Like most cities, Mysore too has not been immune to the onslaught of consumerism and the city’s landscape has changed gradually to reflect this mood. And yet, happily, it continues to proffer all that is famous for. From silks and sculptures to incense sticks and flowers, Mysore is a shopper’s delight. There’s an ancient Devaraja Market, the repository of all that Mysore is known for such as jasmine, betel leaves and incense sticks. Besides, streets like Devaraja Urs Road and Sayyaji Rao Road, and areas such as Gandhi Square and KR Circles have an abundance of shops sitting cheek by jowl to satiate the shopping urge.
By far, Devaraja Market with its colourful, pungent and noisy atmosphere is a fascinating place to be. It is also fun to walk along Devaraja Urs Road and Sayyaji Rao Road, just window shopping or browsing through their wares where you will find old traditional stores rubbing shoulders with those selling denims and other contemporary wear. For silks, handicrafts, art works, paintings and sculptures it is logical to go to exclusive stores, such as Cauvery Handicrafts, but there are plenty of other shops to keep you engaged.
Mysore silk saree
Silk in Mysore goes back to the time of Tipu Sultan according to some accounts. Though there is not too much evidentiary history about the growth and establishment of silk, it is believed that in the 20th century, there were conscious efforts by Mysore royalty to cultivate this craft. It also helped that the area around Mysore, or parts that belonged to the erstwhile Mysore kingdom were ideal for the growth of mulberry, the main feeding ingredient for silk worms which led to the growth of the industry. And thus was born Mysore silk saree, a light, soft, smooth variety of silk saree with a distinctive sheen that remains after multiple washes. The saree is inlaid with golden zari thread in patterns and borders to give it an ultimate grand look. The best place to buy a Mysore silk saree in Mysore is in the KSIC showroom or specific showrooms in the centre of town. Original and authentic Mysore silk sarees have an embroidered number on one edge.
Sandal oil and soap
Owing to the establishment of the Government Sandalwood Oil Factory in 1917 in Mysore, it inadvertently became a centre for producing not just oil from this fragrant wood but also for all things related to sandalwood. It also helped that the area around, especially the forests, were rich repositories of sandalwood. It is the best place to see how the wood is harvested and subsequent oil extraction can be seen at the factory. But it is more worthwhile to buy a bottle of sandalwood oil. Since cutting sandalwood trees for processing is stringently controlled by the forest department, it is not always possible to get pure sandalwood oil but it should be possible to obtain oils infused with sandalwood. And while at it you can also buy the famous Mysore sandalwood soap and perfumes infused with sandalwood fragrance. The best place is of course the factory itself, but there are shops in Gandhi Square and near Devaraja Market which specialise in this.
Karnataka is the agarbatti capital of the country and much of that comes from Mysore. There’s some debate of how this came about but it’s believed that the specific method and ingredients go back to the vedas and laid down in texts of Ayurveda. Agarbatti or incense sticks or joss sticks use a thin sliver of bamboo, which is the central spine around which is smeared a paste of coal dust and some kind of gum and then rolled in a mix of powders that could include spices. When dried, the sticks are then dipped in various perfumes and/or essential oils to give them distinct fragrances. The most popular ones are sandalwood, jasmine, champak, rose, lily etc. Agarbattis can be bought in a variety of stores but look for outlets of Vasu and Cycle, two among the leading brands.
A walk around Devaraja Market, especially early in the morning or early afternoon, will inevitably reveal mounds of fragrant, delicate and snowy white jasmine. Slender white petals and a short light green stem distinguish it from other kinds of jasmine. It gets its name from the fact that it is grown in Mysore and the surrounding region including around Srirangapatna and Mandya. The flowers are popular for religious purposes and for wearing, but more so for their intense fragrance. The flowers are used to extract oil which is used mainly in the agarbatti and soap industry as well as in perfumes. It is believed that jasmine is one of the key ingredients in the famous Chanel No 5 by Coco Chanel.
Mysore betel leaves
Paan lovers will certainly flip over this. In markets across the city and especially in Devaraja Market it is common to find massive baskets of tender betel leaves arranged in spirals. They are distinct from other varieties owing to the colour, smooth texture and intense taste. This variety is available all over the region and even has a GI tag. At its simplest, the way it is eaten in households, the leaves are smeared with a bit of slaked lime (sunna or chunnam) and rolled with a filling of chopped betel nuts. It is usually eaten after meals but need not be restricted. Not just for paan, but betel leaves are offered to Gods and a sheaf of them is also offered to guests at home or at weddings when they leave.
Mysore is by far the nearest big city to Coorg, which produces some of the best coffee in the country. And owing to this proximity, Mysore has many retail and wholesalers of coffee procured especially from Coorg, but in some instances, from Chickmagalur and Sakleshpur as well. Near Devaraja Market and Gandhi Square are many stores what sell coffee powder, though you can also buy roasted beans and have them fresh ground. Opt for varieties with low chicory content since they are bound to be less bitter. Coffee powder has to be stored in air tight containers so as to not lose its flavour and aroma, though refrigeration is not advised. You can also buy a typical Indian coffee filter in these places.
Mysore rosewood inlay artefacts
Various art and crafts always flourished in Mysore, especially under royal patronage. Around the time of Tipu Sultan, in the late 18th century, there was a surge on the use of rosewood for furniture and other articles including household as well as decorative ones. During that time, the sculptors and masters craftsmen came up with the concept of inlay for enhancing the rosewood sculptures and articles. The inlay initially included such precious things as ivory, horn, mother of pearl and sandalwood but since many of these are banned, artisans use chemicals, treated plastic and occasionally sandalwood for inlay work. It is such a specific craft concentrated here that it has a GI tag. Apart from Cauvery Handicrafts on Sayyaji Rao Road you’ll be able to buy artefacts from various shops in the centre of town as well as near the palace and market.
A classical form of South Indian painting, this form is believed to trace its origins to the cave paintings of Ajanta and Ellora. However, it got a definite boost owing to the royal patronage during the Vijayanagar Empire during the 15th and 16th centuries. Predictably, like other classical forms, the images in the paintings are mainly religious and depict gods, goddesses and scenes and stories from mythology. It uses delicate drawing and pleasant colours and overall effect is understated. What makes it is distinct is the gesso work, a kind of embossing that uses white lead and glue which is overlaid with gold foil. However, the gesso work is delicate and low-relief unlike Tanjore style which used bold embossing and use of glitzy precious stones and other embellishments which are all absent in Mysore painting. Ganjifa cards are also available with these patterns. Among the foremost places to see Mysore paintings is in the Mysore Palace while you can buy samples at Cauvery Handicrafts on Sayyaji Rao Road.
Though Channapatna toys are specific to Channapatna, a little town on the Bangalore-Mysore road, the toys are found extensively in Mysore in various stores. Bright, colourful, extremely handy and utterly adorable, the toys are inexpensive and are ideal buys. Like inlay work, the history of these toys goes back to Tipu Sultan who invited artisans from Persia to demonstrate and teach the art of wooden toy making to local craftsmen who took it up in earnest. The toys are made from a variety of locally available wood varieties, coloured with preferably vegetable dyes and polished to a nice sheen. Most are handmade with the use of some rudimentary machines. Craftsmen now produce household, utility, home decor and a variety of other products in addition to children’s toys
In addition to all the other crafts that Mysore is famous for, it also developed its own variety of sculpture, thanks largely to royal patronage that arts and crafts received. Some of the best examples are found in the Mysore palace, especially the bas-relief works done by pioneering painter and sculptor K Venkatappa. However, what has come to be known as Mysore stone sculpture uses freestanding soapstone to carve beautiful figures and patterns. The finished image is first rubbed with stone and metal paste to obtain a fine and shining finish. The advantage of soapstone is that it is available in a variety of colours and is soft enough to sculpt intricate patterns and details. There are many schools and sculpture workshops which you can visit to see how it is done as well as buy them or even sign up for a short course to try your hand at it.