Dasara through the ages...

Dasara through the ages...
The popular phrase — ‘All roads lead to Mysore during Dasara’— explains the significance of Mysore Dasara and its popularity the world over. The nine-day extravaganza that culminates in Vijayadashami is celebrated as the ‘Nadahabba’ (state festival) of the State for its historical and cultural importance. The genesis of Dasara that marks the triumph of the good over the evil can be traced back to the Vijayanagar Empire.

The accounts of travellers who visited the Vijayanagar kingdom at different periods of time provide details about the three important festivals celebrated then — Holi, Deepavali and Mahanavami (Dasara). Among these, Mahanavami was the most popular. The Vijayanagar rulers used the occasion to showcase their might, valour and military power. Travellers like Alberuni, Nicolo De Conti, Domingo Paez, Fernao Nuniz and Abdur Razzaq have written about this festival. These accounts mention that the festival was highly ritualistic and its domain expanded with the Vijayanagar Empire. The festivities reached the zenith during the reign of King Krishnadevaraya. Slowly, it began to acquire a sovereign character. It was an occasion for the local chiefs, provincial governors, landed segments, amaranayakas and petty chieftains to show allegiance to the emperor. Those who served in the army also assembled at Mahanavami Dibba in Hampi.  

The beginnings

In the South, Wadiyars of Mysore, who were the feudatories of the Vijayanagar Empire, started the tradition. Under the Wadiyars, Navaratri came to be reconciled with many rituals, giving more importance to Shakti Puja. Raja Wadiyar initiated the festival in 1610 at Srirangappattana with an aim to assert his control over the same against the suzerainty of the Vijayanagar rulers. Later, it got shifted to Mysore. Dasara during Raja Wadiyar was similar to that of Vijayanagar Dasara in terms of pomp and gaiety. In fact, he is said to have laid down certain rules and regulations for the strict conduct of the festival spread over nine nights.  

Again, literature provides us detailed information about the rituals connected with the celebrations of Dasara during the time of the Wadiyars. Poet Govinda Vaidya, who composed Kantirava Narasaraja Vijaya, has narrated Dasara celebrations during the time of Kantirava Narasaraja Wadiyar. Being an early Kannada literary source, it gives the readers valuable information about the celebrations of the time, including a graphic description of Dasara. The work mentions that artists, skilled workers and labourers were commissioned to beautify the city. The poet says that Srirangapattana during this time was swarmed with visitors, travellers, petty chieftains, feudatory chieftains, nayakas and a host of others who represented various strata of the society. A Durbar was also held with representatives from different sections of society.

The royalty worshipped arms and ammunition on the Ayudha Puja day. Wrestling competition became an integral part of Dasara celebrations. The entire city soaked in the festive atmosphere with commoners and the royalty participating in it enthusiastically.

The rich tradition of Dasara continued in the time of Chikkadevaraja Wadiyar.  He was a contemporary of Aurangzeb, the Mughal Emperor. Aurangzeb is said to have recognised the authority of Chikkadevaraja Wadiyar and exchanged pleasantries. The latter received honours like nagari, naubath and nishan, considered as essential and important military insignias, from the Mughals. They were used in Dasara processions. After the death of Chikkadevaraja Wadiyar, Mysore state plunged into a period of political confusion. There were troubles to the state from all the sides. There was rivalry and bitter relationship between the English and the native states. In Mysore, Dalvoys came to occupy prominent position. In spite of these, Dasara, both as a tradition and a ritualistic festival, retained its importance.

Continuing a legacy

Though continued during the time of Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan, Dasara celebration was not a big affair. During the period of interregnum, the tradition must have had become a household event. Dasara came to be observed through a display of toys depicting nature, various rituals and vocations. Perhaps, Bombe Dasara may have originated during this period.

After the death of Tipu Sultan, the kingdom of Mysore was restored to the representative of the Wadiyar dynasty. Thus, Krishnaraja Wadiyar III assumed administrative responsibility. He initiated new systems to keep up with the times, while importance was given to strict observance of rituals too. In 1814, he introduced a system of convening a Dasara Durbar exclusively for the Europeans.

The Dasara procession, with all the insignias and the chariot drawn by three pairs of elephants, traversing the main streets of Mysore used to be meticulously planned. There were tom-toms, camels, elephants, horses, cows and men in uniform marching in the procession. Many travellers, missionaries, European civil administrators and army officials who visited Dasara during this time have provided interesting accounts. Huge paintings that depict Dasara are exhibited in Jaganmohan Palace, Mysore. The records, documents and files preserved at Regional Archives, Government of Karnataka, Mysore contain valuable information about the meticulous preparations, arrangements and a host of rituals conducted in the palace.

With the assumption of administration by Chamaraja Wadiyar X in 1881, a new phase began to emerge in the celebration of Dasara. He conceptualised new avenues for Dasara. It became more people-centred. Nadaswara and olaga were performed along with a contemporary European band. National Anthem of Great Britain came to be played along with the state song Kayo Shri Gowri. A contingent of English army marched alongside native forces.  The Maharaja started organising hunting trips to entertain European guests.

As years passed on, the festival’s scope widened and Dasara holidays were declared. Special trains were introduced connecting Bangalore and Mysore to ferry guests, particularly Europeans. With an aim to attract common people, the government organised industrial and agricultural exhibitions. The government also started convening the session of Mysore Representative Assembly, called the Dasara session. Records also speak about health Dasara. Awareness sessions on literacy and social evils came to be part of Dasara festivities.

Like other rulers, Krishnaraja Wadiyar IV gave much importance to Dasara celebrations. Grand Durbars were held where awards and recognitions were bestowed upon achievers.  Even after popular political sentiments began to emerge in Princely Mysore, the Dasara celebration did not lose its charm. Krishnaraja Wadiyar IV was succeeded by Jayachamaraja Wadiyar. He continued the glorious tradition of the Dasara. With the accession of Princely Mysore into the Indian Union after independence, Dasara celebrations slowly went into oblivion. The last Dasara led by the royalty was held in 1969.

Dasara is now sponsored by the State government. From the time of arrival of elephants from their base camps till their departure from the premises of the palace, the government departments plan and coordinate Dasara programmes. Several committees are also constituted to expand the scope of the festival. 

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