timber building is unusually simple in appearance, although the green painted bamboo screens are not an original feature, added later to protect the painted interiors from the weather. In contrast, the interior of the palace is richly decorated in the Saracenic style. The Summer Palace also has a small museum where Tipu’s trivia are displayed, including a gold-embroidered tunic, old paintings, ebony furniture, and a coin collection.
Three km east of the palace an intricately carved gateway leads to the Gumbaz, a mausoleum which houses the tombs of Hyder Ali, Tipu Sultan, Tipu’s wife, his sons and military commanders. The mausoleum is a square building set on an arcaded platform and surmounted by a bulbous dome. The interior is lacquered with Tipu’s tiger-striped emblem and the splendid rosewood doors are inlaid with ivory. There’s also an Urdu tablet that records Tipu Sultan’s martyrdom. The doors are black with inlaid marble which is originally said to have been gold.
Roman Catholic Church built by Abbe Dubois
Facing the Gumbaz is a memorial to Colonel William Bailey, who was captured by Hyder Ali in 1780. Beyond the Gumbaz and toward the river, Sangam is where two tributaries of the Cauvery re-unite in joyful exuberance. Though the steps leading down to it are dilapidated, the rustic charm is enhanced by coracle rides. On the way back from Sangam/Gumbaz, we noticed the Roman Catholic Church built by Abbe Dubois, a Christian missionary, who pioneered vaccination against smallpox in Mysore, and authored a book on the Hindu manners and customs of those days. A commemorative obelisk housed in a small enclosure marks the spot where Tipu fell to British bullets. A plaque reads: “The body of Tipu Sultan was found here.”
Srirangapatna has now metamorphosed into a bustling town and its memorable battle- scarred monuments continue to attract thousands of tourists every year. Some of them are drawn by its haunted look while history buffs are engrossed in tracing the lineage of the erstwhile rulers. After sightseeing, we spent some time quietly communing with the river at the Sangam. When we left, the river appeared to be in a mellow mood as she meandered past, flowing silently past a meditating sadhu nearby.
Susheela Nair is an independent food, travel and lifestyle writer, and photographer based in Bangalore. She has contributed content, articles and images on food, travel, lifestyle, photography, environment and ecotourism to several reputed national publications. Her writings constitute a wide spectrum, including guide books, brochures and coffee table books.