The Dasara jamboree

Print edition : November 02, 2012

The Amba Vilas Palace, the venue for most of the Dasara festivities.-G P SAMPATH KUMAR

The 402nd Dasara festivities in Mysore are a lively mix of centuries-old traditions and modern programmes.

MYSORE, the quaint, clean and leafy south Indian city has always been associated with palaces, maharajas, elephants, and, most importantly, the splendid, annual Hindu festival of Dasara. And nothing much has changed in the past 402 years of its celebration.

This year too, from October 16 to 24, the festival will delight millions of tourists. Over 2.5 million people visited the city for the festivities in 2011. The festival will be inaugurated on October 16 by Siddeshwara Swamiji of Gnana Yogashram, Bijapur, at Chamundi Hills.

Dasara in Karnataka has had a close association with the Vijayanagar rulers (1336 A.D. to 1565 A.D.) and later with the Wodeyars, who were the feudatories of the Vijayanagar emperors and eventually became the maharajas of Mysore. In more recent times, it has come to be celebrated across Karnataka as a nada habba or State festival that has metamorphosed into a unique blend of the religious and the secular. The festivities have also assumed the character of a jamboree in which the modern (including joy rides in Cessna aircraft and flypasts by combat helicopters of the Indian Air Force) is juxtaposed with centuries-old customs and traditions, without diluting the religious essence of the events.

According to Mysore Deputy Commissioner P. S. Vastrad, under the Maharaja package a person can hop on the two-seater Cessna-152 aircraft for an exclusive 15-minute sortie for a fee of Rs.2,500. The flight will take off from Mysores Mandakalli Airport and fly over the Chamundi Hills, the Lalit Mahal and Mysore Palaces before heading back to the airport. And for those who want to fly with their friends and family, there is the Yuvaraja package at Rs.2,000 per person. Three persons, apart from the pilot, can fly the 15-minute sortie covering the same areas.

Dasara 2012 will also feature international magic shows. Teams of magicians will go around the various Dasara venues and streets of Mysore performing street magic. There will also be a Yuva Sambrama (a cultural bonanza for youth), wrestling bouts, flower show, adventure sports, a food mela and, of course, the traditional Dasara sports meet.

History

Begun as a simple thanksgiving ceremony to the Hindu god Indra for providing timely rain, Dasara gradually transformed into a complex festival. Also, from a largely private, religious affair of the ruling Wodeyars, Dasara became a secular celebration involving the masses.

The festival involves nine nights of worship and celebration called Navaratri, and culminates in a procession on Vijayadasami day, signifying the slaying of the demon Mahishasura by Mahishasuramardini, the Goddess Chamundeswari or Durga, the principal deity of the Wodeyars, and later of the city of Mysore. Legend has it that Mysore city derived its modern name from Mahishasura.

Historians note that Dasara became a nada habba in the 14th century during the reign of the Vijayanagar kings. Raja Wodeyar I (1578-1617) who was a viceroy to the Vijayanagar ruler, with his seat of power in Mysore, reintroduced the Vijayanagar practice of celebrating the Dasara festival in 1610. He put in place elaborate rules for the Navaratri celebrations.

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 pomp.

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

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 has always been the majestic Amba Vilas Palace, also known as the Diwan-e-Khas.

The ceremonies

On the first day of Dasara, 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.

Caparisoned elephants leaving for Mysore from Nagapura in Hunsur taluk of Mysore district to participate in the Dasara festivities on September 7.-M.A. SRIRAM

Seated on the throne, the king receives guests. He accepts offerings from various temples and religious centres, which are then blessed by royal priests.

An ensemble of musical instruments accompanied by dance begins, and the blowing of conches and trumpets announces the beginning of a parade that includes uniformed soldiers and others. The decorated royal elephant arrives and showers rose petals on the assembled guests. The royal horse, equally decorated, bends its knees in salutation to the throne.

When the assembly leaves the court after paying obeisance to the king, the queen and other royal ladies come to pay their respects to the king. The king leaves the durbar hall after praying to the goddess, and partakes 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. The king worships the goddess Saraswati on the seventh day and Mahishasuramardini on the eighth.

On Mahanavami, the ninth day, the royal sword is worshipped ceremoniously and all the weapons are taken out in a procession of elephants, horses, camels, and the royal retinue. Ceremonies are held on Chamundi Hill. Navaratri culminates in the grand Vijayadasami celebrations on the tenth day, which includes the Jamboo Savari. The king heads the grand procession, seated in the 750-kg golden howdah bedecked with rare gems and pearls, which is carried by 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 thronewhich is assembled as per religious instructionsat 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.

The most significant change in the Dasara celebrations now is that the idol of Chamundeshwari has replaced the king in the procession. Also absent are the soldiers of yore, since the royal procession is no longer meant to showcase the military might of the Wodeyars. The route of the procession is more or less the same, but its main focus today, besides entertaining the crowds, is to showcase the achievements of the State government, and to provide a cultural potpourri of sorts. When the procession reaches Bannimantap (open ground), a torchlight parade (Panjina Kavayatthu) and fireworks are conducted, marking the conclusion of the Vijayadasami festivities.

The Mysore Dasara has seen its 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 the Indian Union 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 festival minus the royal entourage.

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