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September 9, 1997


Vijaya Dashmi processsion
Goddess Chamundeshwari Has Her Day
... Mysore celebrates Dassera

Shailaja Kamal Gopinath

Dassera is the worship of Shakti -- the primordial, female, energy of the Universe.

And if you happen to be in Mysore -- which of all the cities in India is perhaps the epicentre of this particular festival -- then you realise that shakti, energy, is in fact the operative word.

As with most religious festivals, the origins of Dassera is shrouded in the cloak of myth and legend. And as with most myths, each separate version is as individual as each separate fingerprint.

Most versions, however, appear to agree that the first ten days of the first fortnight of the Asvayna month of the Hindu calendar is dedicated to the memory of the climactic battle between Rama and Ravana, wherein Rama beheaded his opponent -- ten times over, given that Ravana had ten heads -- on the tenth day.

But where does Shakti, or Chamundi, to give her the more popular name, come into the scene, given that Rama is believed to be Vishnu incarnate? The goddess is, in Hindu mythology, believed to be an amalgam of Shiva, Vishnu and Agni to slay the demons Raktabijasura, Mahisha, and Chand-Mudna -- thus earning the honorific Mahishasurmardhini.

This task -- remember, she had besides the above mentioned troika a few lesser demons to demolish as well -- took her ten days. And the tenth day, which marked her victory over the greatest of that triad of demons, Mahisha, is celebrated as Vijaya Dashmi.

As if these two associations were not enough, enter the Mahabharata -- wherein, on this day, the Pandavas who were then in the last day of their exile, retrieved their weapons from where they had hidden it in the branches of the Sami tree, worshipped said weapons, and went on to achieve success.

So there you have it, three versions, three reasons for the festivities. And the only common thread is that the day is associated with the victory of good over evil -- which, when you come to think of it, is as good a reason as any to celebrate, even if it is not quite clear which 'good' won over which 'evil'.

It was the Vijayanagar monarchs who first began celebrating the festival with the kind of pomp that is associated with it in Mysore even today. Tales of Dassera celebrations in the time of the Vijayanagar kings have been left behind by chroniclers ranging from Nicolo-de-Conti, Abdul Razzak, Domingo Paes and Fernando Nunez.

Mysore Palace illuminated for DasseraThe earliest of these references dates back to the reign of King Devaraja, in 1442, as witnessed by Persian traveler Abdul Razzak. 'The infidels of this country, who are endowed with power, are fond of displaying their pride, pomp, power and glory in holding every year a stately festival which they call Mahavami; the manner of it is this. The king of Vijaynagar directed that all his nobles and chiefs should assemble at the royal abode from all the provinces of his country which extends for the distance of three of four months journey. They brought with them a thousand elephants tumultuous as the sea and thundering as the clouds, arrayed in armour, and adorned with howdahs, on which jugglers and throwers of naphta were seated; and on the foreheads, trucks and ears of the elephants extraordinary forms and pictures were traced with cinnabar and other pigments.

'On that beautiful plain were raised enchanting pavilions of from two to five stages high, on which from top to bottom were painted all kings of figures that the imagination can conceive, of men, wild animals, birds and all kinds of beasts down to flies and ants. All these were painted with exceeding delicacy and taste, some of these pavilions were so constructed that they revolved, and every moment offered a different face to the view. Every instant stage and each chamber presented a new and charming sight.'

And so on...

The Wadiyars of Mysore took over the mantle of the Vijayanagar kings after the eclipse of the latter, and continued the tradition right through till 1969. At this point, the State took over from the royal clan and transformed it into a people's festival -- and it needs pointing out that the only perceptible difference between the last festival organised by the Wadiyars, and the first by the state, was that an idol of Goddess Chamundeshwari had quietly replaced the Wadiyar king in the golden howdah atop the lead elephant in the procession.

This year, the Karnataka government is pulling out all the stops to make the festival a showpiece on the tourism map -- the reason being that it is billed as part of the celebrations of the 50th anniversary of Indian Independence.

In fact, the state brought together prominent citizens from various fields on a common platform to discuss the modalities of conducting the festival. And the discussion began with the basic question of whether the state, in a self-professed secular nation, should in the first place be seen to conduct a festival connected with one particular religion.

The consensus was that such festivals went beyond the bounds of any particular religion, that it brought all citizens together in cheer and celebration, and as such should be encouraged as one more way of promoting cross-religious harmony. Interestingly, the debate also voted overwhelmingly in favour of Goddess Chamundeshwari, as opposed to Lord Rama or even the Pandavas, being retained as the raison d'etre. Ironic, in a sense, that democratic principles have now invaded the very pantheon of Hinduism.

As always, the crowning glory remains the Vijaya Dashmi procession on October 11 -- this year (1997), it will feature 27 folk troupes and 27 tableaux, each representing a different cultural zone of the state.

Leading the parade will be the veteran elephant Drona, who has thus far been at the forefront of the last 17 processions. To him falls the honour of carrying the idol of Goddess Chamundeshwari in the golden howdah which weighs a massive 750 kg.

Drona will step out from the courtyard of the Mysore Palace premises at around 1400 hours, after Chief Minister J H Patel performs the traditional Nandi Dwaja pooja which, incidentally, is being telecast live on the national network this year.

Entry into the palace is through the sale of 4,000 tickets each worth Rs 100 -- and unlike in previous years, influence peddlers will not be able to add to the chaos by distributing "free passes" to their special favourites. Besides the 4,000 ticket holders, there will be 1,000 invitations distributed to the VIPs.

Traditionally a festival of colour and light, Dassera's highlight is the Torchlight Parade at Bannimantap grounds the same evening. This time round, the traditional diyas and lamps and torches will be enhanced, for the first time, by laser beams in a son et lumiere display to the throb of over 600 drums beating out the pulse-pounding rhythms in unison. Other attractions this year include 250 women police trainees providing an exercise-cum-gymnastics routine, while 400 Railway Protection Force women personnel will recall the works of noted Kannada poets. The three hour show is expected to climax with a pyrotechnic display of 10 minutes uninterrupted display, the responsibility for this being given to an expert brought in from Maharashtra.

The last burst of colour and light in the sky ends the festivities for the year. But a more permanent and enduring reminder of Dassera 1997 will remain in the Mysore Dassera Exhibition at the Doddakere Maidan, which this year will turn into a permanent fixture. The exhibition, one of the highlights of Dassera celebrations in the state, is to acquire a musical fountain and other attractions in a bid to turn a hitherto staid show into an amusing, entertaining theme park for young and old alike.

The exhibition hall will also feature, through Dassera and for weeks after, a programme of recitals by cultural icons ranging from Anup Jalota, Meenakshi Seshadri, Alisha Chinai, S P Balasubramaniam and others.

On Dassera day, a special cultural programme organised at the Elephant Gate, below the Durbar Hall of the brilliantly illuminated Mysore Palace, will feature the likes of Kunnakudi Vaidyanatha Bhagavathar, Vidyabhooshana, T S Seshgopalan and K S Gopalkrishnan among others.

The sounds of song and dance will, organisers hope, drown the notes of discord raised by Opposition parties in the state, who have condemned among other things the government's decision to eschew the practise of free passes for viewing the procession from inside the Mysore Palace. While the real issue is that a lot of freeloaders will this year either have to fork out a hundred bucks for the ticket or miss out on the spectacle, the press releases put out by the dissenters argue that to charge for entry is tantamount to making money out of something billed as a "people's festival".

Official sources shrug off the odd discordant notes. And, for now, concentrate on masterminding the arrangements, overseeing the rehearsals and generally going flat out to ensure that Dassera 1997 is a tribute to the organisational abilities of the reigning government -- and oh yes, excuse the afterthought, the triumph of Goddess Chamundeswari.

For more information on South India check out our travelog The long and winding road: Fun and adventure in South India.

Photographs by Gopala Krishna

The Day Of The Elephant

Mysore Dassera Exhibition

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