Cultural extravaganza

Print edition : October 22, 2010

The festivities have moved from the royal courts to commoner grounds where residents and tourists alike enjoy the new flavours of Navaratri.

THINK of Dasara and the city of Mysore comes to mind. It is a 400-year association that now attracts visitors from around the world to the city for the festivities, which generally fall in the months of September or October. This year the festival is being celebrated from October 8 to 17. Over the past few decades, the promotion of tourism and folk arts has been a part of the Dasara tradition.

The Mysore Dasara has had a close association with the Vijayanagar rulers (A.D. 1336 to 1565) and later with the Wodeyars, the 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 (fighter jets of the Indian Air Force, and so on) and the traditional without diluting the religious essence of the events.

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

Today, Dasara offers 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 inter-collegiate arts and drama competitions at the Yuva Dasara (Dasara for youth) or participate in national sports meets. Heritage seekers get an opportunity to take a tonga (horse-driven cart) ride, visit the Amba Vilas Palace, as the Mysore Palace is popularly known, and numerous other historical buildings in the city.

The festival primarily consists of nine nights of worship and celebration, called Navaratri, and culminates in a procession on Vijayadasami. Vijayadasami 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.

Travellers to Mysore for this year's Dasara can take heart from the fact that the long-awaited commercial operations of flights from Mysore Airport will begin on October 1. A private airline has introduced a daily hopping flight connecting the city with Bangalore and Chennai. The 45-minute flight (on a turboprop aircraft) to Bangalore makes it easy for tourists to take connecting flights to destinations in India or abroad.

Mysore Airport, which was modernised by the Airports Authority of India (AAI) at an estimated Rs.82 crore and made ready for operations in September 2009, was officially inaugurated by Chief Minister B.S. Yeddyurappa in May 2010. However, no airline was prepared to fly to Mysore owing to the uncertainty over passenger loads. The State government now offers a subsidy to flights operating to and from Mysore.

The government, which has earmarked Rs.9 crore for the celebrations, expects up to 25 lakh people in Mysore during the 10-day period.

History of Dasara

Dasara was meant to be a thanksgiving ceremony to the god Indra for providing timely rain. Gradually, concepts such as the triumph of good over evil as symbolised by the killing of the demon-king Ravana by Rama took over the festival. And, from a largely private, religious affair of the ruling maharajas it became a secular celebration involving the masses.

Historians note that Dasara became a naada habba (or people's festival) in the 14th century, during the reign of the Vijayanagar kings. The Wodeyars turned it into a world-famous spectacle of unrivalled splendour and magnificence. Raja Wodeyar I (1578-1617) was viceroy to the Vijayanagar ruler, with his seat of power in Mysore. In 1610, he reintroduced the Vijayanagar 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 splendour. The earliest pictorial representation of the festivities dates to A.D. 1648, during the reign of Kantirava Narasaraja Wodeyar.

The Navaratri festivities, which were held initially in Srirangapatna (20 kilometres from Mysore), the capital of the kingdom, continued uninterrupted even when Hyder Ali and later Tipu Sultan ruled Mysore from 1761 to 1799. When the British handed over the kingdom to Krishnaraja Wodeyar III in 1799, he shifted the capital to Mysore, where Navaratri was celebrated with greater magnificence than before.

In September 1805, the maharajas started the practice of holding a special durbar (royal assembly, after the fashion of the Mughal emperors) for important citizens, members of the royal family, Europeans, palace officials, royal priests and the intelligentsia. It brought worldwide 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).

The Mysore Dasara has seen many ups and downs. After Independence, the last crowned king, Jayachamarajendra Wodeyar, revived the tradition in his personal capacity. With the accession of princely states to India, it suffered a setback and with the death of Jayachamarajendra Wodeyar in 1974, a further dilution. Subsequently, Mysore almost lost its unique festival when the government stepped in to celebrate it as a State festival and without the royal entourage.

Ceremonial splendour

The venue of most of the festivities has always been the majestic Amba Vilas Palace, which is also known as the Diwan-e-Khas. 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 in the backdrop of Chamundi Hills.

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

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 display 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 Chamundi Hills.

The Vijayadasami celebrations, which included the Jambu savari (elephant procession), marked the culmination of the Navaratri festivities. The grandeur of this event popularised the Mysore Dasara the world over. On this day, the king worshipped the royal sword, placed it on a palanquin and offered an ash gourd smeared with vermilion as a sacrifice to it. He headed the grand procession, seated on the 750-kg golden howdah atop the royal elephant.

Today the ceremonies are largely a 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 procession. With the royal procession no longer meant to showcase the military might of the Wodeyars, also absent are the soldiers. Though 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.

When the procession reaches Bannimantap (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 festival has also gained importance as an advertisement of the cultural diversity and achievements of Karnataka.

Changes for Dasara 2010

This year the government has banned all unauthorised banners, hoardings and placards, especially those with the photographs of politicians. Speaking to Frontline, Mysore Deputy Commissioner Harsh Gupta said the designs of all hoardings for the festival would have to be approved by the government-appointed Dasara Organising Committee.

To involve the participation of more people in the festivities, the government has planned a lot of programmes. We want the involvement of the people in the Dasara. Therefore we are organising a kite festival/competition, a special Mahila Dasara (women's Dasara) for local women to participate in cultural programmes, and events for children. The children's talent competition will be judged by child prodigies such as Master Kishan, the youngest director of a professionally made feature length film' as acknowledged by the Guinness Book of World Records, he said.

The Commissioner also said the administration had decided to bring schoolchildren from all government and aided schools in the district to Mysore city, both during the run-up to the festivities and during the 10-day period. Spread over seven weeks, the special tour of Mysore will enable children to visit places of historical, cultural, zoological and botanical importance. In addition, 3,000 government schoolchildren will be exposed to a talent competition.

As part of the focus on public involvement in the Dasara, some restaurants have agreed to serve a full meal to the economically weaker sections at Rs.20 (the usual price varies between Rs.40 and Rs.45). Changes have also been incorporated in the Yuva Dasara. Said Harsh Gupta: While earlier it was more of an orchestra-related event, we have decided to conduct it as an inter-collegiate cultural programme. It will be held in the open-air theatre of Mysore University.

The Manoranjan Dasara to be held at the Maharaja's College grounds is for the entire family and includes classical dance, music, theatre, puppet and magic shows and a variety of entertainment programmes. Competitions in wrestling, rangoli and painting have also been planned. There will also be a display of dolls during the festivities.

Brand Dasara

The Karnataka government hopes to cash in on the Dasara brand. It has plans to conduct a national competition or national selection event during Dasara. The winners will get a special Dasara Trophy. This, says Harsh Gupta, will help make Mysore a sports destination too. This year a national-level skating competition has been planned.

Dasara 2010 will also incorporate changes in the tableaux to be exhibited during the festivities. Under the guidance of Minister for Urban Development S. Suresh Kumar (see interview), the government has decided that the tableaux from the districts shall have a centralised concept and be thematic enough to be exhibited in the respective district headquarters once the festivities are over. This year the theme is dynasties that ruled the various parts of Karnataka.

Apart from folk and theatre artists from all over India, the State government hopes to bring folk artist delegations from the SAARC countries and even European nations such as France. Publicity for the event has become so aggressive than in the past that the government is now into brand bartering. A coffee cafe chain has agreed to advertise the Dasara programmes at all its properties.

Also as part of the measures adopted by the government to make this year's Dasara a more pleasurable experience, 4,500 people-friendly police personnel are to be deputed to maintain law and order and to guide tourists. They have been specially trained by a senior retired officer from the Uttarakhand police force who brings with him the experience of training police personnel for the Kumbh Mela.

Said Mysore Police Commissioner Sunil Agarwal: Though the Karnataka Police have the image of an efficient and professional force, the usual picture of the man in khaki is that of a person who is harsh and unhelpful. We want an image makeover that will change the mindset of the people towards the police force. The Dasara festival, which will see at least 20 lakh visitors, is a great event to make this happen. With this in mind we have trained our personnel in concepts of smart and friendly policing. We don't even want our constables to hold lathis since it will only be regulatory policing. We want the policeman to be seen as a friend of the people.

Reiterating that a massive police deployment would be in place at all the venues, Agarwal said the police were fully prepared for any security issues.

The government has also decided to set up Can I Help You' kiosks at 40 locations, including at the border check posts and in the city. Police personnel will be deputed in these kiosks where complaints can be lodged. They will also hand out tourist information and answer ticketing-related queries. In another first, ticketing has been largely computerised and bar-coded.

The Mysore Dasara is also known for its exhibition, which goes on for nearly three months. It is held at the Doddakere Maidan opposite the Mysore Palace and has stalls selling handicrafts, apparel, plastic and glass ware, and Channapatna toys (wooden toys and dolls manufactured in the nearby town of Channapatna). There will also be food stalls and a play area with games and amusement rides.

Among the new attractions planned for this year are battery-operated vehicles for senior citizens and the physically challenged, and a special toy train running within a 3-km radius inside the Doddakere Maidan.

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