Navratri is celebrated in various ways across India. People in the north celebrate the festival as victory of Lord Rama over Ravana on Vijaya Dashami day. But in the south, where the actual preparations for the battle by Lord Rama to invade Ravana’s kingdom took place, there is no trace of Rama; it is Goddess Saraswathi in Kerala, Chamundeswari in Karnataka and Devi in various forms in Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and parts of Andhra Pradesh. Ladies in Tamil Nadu wear different sarees of different colours on each day to depict the nine forms of Devi. This cultural practice is now spreading to Kerala too.
Decorating the house with small dolls is also part of the celebrations.
But all these states do special poojas to implements, vehicles etc; hence the penultimate day is also called Ayudha Pooja. In the East, it is the mighty goddess Durga who is worshipped, especially in Bengal.
In the Mahabharata there is a reference to the victory of the Pandavas over the Kauravas—on Vijaya Dashami. There is a prayer to Durga Vindhyavasini in Virata Parva of the Mahabharata. Apart from these, Varaha and Brahmanda Puranas explain in detail about how She attained the form of Durga and obtained the weapons from various Gods for killing demons. Taittiriya Samhita makes a reference to Mahishasuramardini. In the later Puranas, like Skanda, Kalika, Markandeya and Devi Bhagavatha, the procedure of worshipping goddess Durga and celebration of Navaratri are explained in detail.
While bhakti to Goddess Durga is the common factor in many states, standing out among all these celebrations is the world famous and colourful Navaratri-Dasara of Mysuru which culminates in a royal procession in the heritage city. There is not much of religious connotation; it is more of colour and grandeur. Before Covid, people from across the country and globe would throng Mysuru to have a glimpse of the fully-illuminated Mysore Palace and the annual mega procession, which is held with great pomp and grandeur.
The Dasara procession has both a historical and spiritual connection associated with the ritualistic practices of the region. The first reference of Navaratri and Dasara dates back to the Vijayanagara period. The celebrations commenced during the reign of Vijayanagara Emperor Devaraya II (r. 1426–44 CE). It was during Krishnadevaraya’s period (r. 1509–1529 CE) that the celebrations reached the height of popularity. Dasara turned into a cultural festival that also marked the beginning of military expeditions or re-entering the city after victory on this auspicious day.
There is evidence that foreign travellers like Nicolo de Conti (1444–46), Abdur Razak (1442–43), Domingo Paes (1520–22) and Fernao Nuniz (1535–37) were stunned by the grandeur of the celebrations and have described them in their writings.
In the post-Vijayanagara period, the Mysore Wodeyar royal family inherited and continued to perform the Vijaya Dashami procession with grandeur. Raj Wodeyar, the king of Mysore, started the Dasara celebrations from 1610 onwards. But it was during the reign of Kanthirava Narasaraj Wodeyar (1638–1659) that the Dasara festival became an important celebration in Mysore state.
Court poet Govinda Vaidya, in his work Kanthirava Narasaraj Vijayam, has described the grand celebrations. The Vijaya Dashami procession and other related rituals of the palace till the finale were systematised in this time. For instance, Vajra Mushti Kalaga was started during this period. The king’s procession would be on a horse; he would greet the public and also receive gifts from his subordinates. The Dasara procession also represented the state’s mighty power—army, horses, elephants, soldiers, etc. Literature of the time has beautiful documentation and narration of Dasara and palace rituals over the nine days.
Visual narrations of the Dasara procession started only during the time of Krishnaraja Wodeyar III (r. 1800–1868 CE). His period witnessed many political and socio-cultural changes as well. He became king after the defeat of Tipu Sultan and the princely throne was shifted from Srirangapatna to Mysore. From 1800, Dasara has been celebrated in a multifaceted way. Since Mysore came under colonial control, certain practices were newly introduced, such as British Durbar, a special function for colonial officers. Many additions were also seen such as a British band, soldiers dressed as the British carrying guns, palace music band along with chariots, palanquins and an elephant carrying a howdah with the king in it.
Krishnaraja Wodeyar IV is considered the builder of Modern Mysore and also eulogised as a seer of politics. Dasara became a state festival in his regime. He also started exhibitions of the industrial, agricultural and artistic productions as a mark of his state’s progress. The king, his brother and nephew used to sit in the howdah. The kings’ army, palace band, British band, traditional musicians, his office-bearers and selected citizens of Mysore all accompanied the procession.
The grandness of royalty has now been replaced by a people’s Dasara and procession. Instead of a royal persona, the howdah carries the idol of Goddess Chamundeshwari. The state’s achievements and progress are depicted as tableaus.
Ack: R H Kulkarni, Professor, Dept of Art History, College of Fine Arts, Karnataka Chitrakala Parishath in The New Indian Express.