Come September-October, India begins to sway to the chants of the Mother Goddess as the country gears up to celebrate the second Navaratri of the year.
This is the Dakshinayana Navaratri that is celebrated in the inauspicious period of the Hindu calendar, the one that marks the Southern movement of the sun resulting in shorter days and longer nights. Dasara is among the most widely celebrated Hindu festivals and reinforces the pre-historic idea of the worship of the Mother Goddess as the symbol of valour and fertility. But perhaps the roots of this cosmopolitan appeal for the festival come from the edicts of the Bhavishya Purana, the eleventh of the Puranas which states: “Goddess Vindhyavasini Durga should be worshipped by people everywhere- in cities, houses, villages and forests, by joyful and orthodox Brahmins, as well as by Kshatriyas, kings, devoted Vaishyas, Shudras, even the mllecchas (foreigners), dasyus (outcastes), people from Anga, Banga, Kalinga, by Kinnaras and Sakas (Scythians).”
Dasara has thus assumed a pan-Indian appeal and almost consequently each of these groups invoke the Divine Feminine through their own distinct modes of worship, be it animist or pure.
The most potent symbolism of the festival however comes from the Devi Mahatmyam in the Markandeya Purana where the Goddess as Chamundeshwari or Durga, armed with weapons from all the celestial beings, devours the buffalo-headed demon Mahishasura after a fierce seven day battle. She has thus been an inspiration for royal military conquests and victories thereby, but also for the ultimate triumph of good over evil which remains the cornerstone of Hindu philosophy. Mythology has it that Yudhistira worshipped Goddess Durga after the incognito period that he and his brothers had to undergo, reclaimed the weapons hidden atop the sacred Sami tree and waged the fierce Kurukshetra war against his tyrannical cousins, the Kauravas. It was the benediction of the Goddess that ultimately secured victory for the Pandavas.
Roots in the Vijayanagara Empire
The Dasara tradition in Mysore has its roots in the Vijayanagara Empire. The accounts of the visiting foreign travellers like Nicolo Conti, Domingo Paes and Abdur Razzaq clearly indicate the predominance of this tradition. Krishnadevaraya had the famous Mahanavami Dibba platform constructed in 1513 after defeating the Gajapatis of Orissa. This became the focal point for festivities on the 10th day of Dasara, Vijayadashami.
Royal processions, musical soirees, dance performances, wrestling bouts, fireworks and animal sacrifices marked the ten-day long festivities. Along with the ritualistic worship of this benefactor of success, the Goddess, Dasara also became an occasion for the Emperor to re-assert his power, display the splendour of the Empire to his citizens and send a message of warning to potential errant rebels.
With the fall of the Vijayanagara Empire, the hitherto feudatories of the Empire like the Nayakas of Tanjore, Madurai, Ikkeri, Ginjee and the Wodeyars of Mysore slowly began asserting their political autonomy in the Deccan.
The Wodeyars inherited several of the cultural traditions of the glorious Empire and Dasara was certainly one of them.
Raja Wodeyar’s contribution
With the consolidation of the Wodeyar power in 1610 under Raja Wodeyar, the Dasara celebrations and the Vijayadashami procession became a constant feature of the Mysore kingdom. Accounts of the times detail the several rituals followed in the Palace on each of the ten days. Govinda Vaidya’s Kanthirava Narasaraja Vijayam sketches a graphic account of the celebrations under the chivalrous Ranadhira Kanthirava Narasaraja Wodeyar.
Quite intrinsically linked with the Dasara tradition of Mysore is the worship of Amaladevathe, the manifestation of Rani Alamelamma.
After being persecuted by Raja Wodeyar for her jewels, Alamelamma, the wife of the Viceroy of Vijayanagara, had ended her life in the Cauvery at Talakad with a terrible curse on her lips condemning the Wodeyars to childlessness. Raja Wodeyar is said to have repented for his misdemeanor and got a bronze stature of hers installed which is worshipped to this day on the Mahanavami. The priests tie a white cloth on their mouths as a symbol of shame and repentance and seldom make eye-contact with the idol.
During Dasara, the swords, the war chariots, royal arms and ammunition, the State horse, the State elephant are all seen as representatives of the Goddess and as being bestowed with Her energy. Hence a worship of all of these as part of the Ayudha Puja was an important ritual.
The Vijayadashami procession on the tenth and last day of the festival was symbolic of the Seemollanghana or crossing of the borders of the Kingdom to acquire new territory. Seated atop a bedecked elephant on a golden howdah, the Jamboo Savari of the Maharaja of Mysore through the thoroughfares of the city was a sight for sore eyes. Music bands and military marches added a dash of colour to this glorious procession. It culminated at the Banni Mantapa with the worship of the Sami tree, once again linking back to the Mahabharata tradition.
The importance of the festival in the cultural psyche of the people of the State could be gauged by the fact that both Haidar Ali and Tipu Sultan allowed its continuance, even during the Interregnum period when they usurped Mysore from the Wodeyars. The titular Wodeyar was permitted to carry out the rituals in a low-key fashion.
Post-Independence, the Government of Karnataka too has adopted Dasara as a naada habba or a State festival. But apart from the Palace festivities, true to the edict of the Bhavishya Purana, Dasara has always been a people’s festival, one that resonates with their aspirations and beliefs.
The installation of dolls in all houses and creating decorative scenarios for them has been an un-dated tradition. It perhaps links up to the worship of the Goddess as Kannike, the virgin.
Hence children and their entertainment too form a vital component of this Gombe Puje or dolls worship. Be it the Saraswati Puja to propitiate the Goddess of Learning or the ayudha puja in each home, Dasara continues to be an occasion to thank the eternal life-giving energy of the Mother Goddess and invoking Her in Her many manifestations.