Varied hues of Dussehra

Varied hues of Dussehra

While Dussehra celebrates the victory of good over evil, every region has its own set of tales and its own set of celebrations. Sudhamahi Regunathan travels across India to find out.

The 10 days of Dussehra can be regarded as a celebration of feminine power. Over time, male interpreters of religious texts have, in their explanations of festivals, focused on women as either maternal figures or as temptresses and consorts of male deities. The festival of Dussehra, however, refuses to be framed in this manner.

In India, for any celebration, a single story just cannot suffice. Every region has its own tale, although somewhere they are all linked to a common belief. Take the different ways in which Dussehra is celebrated across India. The east revels in the story of Durga, who manifested herself in the form of a woman riding on a lion to slay the demon, Mahishasura. As the conch shells blow and incense sticks fill the air with fragrance, men and women in their finery throng the puja pandals that house beautiful idols of the Goddess. Go to any state in this region during this period and you will find pandals every few kilometres.

Traditionally, about three to four months prior to Dussehra comes the festival of Akshay Tritiya. On this day, clay is collected from the river bank to make the idols for Durga puja, although today plaster of Paris has come to replace clay for the most part.

Several other rituals are followed while making these statues, before they are decorated in a manner that is meant to delight every devotee: Durga, with her glittering crown and ornaments, is adorned in a resplendent sari. She rides a majestic lion and holds in her 10 arms weapons of many kinds. In her person, she melds the opposites of beauty and ferocity — her stance is fierce, although her face is often portrayed as serene.

Goddess Durga

And this is Goddess Durga’s story: There once was a demon called Mahishasura. Through severe penance, he procured from Lord Brahma, creator of the world, the boon that no man or deity or animal would be able to kill him. So it was that when the Gods failed to contain the havoc Mahishasura was wreaking on the world, they created Durga, a powerful female form with 10 arms. All the Gods gave her their most potent weapons — the puranas provide a detailed account of the weapons she received. In essence, each God gave a bit of himself to the feminine form, who emerged superiorly endowed. Thus empowered, Durga went forth into battle and conquered Mahishasura. It is this famous victory that is re-enacted and celebrated during Dussehra for the general betterment of people.

In the southern state of Karnataka, too, it is Durga who is worshipped, but here she goes by the name Chamundeshwari. The manner of worship is also different. Kannadigas do not erect puja pandals; instead, women visit and offer to each other turmeric powder and kumkum, both symbols of auspiciousness and well-being. Chamundeshwari temples across the state are the scene of hectic activity during this period, with thousands of devotees thronging them. Dussehra is particularly special in Mysore, where traditionally the celebrations were presided over by the royal family, with a huge procession being taken out on the tenth day amidst teeming crowds. To this day, the erstwhile royal family of Mysore is involved in the festivities.

Some southern communities also stage the bommai kollu or a display of dolls on small, stepped podiums during the Dussehra, which is also known as Navratri, which literally means nine nights. On the tenth day, these dolls are symbolically put to sleep. Visitors are invited to come and enjoy these colourful displays that recall scenes from religious mythology, and they are customarily served sundal, a snack made of boiled chickpeas seasoned with mustard seeds and garnished with lemon.

Move towards western India and the scenes are somewhat different. Here, the 10 days of festivities are traditionally celebrated with dance. Long, all-night sessions of the garba and dandiya raas can be seen in states like Maharashtra and Gujarat during the Navratri, with young women playing a major role in the celebrations dressed up in their finest colourful skirts. Men, too, join in the dance. The garba, which is performed as an offering to Durga, is performed before prayer time while the dandiya raas — performed with sticks — is more for personal enjoyment and can continue long into the night. The garba, it is said, began as a symbolic representation of the fight between Mahishasura and Durga but has, over the years, evolved into a colourful folk dance form as well.

Mythology

In northern India, the 10 days of Dussehra are marked as the period leading up to the victory of Lord Ram over demon king Ravan. On the tenth day of the festival, huge effigies of Ravan are burnt to ashes to symbolise the end of the reign of evil. Over the days preceding this moment, groups of people get together and enact the Ramayana. Roles of various mythological characters come alive in the delightful tableau known as Ramlila. The Ramlila is staged every night, and the story unravels bit by bit over the 10 days.

Even in places where the Ramlila is the focus of the Dussehra celebration, on the eight and ninth day, a kanya puja (or the worship of young girls) is performed to mark the end of the period of worship to Ma Shakti, or Mother Goddess. As part of this ritual, nine pre-pubescent girls are invited into the home, treated with great respect, fed and given gifts. They are seen to symbolise the nine forms of Durga, embodying fertility and, therefore, the continuation of the world.

All over India, the first three days of Dussehra are devoted to the worship of Durga, the next three days to Lakshmi, and the last three days to Saraswati. That is why the ninth day is also celebrated as Saraswati puja in the south. The final or tenth day is termed as Vijayadashami, or the celebration of victory.

Dussehra, then, is a commemoration of creation and marking the victory of good over evil. But it is also, one understands, about venerating feminine power. There is a story that encapsulates this. Lord Vishnu, preserver of humankind, once assumed the form of a child, and as he lay on a fig leaf, he wondered who he was and what he had been born to do. A voice then told him that He was everything, the only eternal. Meditating upon this, he saw Devi. She was attended upon by the powers of intelligence, intellect, reputation, patience, memory, dedication, wisdom, beauty, riches, compassion, momentum, happiness, growth and forgiveness. These are the qualities that are associated with the feminine principle, which is worshipped every Dussehra.

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