Saturday, May 10, 2008

The historical town of Srirangapatnam

It was nearly 6 am as I struggled to pull on my socks, hop into my jeans and run for the bus. I half-walked, half-ran to the stop 600 meters away, and despite waking up ‘on time’, still had to sprint for the rickety bus.

The long weekend held nothing very interesting in store, and my bank account ensured that a vacation to Ooty was not on the cards. I’d heard from a couple of people that Srirangapatnam was an interesting place to visit, and history having been one of the more engrossing subjects in school just gave this weekend a ‘Srirangapatnam feel’.

Buses frequently ply from KempeGowda bus stand in the center of Bangalore city, and any one heading for Mysore will give you a chance to step off at Srirangapatnam. However, my insti being situated about 20 odd kilometers away from Bangalore made a multiple bus journey necessary. So to Bidadi it was, and then on to Srirangapatnam. Public transport in Bangalore is cheap, and so are the intercity buses.

The sign welcoming tourists to the town says ‘Welcome to the historical city of Srirangapatnam’. True to this, the town offers many sites with little stories of their own, and Tipu Sultan, one of India’s fiercest fighters, stands narrator of nearly every one of them. The entrance to the town has remained the same since Tipu ruled in the late 1700s. The cool stones that make up the massive fort entrance give you respite from the relentless April sun and not even half a minute’s walk will go by before you reach the first of the sign boards directing you to the many sites you must visit on your trip.

If your intention is to spend the day in Srirangaptnam and you are one of those either entirely broke or with a passion for walking in the heat, it is possible to visit almost all monuments on foot. They are all located within 2 kilometers of each other, but in all one might do a good 15 kilometers worth of walking around the historical city.

Let the guides not fool you, especially at the Jamma Masjid; they tell you things that are common to most masjids dating back several centuries. The masjid in Srirangapatnam was used by the ruler of the time (Tipu) who happened to be a rather devout man. It currently runs as a madrasa for young Muslim boys learning the Koran. There is a sundial on the first floor, the needle of which was apparently stolen by the British. The interesting thing about the masjid is that it has Hindu motifs on the top of the towers. A 150 odd steps lead to the top of the towers which are now closed due to the crumbling stairways. Pigeons nest in the holes along the towers, used by Tipu as his personal postal service.

The guide will point out the black hill across, the watch tower a furlong away, and the graves of Tipu’s guru and his family in the masjid courtyard, all of which you can do by yourself besides taking in the appetizing aroma of cooking mutton from the madrasa just below. As you exit, he might ask for a 30 rupee fee which is a gross over charge for the kind of information he spews. Whether you like it or not, you will be accosted by rickshawallas or tongawallas offering you a tour of the sites. If you aren’t keen on walking, take the tonga. They are a bit cheaper than rickshaws, eco-friendly, and can transport you back to the 18th century if you only care to close your eyes to the traffic and conjure up the visions in your mind.

A collection of old pillars with engravings of Hindu deities will pass by just after the Watergate (nothing of course to do with President Nixon hundreds of years later). Apparently Tipu used it as a sort of passage in and out of the fort. The site where Tipu’s body was found after he so valiantly but vainly fought to keep the dirty British hands off his territory is marked by a simple white granite slab put up, surprisingly, by the British viceroy of the day.

The Sultan’s old palace is in ruins and it isn’t a disappointment to peep over the padlocked gates, as there is nothing much to see. Opposite, however, lies the Sri Ranganathaswamy temple which houses the largest reclining statue of Shiva in the country and possibly the world. You pay a measly 2 rupees for the man to watch your shoes as you go inside to see the priests pray, or receive Prasad, or give in offerings of your own. Outside, half a dozen old racehorses walk in circles with tourists on their backs screaming for a photograph. Refrain from buying anything apart from tender coconuts outside the temple. The curios are not worth it, and the biscuits are stale. Unless you fancy South Indian snacks that you could get a better deal for not more than a hundred yards away, you might decide against sitting and eating right there.

A little further down the street lies a dungeon Tipu used to imprison British prisoners of war. Twenty four Brits languished in the prison, tied to the walls with chains. They were to stand continuously for 23 hours of the day and allowed only an hour’s rest. Eleven perished and the rest set free after Tipu’s fall. Over the fencing of the prison flow the much disputed waters of the river Cauvery.

Tipu’s summer palace is worth a see with its hand painted walls from ceiling to floor depicting scenes of wars. Plaques, though sometimes confusing, explain each section of the wall paintings. Other sketches of people of the age, and various scenes are also on display along with a model of the city of Srirangapatnam. The lawns are wonderfully kept and you can afford to go to the loo without resisting the urge to puke on entry. Sugarcane juice is marvelously sweet and a good option after nearly drowning yourself in coconut water. Not far away is Tipu’s tomb where he was lain along with other members of his family.

The restaurants on the highway provide a better bet as far as non-vegetarian food goes, and the value for money is quite reasonable. If you are male (or if you are a woman who does not mind being stared at) and wish to cool off, hop into a rickshaw and head for the dam about 12 kms away. It’s a welcome relief to splash about in the cold water and let all the day’s heat seep away right there.

For a free day with a few pennies in your pocket and a bit of history eating your mind, Srirangapatnam is a cheap getaway from the nearby throb of Mysore or Bangalore. Although some of the monuments are not too well kept and there isn’t much to choose from by way of food, it sure is nice to take a trip to a small town steeped in history, walk around a bit and find it for yourself.

Disclaimer: Some tidbits of info may not be accurate. I blame it on short term memory.

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