A historic festival

Published : Oct 21, 2005 00:00 IST

The Mysore palace all lit up for Dasara. - PICTURES: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

The Mysore palace all lit up for Dasara. - PICTURES: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

The spirit of Dasara grips Mysore with the promise of joy and prosperity for the people.

DASARA in Mysore is being celebrated from October 4 to 13 this year. Besides Carnatic and Hindustani music concerts and Indian dance performances by leading artists, there will be an aerobatics display by Air Force fighter jets, a film festival, a concert by pop icon Sonu Nigam, and other youth-related activities such as para sailing, canoeing, bungee jumping and powered hand gliding.

Dasara, the 10-day-long many-splendoured, socio-religious festival celebrates the triumph of good over evil. In Karnataka it has had a close association with the Vijayanagar rulers and later with the Wodeyars, erstwhile Mysore maharajas. In more recent times it is celebrated across the State.

The festival falls in September/October every year and comprises nine nights of worship and celebration, called Navaratri. The tenth and concluding day is called Vijayadasami, signifying the slaying of the demon Mahishasura by Mahishasuramardini, the Goddess Chamundeswari or Durga, the principal deity of the maharajas. Legend has it that Mysore city derived its modern name from Mahishasura.

Dasara became a Naada Habba (or people's festival) in the 14th century, during the reign of the Vijayanagar kings (1336 A.D. to 1565 A.D.).

Raja Wodeyar I (1578-1617) became viceroy to the Vijayanagar ruler, with his seat of power in Mysore. In 1610, he reintroduced the Vijayanagar practice of celebrating the Dasara festival. He put in place elaborate rules on how Navarathri should be celebrated and ensured that the nine days were observed with both piety and splendour. The earliest pictorial representation of the festivities date from around 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 between 1761 and 1799, when Hyder Ali and later Tipu Sultan ruled Mysore. When the kingdom was handed over by the British to Krishnaraja Wodeyar III in 1799, the capital was shifted to Mysore and Navaratri was celebrated with even greater magnificence. In September 1805, the maharajas started 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. The common people also participated in the durbar. The festival became a tradition of the royal household and reached its zenith during the rule of Nalvadi Krishnaraja Wodeyar (1902-1940).

The venue for most of the festivities of the Mysore Dasara, marked by the pomp and grandeur of the durbar and religious rites performed by members of the royal family, always has been the Amba Vilas Palace, which is also known as the Diwan-e-Khas. The palace is decorated with 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 teak wood ceiling has intricate carvings and every door, be it silver, teak or rosewood, depicts the 10 incarnations of Vishnu. Murals vividly capture the royal Dasara procession of caparisoned elephants, royal horses, courtiers, nobles and soldiers, as it passes the Palace's Main Gate and winds its way through the city in the backdrop of the Chamundi hills.

On the first day, the king, after a ceremonial bath, worships the family deity in the palace and enters the durbar to the accompaniment of sacred chants and music. He worships the navagrahas (nine sacred deities) and the sacred `kalasa'. Then he ascends the throne at an auspicious moment after going around it three times. The palace lights are lit and a 21-gun salute is given as the royal insignia and sword are presented to him.

According to legend, the Mysore royal throne, which is made of gold, was used by Dharmaraja, the Pandava king. It was brought from Hastinapura to Penugonda by Kampilaraya, where it lay buried. It was rediscovered by Vidyaranya, the royal priest of the Vijayanagar empire and subsequently presented to Raja Wodeyar in 1609. Another story is that the Moghul Emperor Aurangazeb gifted the throne to Chikkadevaraja Wodeyar in 1700. The third legend says that it belonged to the mythological King Vikramaditya.

The king sits on this throne and receives royal guests. He accepts offerings from various temples and religious centres, which are blessed by royal priests chanting Vedic verses and sprinkling holy water. In the olden days vassals, dewans, army chiefs and other royal staff would line up to offer their respects to the throne. An ensemble of musical instruments accompanied by dance begins and the blowing of conches and trumpets announces the beginning of a parade of uniformed soldiers and others.

The decorated royal elephant arrives and showers rose petals on the assembled guests. The royal horse, equally well decorated, bends its knees in salutation to the throne. While the assembly leaves the court after bowing to the king, the queen and other royal ladies would come to pay obeisance to the king. The queen mother and senior ladies bless him with good health. The king leaves the durbar hall after praying to the Goddess once again and partakes of a lunch with the royal guests.

These ceremonies are repeated on all the Navaratri evenings, accompanied by acrobatic feats, wrestling bouts by champion wrestlers, fireworks display and other forms of entertainment, which are open to the public as well.

The king worships the Goddess Saraswathi on the seventh day and Mahisasuramardini on the eighth. On Mahanavami, the royal sword is worshipped ceremoniously and all the weapons are taken out in a procession of the army, elephants, horses, camels and the royal retinue. Ceremonies are held on the Chamundi Hill.

Navaratri culminates in grand Vijayadasami celebrations, also known as Jambu Savari. The grandeur and magnificence of this event has 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 sacrifice to it. He heads the grand procession, seated in the historically famous 75-kg golden howdah bedecked with rare gems and pearls, which is carried by the royal elephant.

Now 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 and receives obeisance from the public. Court musicians then play the signature tune composed to commemorate the assumption of power by the Wodeyars.

But the most significant change in the Dasara celebrations now is that the idol of Goddess Chamundeshwari has replaced the king in the procession. Also absent is the royal procession comprising soldiers. And though the route of the procession is more or less the same, its main focus today, besides entertaining the crowds, is to showcase the achievements of the State government.

During Vijayadasami, the important streets of Mysore city are decorated with colourful lights. Lakhs of people stand on either side of the route of the procession. When the procession reaches Bannimantap (open ground), a torchlight parade and fireworks are conducted marking the conclusion of the Vijayadasami festivities.

Dasara was initially celebrated more as a ceremony for thanking Indira for timely rain. Gradually the concepts of good and evil took over and transformed it into a complex, metaphysical festival. Also, from being a largely private, religious affair of the maharajas it became a secular celebration involving the masses. But there is no doubt that the Wodeyars single-mindedly turned the Mysore Dasara into what it is today - a spectacle of unrivalled splendour and magnificence.

The festivities have seen their ups and downs. After Independence, the last crowned king, Jayachamarajendra Wodeyar, revived the tradition in his personal capacity. With the accession of princely States and after the demise of Jayachamarajendra Wodeyar in 1974, the tradition suffered a setback. Mysore almost lost its unique festival until the government of Karnataka decided to celebrate it as a State festval minus the royal entourage.

Today, Dasara is marked by daily musical performances by world-renowned musicians at the Amba Vilas Palace, the exhibition at Doddakere Maidan and the colourful Vijayadasami parade. The festival has also gained importance as an advertisement of the cultural diversity and achievements of Karnataka. By patronising the event, which has a budget of Rs.2 crore for this year, the government has succeeded in projecting the rich heritage of the land, thereby giving a boost to tourism and folk arts.

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