Significance of Mysore Dussehra Festival

published on October 16, 2010
V.N. Gopalakrishnan

Over the years Mysore has become synonymous with the Dussehra (Dasara) festival. Of all the places in India celebrating the Dussehra festival, the one at Mysore is the grandest and the most famous. This extravagant festival has become an integral part of the culture and life in Mysore. The festival has been celebrated with great pomp and show since centuries. The Mysore Dussehra festival is significant this year because it the 400th festival which was first started by Raja Wodeyar I in 1610.

Mysore Dussehra is as much a legacy of the Mysore Wodeyar dynasty as it is of the Vijayanagara empire of Krishnadevaraya. It was Krishnadevaraya who had the Mahanavami Dhibba constructed in Hampi, the capital of Vijayanagar. After the defeat of the Vijayanagara army at the Battle of Talikota in 1565, the imperial capital was deserted and many of the vassal states became more or less independent. The Wodeyars of Mysore were important feudatories. The Viceroy of Vijayanagara, however, continued to make his presence felt from Srirangapatanam, close to Mysore. In 1610, Raja Wodeyar defeated Viceroy Tirumalaraya in the Battle of Kesare. He started the tradition of Mysore Dussehra in the same year. The cultural legacy of Vijayanagara was thus transferred to Mysore, though not all the territories under the erstwhile empire came to it. Raja Wodeyar modelled the festival on the pattern of Vijayanagara Mahanavami celebrations. The rules he set for the royal family still continue to be followed four centuries later.

The Karnataka government has accorded the status of Nada Habba (festival of the country) to Mysore Dussehra. As part of the celebrations, renowned musicians of Karnataka and from other states perform in front of the Palace. To celebrate the festival, the Mysore Palace is illuminated on all the ten days with more than 96,000 lights and is open to the public where the royal throne is displayed. The royal throne on which the king used to sit is made of gold and is said to have been used by Dharmaputra, the illustrious Pandava king. It was rediscovered by the great sage Vidyaranya during the founding of the Vijayanagar Empire and was subsequently presented to the Mysore kings. There is also a legend that the very throne is the Vikramaditya throne!

The architectural style of the Mysore Palace is commonly described as Indo-Saracenic and blends together Hindu, Muslim, Rajput and Gothic styles of architecture. It is a three-storied stone structure, with marble domes and a 145 ft. five-storied tower. The three storied stone building of fine gray granite with deep pink marble domes was designed by a British architect, Henry Irwin. The facade has seven expansive arches and two smaller ones flanking the central arch, which is supported by tall pillars. Above the central arch is an impressive sculpture of Gajalakshmi, the goddess of wealth and prosperity with her elephants. The palace is surrounded by a large garden.

Dasaharara, meaning ten days, becomes Dussehra in popular parlance. The Navaratri festival or nine day festival becomes ten days festival with the addition of the last day, Vijaya Dasami which is its culmination. On all the ten days, Mahishasura Mardini is worshipped with devotion. The festivities begin with the Wodeyar royal couple performing a special puja to Goddess Chamundeshwari in the Chamundi Temple located on the top of Chamundi Hills in Mysore and would be followed by a special durbar (royal assembly). It was during the reign of Krishnaraja Wodeyar III in 1805, when the king started the tradition of having a special durbar in the Mysore Palace during Dussehra which was attended by members of the royal family, special invitees, officials and the masses. This tradition has been continued even now with the current scion of the Wodeyar family, Srikantadatta Narasimharaja Wodeyar holding a private durbar during Dussehra.

According to Hindu mythology the festival celebrates and commemorates the victory of Goddess Chamundeshwari after slaying the demon Mahishasura and the triumph of good over evil. The high point of the Dussehra celebrations is the Vijayadashami procession held on the tenth day. The main attraction of the procession is the idol of Goddess Chamundeshwari kept in the golden howdah on top of a decorated elephant. The procession begins at the Mysore Palace and ends at the Banni Mantap travelling a distance of about 2.5 miles where the banni tree (Prosopis spicigera) is worshipped.

The ninth day of Dussehra called as Mahanavami is an auspicious day on which the royal sword is worshipped and is taken on a procession involving elephants, camels and horses through major roads in Mysore before finally ending at Bannimantap where the banni tree. According to a legend of the Mahabharata, banni tree was used by the Pandavas to hide their arms during their one-year period of Agnatavasa (living life incognito). Before undertaking any warfare, the kings traditionally worshipped this tree to help them emerge victorious in the war. The procession is followed by a torch light procession in the evening and a stunning display of fireworks.

In Karnataka, Navaratri, which is held at the same time as the Durga Puja in Bengal, is connected with the worship of the Divine Mother. Lord Rama, before embarking upon his battle against Ravana, propitiates Mother Durga. The Puranas are replete with descriptions of the Mother and her conquest of the demon Mahishasura. Images of Mahishasura Mardini, dating back to the 7th century and belonging to the Gupta era, have been found in Badami (Karnataka) and Mahabalipuram (Tamil Nadu). The Durga image is also found in temples in Indonesia. Al Baruni, who visited India during the 11th century, had given good accounts of the festival. On the basis of such records, scholars are of the opinion that the festival of Navaratri was prevalent for more than 2,500 years!

(The author is a freelance journalist and social activist. He is the Director, Indo-Gulf Consulting and can be contacted on [email protected]).

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