All roads to Mysore

Print edition : October 21, 2011

The Mysore Palace occupies centre stage during the Dasara festival. This year the nine-day festival started on September 28. - PICTURES M.A. SRIRAM

The government's intention is to highlight the rich culture and tradition of the State, and this has reflected in most of the Dasara programmes.

TO the uninitiated, the multi-hued, splendid festival of the Mysore Dasara conjures up images of pomp and glory, maharajas and palaces, tradition and religious fervour, elephants and bright lights. Nothing much has changed in the last 400 years. Between September 28 and October 6, the festival of Dasara will once again regale the millions of tourists who flock to the southern Indian city of Mysore from all corners of the globe to witness the 401st edition of a festival that began quite simply as a thanksgiving ceremony to the Hindu god Indra for providing timely rain.

The Mysore Dasara has had a close association with the Vijayanagara rulers (A.D. 1336 1565) and later with the Wodeyar rulers, the erstwhile maharajas of Mysore. Now it is celebrated across Karnataka as a State festival with a unique blend of the religious and the secular. The festivities have also assumed the character of a jamboree that combines the modern and the traditional without diluting the religious essence of the events. The festival has gained importance as an advertisement for the cultural diversity and achievements of Karnataka, and over the past few decades, it has served as a platform for the promotion of tourism and folk arts. The government, which has earmarked Rs.10 crore for the celebrations, expects up to 50 lakh visitors to Mysore during the festivities.

The Dasara festival primarily consists of nine nights of worship and celebration called Navaratri. It culminates in a procession on Vijayadasami, which itself signifies the slaying of the demon Mahishasura by the goddess Chamundeshwari, or Durga, the principal deity of the Wodeyars, and later the city of Mysore.

Over the centuries, the Mysore Dasara has gradually undergone conceptual changes, the most significant being the shift of the focus from thanksgiving to concepts such as the triumph of good over evil as symbolised by the killing of the demon-king Ravana by Rama. Also, from initially being a largely private, religious affair of the maharajas, the festival became a secular celebration involving the masses, with something in it for everyone. And though the festival initially began in Srirangapatna (the capital of the then rulers, which is 20 kilometres from Mysore), the festival is now primarily celebrated in Mysore, a city it has become synonymous with.

Festival history

According to most historians, Dasara became a naada habba (people's festival) in the 14th century, during the reign of the Vijayanagara kings. The Wodeyars turned it into a world-famous spectacle of unrivalled splendour and magnificence. Raja Wodeyar I (A.D. 1578-1617) was viceroy to the Vijayanagara ruler, with his seat of power in Mysore. In 1610, he reintroduced the Vijayanagara practice of celebrating the Dasara festival and put in place elaborate rules to celebrate Navaratri and ensured that the nine days were marked by both piety and glamour. The earliest pictorial representation of the festivities dates back to A.D. 1648, during the reign of Kantirava Narasaraja Wodeyar.

Interestingly, the Navaratri festivities continued uninterrupted even during the reigns of both Hyder Ali and later Tipu Sultan, who ruled Mysore from 1761 to 1799. When the British handed over the kingdom to Krishnaraja Wodeyar III in 1799, he shifted his capital to Mysore, where Navaratri was celebrated with greater magnificence than before. Records indicate that in September 1805 the maharajas started the practice of holding a special durbar (royal assembly, after the fashion of the Mughal emperors) during the festival for important citizens, members of the royal family, Europeans, palace officials, royal priests and the intelligentsia. It brought international fame to the Mysore Dasara. The festival became a tradition of the royal household and reached its zenith during the rule of Nalvadi Krishnaraja Wodeyar (1902-1940).

DASARA ELEPHANTS BEING taken on a rehearsal march from the Mysore Palace to Bannimantap via K.R. Circle on September 19.-

The Mysore Dasara has seen its share of ups and downs. After Independence, Jayachamarajendra Wodeyar, the last crowned king of Mysore, revived the tradition in his personal capacity. With the accession of the princely states to India, the festival suffered a setback and with the death of Jayachamarajendra Wodeyar in 1974, a further dilution. Subsequently, Mysore almost lost its unique festival until the government stepped in to celebrate it as a State festival, sans the royal entourage.

The venue of most of the festivities has always been the majestic Amba Vilas Palace, which is also known as the Diwan-e-Khas, or the Mysore Palace. One of the largest palaces to be built, it has exquisitely designed inlay works of ivory, coloured motifs and imaginatively drawn designs made from jacinth and jasper, carbuncle and amber. Most of the carvings were done by artists from Agra. The teakwood ceiling has intricate carvings, and every door, be it silver, teak or rosewood, depicts the 10 incarnations of Vishnu.

Murals vividly capture the Dasara procession of caparisoned elephants, horses, courtiers, nobles and soldiers as it passes the palace's main gate and winds its way through the city against the backdrop of the Chamundi Hills.

The ceremonies

On the first day of Dasara, the king, after a ceremonial bath, worshipped the family deity in the palace and entered the durbar to the accompaniment of religious chants and music. He worshipped the navagrahas (nine sacred deities) and the sacred kalasa. He ascended the throne at an auspicious moment after going around it three times. The palace lights were then lit and a 21-gun salute marked the presentation of the royal insignia and sword to him.

There are many legends about the royal throne of Mysore. One is that it was used by Dharmaraja (Yudhishtira), the Pandava king. It is said that the throne was brought from his kingdom, Hastinapura, by Kampilaraya to Penugonda, where it lay buried until it was rediscovered by Vidyaranya, the royal priest of the Vijayanagara empire. The throne was presented to Raja Wodeyar in 1609.

BOMBE MANE, AN expo of exquisite dolls, at the Prathima Art Gallery in Mysore during Dasara. The exhibition tries to preserve the tradition of doll-keeping.-

Another legend is that the Mughal emperor Aurangazeb gifted the throne to Chikkadevaraja Wodeyar in 1700. The king sat on this throne to receive royal guests and then accepted offerings from temples and religious centres. Vassals, dewans, army chiefs and other royal staff then lined up to offer their respects to the king. Then followed a musical ensemble accompanied by dance. The blowing of conches and trumpets announced the beginning of a parade of uniformed soldiers and others.

The royal elephant then showered rose petals on the guests, and the royal horse bent its knees in salutation to the throne. When the assembly left the court after bowing to the king, the queen and other royal women paid obeisance to the king. The king left the durbar hall after praying to the goddess once again and partook of food with the guests. These ceremonies were repeated on all the nine evenings of Navaratri, accompanied by acrobatic feats, wrestling bouts, fireworks displays and other forms of entertainment, which were open to the public.

The king worshipped the goddess Saraswathi on the seventh day and Mahishasuramardini on the eighth. On Mahanavami, the royal sword was worshipped ceremoniously and all the weapons were taken out in a procession of the army elephants, horses, camels, and the royal retinue. Ceremonies were held on the Chamundi Hills.

The Vijayadasami celebrations, which include the Jambu Savari (elephant procession), mark the culmination of the Navaratri festivities. The grandeur of this event popularised the Mysore Dasara the world over. On this day, the king worships the royal sword, places it on a palanquin and offers an ash gourd smeared with vermilion as a sacrifice to it. He heads the grand procession, seated on the 750-kg golden howdah atop the royal elephant.

The change

Today, the ceremonies are a largely private affair of the royal family, witnessed by a select audience. Clad in royal attire and traditional headgear, Srikantadutta Narasimharaja Wodeyar, the scion of the royal family, ascends the seven steps to the golden throne which is assembled according to religious instructions at a preordained hour for the public to pay their obeisance to the king. Court musicians then play the signature tune composed to commemorate the assumption of power by the Wodeyars.

The most significant change in the Dasara celebrations now is that the idol of the goddess Chamundeshwari has replaced the king in the 750-kg golden howdah atop the royal elephant. With the procession that winds its way around the city no longer meant to showcase the military might of the Wodeyars, the soldiers are also absent. Although the route of the procession is more or less the same, its focus today, besides entertaining the crowds, as it traverses the thoroughfares of Mysore, is to showcase the cultural heritage of the State and the achievements of the government.

SRIKANTADATTA NARASIMHARAJA WODEYAR, the scion of the royal family, at the private durbar in the Mysore Palace during the Dasara celebrations.-

When the procession reaches Bannimantapa (open ground), there is a torchlight parade (Panjina Kavayatthu) followed by fireworks to mark the conclusion of the Vijayadasami festivities. Besides the colourful Vijayadasami parade, Dasara is marked by daily performances by renowned musicians at the Amba Vilas Palace and an exhibition at Doddakere Maidan.

The 26 classical murals that adorn the Kalyana Mantapa in the Mysore Palace offer a glimpse of Dasaras of yore. These murals have not only helped immortalise Mysore Dasara but also show the significant changes that have taken place in the festivities after Independence.

The present-day Dasara has something for everyone. For connoisseurs of art and culture, it is an opportunity to revel in the glory of classical music and dance. For the young, it is a time to swing to Indipop music at the Manoranjan Dasara (entertainment Dasara) or compete in intercollegiate arts and drama competitions at the Yuva Dasara (Dasara for youth) or participate in national sports meets or the traditional wrestling competition. Heritage seekers get an opportunity to take a tonga (horse-driven cart) ride, visit the Amba Vilas Palace and some of Mysore's as many as 160 heritage buildings.

Dasara 2011

The Karnataka government hopes to highlight the rich culture and tradition of the State, which will be the focus of most of the Dasara programmes. Many of these programmes are tailored to meet the interests of the youth. For example, in the Yuva Sambhrama, the participants are asked to wear costumes that blend with the heritage value of Mysore. Dance ballets have also been organised on issues of historical significance.

There will also be a Souharda Dasara (on October 2), which aims to bring all religious communities under one banner. Prisoners are also being given a platform: during the Parivartana Dasara (on October 3), the inmates of the Mysore jail will showcase their talent. Later, VIPs will join these prisoners for lunch. Inmates will also be allowed to witness some of the Dasara events.

With five countries Nepal, Sri Lanka, Venezuela, Tibet (China) and Rwanda having already confirmed their participation in the Yuva Dasara, Dasara 2011 will have a fair share of international delegates.

Prestigious palace music programmes are an integral part of Mysore. Renowned artists such as the sarod maestro Rajeev Taranath and the musicians Usha Mangeshkar, Pankaj Udhas, the Dagar brothers and Shobhana are the participants this year. Also planned at the Mysore Palace premises are Veeragase by Kiralu Mahesh, folk songs by P.K. Rajashekhar; Bharatanatyam by Devayani of New Delhi and Jugalbandi by Radhika Nandakumar of Mysore.

On all the days of Navaratri, cultural events will be held at the Jaganmohan Palace. There is also a vintage vehicle rally planned, with both two- and four-wheelers. Besides the music programmes, the festivities also include film and flower shows, exhibitions dedicated to farm produce and farmers, poetry and bhajan recitations, yoga demonstrations and kite flying.

The Doddakere Maidan (opposite the Mysore Palace) has a nearly three-month long exhibition with stalls selling handicraft, apparel, plastic and glass ware, Channapatna toys (wooden toys and dolls manufactured in the nearby town of Channapatna) and food. An added attraction at the exhibition is the play area complete with games and amusement rides.

The Jambu Savari is one of the highlights of the Dasara festivities. This year, too, it will be the elephant Balarama who will carry the golden howdah. He has been doing it for the last 13 years, and mahouts and doctors have been taking additional care of him.

Gold card

In a measure aimed at ensuring hospitality and attracting high-end domestic and foreign tourists, the Dasara Committee, which has been tasked with conducting the events, has introduced Dasara Gold Card-2011. The special privileges card costs Rs.6,000 and is valid for two persons. It provides free entry, special treatment, including special seating at all the Dasara venues on all nine days. In all, 500 cards are being sold.

In another measure aimed at promoting the Mysore Dasara in particular and tourism in general, the committee has planned free seating for 1,000 foreign tourists and introduced a single tourism circuit ticket (valid for a number of tourist spots), which can be bought online.

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