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home  > article index > dussehra 2002 article

Dussehra Festival
Oct 2002

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Dussehra is one of India's most popular annual festivals, celebrated all over the country for several days. Its origins stem from one of the big Hindu epics, the Ramayana. King Rama heads out with his army and friends to rescue his wife Sita from the demon king of Lanka, (modern day Sri Lanka) Ravana. After a fierce battle Ravana is beheaded and Sita freed. In most places in India the main event of Dussehra is the burning of a huge wood and paper edifice of Ravana. Not so in the Kulu Valley.

Valley of the Gods

God idol and band  
God idol and band

In fact this region is famous all over India for it's special Dussehra celebration, which for most visitors is a brilliant demonstration why this neck of the woods is called "Valley of the Gods". Gods from surrounding villages and valleys have their big week out here. To get there they are carried on palanquins by villagers with their colourful Kullu caps, accompanied by their respective bands with drums, flutes, cymbals and nirkalis (big metal horns or trumpets, which sound like they’d come straight out of an Indiana Jones movie). The raths (palanquins) of the god idols are quite heavy, the centre of gravity is strategically placed so high up that they wobble precariously from side to side. To make life for the human carriers as difficult as possible, they're carried by unpadded wooden or metal poles lying on the villagers’ shoulders. In spite of all this, the carriers don't get tired, so we were told, because it's really the gods or goddesses power that propels the rath forward.

The Gods' and Goddesses' arrival

  In the Raja's court yard
  In the Raja's court yard

Tuesday was the big day when all the gods (some said over a hundred, other sources quoted 365 different gods) arrived in Kullu. One after the other they trundled their way up the small alleys of Sultanapur, an old part of Kullu, to the Ragunath temple and the Raja's Rupi Palace to pay their respect. Ragunath (a manifestation of Rama) is really the big boss of the gods here. Hadimba goddess (a manifestation of Durga) from Manali, who had played a special role in the creation of the Raja's kingdom, spent a pleasant afternoon in the Palace, while the Raja's courtyard was busy with the comings and goings of other gods. It was quite fascinating to see some of these going mental because they didn't like being photographed (fascinating as long as you were not in the front line, otherwise scary and expensive; apparently quite a few cameras were smashed to pieces).

Ragunath's rath  
Ragunath's rath

After having drunk the compulsory hundred cups of chai (Woody's influence) we found a brilliant spot to take some pictures of the main event to come. Never mind that we had to stand at the same spot for about two hours and couldn't see a thing of the ceremony, in which the king comes riding on his special horse, which is kept for the sole purpose of Dussehra. The god Ragunath was placed on his special giant wooden rath or chariot (looking a bit like a garden shed on wheels). Above hundreds (no, it must have been thousands) of heads and shoulders we saw occasionally a few god idols popping up (apparently they went berserk again and destroyed a fair bit of pricey camera kit). Our originally quite spacious standing space on a low wall had become cramped by now. Elbows, feet, cameras, bums etc., we used anything to defend every inch of freedom of movement, since Indians have this uncanny ability to squeeze past you and push you to the back without you even ever noticing till it's too late!

Chaos and madness

Suddenly some shouting, some people running, a wild god behind them, dangerously wobbling from side to side. But that was nothing, just a warm-up exercise. Shortly afterwards hundreds of people started pulling the ropes attached to the rath of Ragunath; gods went mad, people went wild, a giant human mass went berserk, everything became a mad crazy mess. The decorated rath moved forward, gods shook from side to side, ran in circles, chased people. A huge cloud of dust rose above this massive wave of human bodies and gods, which moved relentlessly forward like a steamroller not to be stopped in its momentum. A truly impressive sight!

The Kullu Dussehra bazaar

  On the market
  On the market

Later in the day Ragunath sat in his cosy temporary tent-temple on the mela (fair) ground, the other gods rested in their tents, in which they were going to stay for the next week (apart from the occasional walkabout). We had a look around the other big distinguishing feature of the Kullu Dussehra, the huge temporary bazaar on the mela ground. A large number of market stalls (clothes, plastic stuff, Kullu shawls, cooking utensils and lots of other stuff - plus maybe a few useful products), hundreds of food stalls which sold (sensibly?) largely the same food, Ferris wheels, carrousels, a few circuses, a variety show (a synonym for a dancing show with by Indian standards underdressed women, very popular with the sex starved male Indian population), several exhibitions - including one of locally grown apples, and of course of a few multi-nationals with their selfless aspiration to expand in the Indian market.

Jalebis and other sweets  
Jalebis and other sweets and snacks

The festival was going on for another week, during which we took advantage of the various commercial opportunities (i.e. buying lots of jumpers for the coming winter, plus stuffing ourselves with popular Indian sweets). The bazaar was incredibly busy, market criers shouting on the top of their lungs, praising their wares. Due to the enormous numbers of visitors it was dusty - dust everywhere: in the food, in your drinks, in the cameras, in your nose, ears, mouth etc... Hmmm, we like the sweet and sticky Jalebis full with dust and flies!

Kirsten Oct 2002  
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neoncarrot is an online personal travelogue of our travel experiences, life in India, backpacking life and chai drinking in the Kulu Valley (also known as the Valley of the Gods) in the Indian Himalaya. The site contains travelling tips and hints, articles and essays, photo galleries, an online journal / weblog and some vital Indian statistics.
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