Mysore Dasara – A Living Tradition

mysore dasara palace, illuminated, building
Photo by ermaltahiri on Pixabay

In October, a grand festival in Mysore (Karnataka) and Bengal will center around the Divine Mother Durga. What exactly happens in Mysore? Swami Atmajnanandaji has studied the Mysore Dasara festival from various angles and has presented a comprehensive picture of the great event in this article. Atmajnanandaji is in Mysore, assisting in publishing the Kannada monthly Viveka Prabha.

The Dasara festival, also called Navaratri or Dasahara of Dusserah, is perhaps India’s most widely celebrated festival. The Navaratri of Karnataka and the Durga Puja of Bengal have been attracting people from all over the globe.

Mysore Dassara Dussehra

The Two traditions – Durga Puja and Mysore Dasara

The Durga Puja of Bengal marks the return of Himavan’s daughter to her parent’s house. Menaka and Himavan’s daughter Uma and her children visit her mother’s house during the autumn season. Bengali poetry and emotional prose are replete with stories of her hardships in her ascetic husband Siva’s house. So her annual visits are awaited with eagerness.

By whom?

By the masses because devotees consider that it’s their daughter who comes to their house. So a grand festival of worship and devotion, prayer and celebration is arranged, which goes on for five days. Devotees give Uma a warm welcome and worship her from shasthi to dasami, and on dasami she is bidden farewell with tears. Uma returns to the Himalayas, ‘punragamanaya ca,’ with the promise to return again.

Durga Puja is an occasion for a grand display of all the rich cultural talents, be it in making images or erecting decorative pandals. The art of Bengal seeps through every little act of the people during these festivities.

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. Studies have shown that the worship of Mother Durga actually had its origins in Karnataka, though opinions differ. Navaratri is celebrated for nine days; earlier, worship was done at night, as the name nava-ratri or ‘nine nights’ implies. Over the years, however, most of the rites have got transferred to the morning. These nine days are the first nine days of the bright fortnight of the month of Asvina.

Asvine suklapakse tu
Kartavyam navaratrikam;
Pratipadadi kramenaiva
Yavaddhinavami bhavet.
-Navaratra Pradipika

‘The Navaratri festival has to be celebrated during the bright fortnight of the month of Asvina, in the order of pratipada, etc., until the Navami ends,’ says the Dhaumya-vacana.

Dasaharara, meaning ‘ten days’, becomes dasara in popular parlance. The Navaratri festival, or ‘nine-day festival’ becomes a ‘ten days festival’ with the addition of the last day, Vijayadasami, which is its culmination. Mother Mahisasura Mardini is worshipped with fervor and devotion on all these ten days.

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The Tradition of Mother Worship

The worship of the Divine as the female is found in the Rig Veda itself. Sarasvati, Ambhrani, Raka, Durga, Sri, Medha, etc., are all names attributed to the various aspects of the same ultimate principle. Before embarking upon his battle against Ravana, Sri Rama propitiates Mother Durga. The Puranas are replete with descriptions of the Mother and her conquest of the demon Mahisa.

Images of Mahisasura-Mardini, dating back to the 7th century and belonging to the Gupta Period, have been found in Badami (Karnataka) and Mahabalipuram (Tamil Nadu). The Durga image is also found in temples in Indonesia etc. Rich festival accounts have been recorded in the travelogues of Al Baruni, who visited India during the 11th century. Based on all these records, scholars opined that the Navaratri festival has been prevalent for more than 2,500 years.

The erstwhile Vijayanagara kings, keen on protecting the Hindu religion and culture from destruction by Muslim invaders, emphasized the restoration of temples and religious festivals from 1336 to 1565 AD. This was a golden period in the religious history of southern India. Literature, art, music, architecture, and the Vijayanagara kings. On the religious firmament, saints like Purandaradasa, Kanakadasa, Sarvajna, and others gave a fillip to the bhakti movement.q? encoding=UTF8&ASIN=B08QRDYH5G&Format= SL250 &ID=AsinImage&MarketPlace=IN&ServiceVersion=20070822&WS=1&tag=vishalbhat 21&language=en INir?t=vishalbhat 21&language=en IN&l=li3&o=31&a=B08QRDYH5G

The Navaratri festival started receiving royal patronage from this period onwards and became a state festival. It was celebrated with great pomp, enthusiasm, and fervor, attracting visitors from many parts of the country and abroad. Political, administrative, religious, and social significance, with the appreciation of the laity added to its grandeur.

The Tradition and History of  Mysore Dasara

The Mysore kings, Wadiyars, were subordinates of the Vijayanagara emperors. They declared independence at the empire’s decline in 1610 AD and tried to retain the latter’s goodwill by continuing the traditions they started. Raja Wadiyar, the founder of the Mysore kingdom, started the Navaratri festivities to celebrate his new – found freedom and issued an order that the days be observed with piety and splendor by one and all.

Initially, as the rulers had their stronghold in Srirangapatn, now a satellite town of Mysore city, the festival continued undisturbed even during the annexation of Mysore (then state) by Hyder Ali and followed by Tippu Sultan’s rule between 1761 and 1799.

When Mysore State was restored to Mummadi (lit. ‘ third’) Krishnaraja Wadiyar in 1799, the capital was shifted to Mysore city from Srirangapatna, and the Navaratri festivities began to be performed with more incredible magnificence in the new capital with the introduction of a special durbar (‘audience’ or ‘royal assembly’) for the Europeans, and direct participation by the common masses.

The attendance of the Europeans indicates the friendly ties that the king had with the colonial rulers, apart from the spreading of the event’s popularity in Western media. The festival became a tradition of the royal household and reached its zenith during the rule of Nalvadi (lit. ‘the fourth’) Krishnaraja Wadiyar (1902-1940 AD).

The wooden royal palace of Mysore City was famous for its intricate carvings and embellishments of gold and precious stones. During his itinerant days, Swami Vivekananda was a royal guest and had several sessions with the king in this palace. Unfortunately, the palace was destroyed in a fire accident in 1897, and a new palace was built in its place by 1912, surpassing the glory of the previous one with the introduction of electrification and European expertise.q? encoding=UTF8&ASIN=8170173310&Format= SL250 &ID=AsinImage&MarketPlace=IN&ServiceVersion=20070822&WS=1&tag=vishalbhat 21&language=en IN

The royal durbar, the procession of caparisoned elephants with the king seated in a golden howdah (throne with a canopy) followed by his ministers, administrators, the royal staff, and the military, came to an end with the taking over of all the kingdoms by the Indian Union in 1947.

The last crowned king, Sri Jaya Chamarajendra Wadiyar, tried to revive the tradition in his personal capacity after a few years, but the old charm was missing. With the annexation of states from kings by the national government and upon the demise of Jaya Chamarajendra Wadiyar in 1974, the tradition again suffered a setback, and Mysore almost lost its unique festival until the Government of Karnataka decided to celebrate it as a state fiesta minus the royal entourage.

Today, on the occasion of the world-famous Jambu Savari or Mysore Dasara procession on the Dasami day, apart from NCC, Scouts, and other school and college student displays, tableaus depicting the land’s culture and history, fold-art performances, etc., and volunteer groups follow the caparisoned elephants, one of which (Drona has been doing it since many years) carries the image of Goddess Bhuvanesvari Devi. Bhuvanesvari (a name of Mahisasura-Mardini), incidentally, is the goddess of Mysore, and she is none than Durga.

She has a temple situated on the hill in Mysore – Chamundi Hill. There is also the mythological legend saying that it was on this hill that Mother Chamunda killed the demon Mahisa. In a Bengali article published several years ago in Desh, a famous researcher who conducted thorough research on where exactly Durga worship started says that Mysore is perhaps one of the oldest places of Mother worship.

And the reason? It was here that the Mother killed the demon. Apart from the procession, a carnival providing the latest gadgets and amenities to the general public with attractive displays and amusements for all age groups is also being held since 1877. Celebrated musicians, dance, and theatre groups perform and add color to the celebrations.

What kings did during Mysore Dasara

What exactly would take place in Mysore during the time of the kings on Navaratri is interesting. We should remember one crucial point. The kings of Mysore would begin their war expedition against enemies and also attempt to expand their boundaries on Vijayadasami day. More about this later. So, Vijayadasami, the tenth day of Navaratri, is remarkable for Mysore kings. What they would do during Navaratri is detailed here.

The Divine Mother Durga would be worshipped on all these nine days of Navaratri as ‘Sailputri, Brahmacarini, Candraghanta, Kusmanda, Skandamata, Katyayani, Kalaratri, Mahagauri, and Siddhida.’

On the first day, the king, after having a ceremonial bath, would perform purificatory rites. He would then worship his family deity, Goddess Chamunda, in the palace along with the worship of Lord Ganesa and would wear the ceremonial, sacred wristband, which signified his intention to perform the sacred puja with devotion and dedication.
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He would then enter the durbar to the accompaniment of sacred chants and music. The tradition of the durbar, an adoption from the Mughal emperors, was first introduced by Mummadi Krishnaraja Wadiyar in September 1805, and it is an assembly of the royal court, attended by the invitees, chief citizens, members of the royal family, palace officials, royal priests, and the intelligentsia.

After this, the king would worship the Navagrahas, the nine sacred deities, and then the sacred Kalasa. He would also worship the throne as per the Kalika Purana injunctions. He would then circumambulate the throne thrice and ascend it at an auspicious moment. Later royal insignia and a sword were presented to him amid prayers to Karya-sri Gauri. At that moment, all the lights in the palace would come alive, and there would be the royal 21-gun salute.

After this, the king would sit on the throne and receive royal guests. Soon after this, the royal elephant and horse would receive ablutions and worship. The court would present the king with offerings from various temples and religious centers (matths). This was followed by Vedic chants, a sprinkling of holy waters, and blessings by the royal priests.

The vassal kings, dewans, army chiefs, and other royal staff would come and offer their respects to the throne in earlier times. Musical instruments would start an ensemble accompanied by a dance performance, the blowing of conches and trumpets, and the parade of uniformed soldiers and other staff.

The beautifully decorated royal elephant arrived, showering roses on the assembled guests, and the equally well-decorated royal horse bent down on its knees in salutation to the throne. The assembly would leave the court after bowing down to the king again, and the queen, accompanied by the other royal ladies, would come to pay obeisance to the king, who would share the offerings from the temples with them.

The Queen mother and the other senior ladies would bless him with good health. After praying to the Goddess again, the king would leave the durbar hall and partake of the noon meal with the royal guests.

The same procedure would be followed on all the Navaratri evenings with the addition of acrobatic feats, wrestling bouts by champions, fireworks displays, and other entertainment watched by the teeming masses every day. While the durbar would be held in the outer court, the worship would be done within the palace. The king would worship Goddess Sarasvati on the seventh day and Mahisasuramardini on the eighth.

On the Mahanavami day, the royal sword would be worshipped ceremoniously, signifying the worship of all the weapons, and would be taken out in procession accompanied by the army, elephants, horses, camels, and the royal retinue.

The king would receive the sword at the palace gates and keep it at the feet of the Divine Mother. The king would then worship a local deity – an aspect of the Divine Mother – named Amaladevi Amma. Special worship, Chandi worship, and fire sacrifice (home) with purnahuti would all be performed with great devotion at the Chamundi Hills temple. The assembly rooms of the palace and the royal insignia would also be worshipped. After performing all these ceremonies, the king would remove the sacred wristband, signifying the close of the rituals.

On Chamundi Hill, the Divine Mother would be served in many ways on all these days. She would be taken out of the temple, for instance, and, using beautifully lighted floats, would be taken for boat rides in the lake adjacent to the temple. Thousands of devotees would come from everywhere to see these ceremonies.

The Navaratri celebrations would culminate with the grandest Vijayadasami celebrations, also called in popular parlance Jambu Savari. The grandeur and magnificence of this event have popularized the Navaratri celebrations of Mysore both in India and abroad. On this day, after ablutions, the king would worship the royal sword again, place it in a palanquin, and offer an ash gourd smeared with vermilion as a sacrifice.

He would follow the grand procession, seated on the historically famous golden howdah bedecked with the rarest gems and pearls carried by the royal elephant. The royal throne on which the king used to sit is made of gold and is said to have been used by Dharmaraja, the illustrious Pandava king. It was rediscovered by the great sage Vidyaranya during the establishment of the Vijayanagara Empire and was subsequently presented to the Mysore kings. A legend also says that this very throne is the Vikramaditya throne.

The beginning of the traditional Vijayadasami procession, which is continued even today with the same – if not more – fervor and devotion, would be announced with a 21-round gun salute. The important streets of Mysore city would be decorated beautifully with electric bulbs. As they do today, millions of people from everywhere would also stand on both sides of the route to witness the grand procession.

After a mile–long walk, the procession would reach the Bannimantap site, where the king, after a bath, would worship the sami (orbanni in Kannada) tree. This sami tree is supposed to have been used by the Pandavas to hide their arms during their one–year period of forced incognito life. Arjuna is said to have retrieved his bow Gandiva from this tree to help Uttara Kumara defeat the marauding Kaurava army.

Worshipping this tree before embarking on any war adventure was customary for kings of this dynasty. The Wadiyar king would return to his palace after viewing the wonderful torchlight parade and the grand fireworks display at Bannimantap. That would conclude the Vijayadasami festivities.

The next day, after the Goddess Camundesvari was worshipped with great devotion, the king would honor distinguished personalities by conferring titles on them. That would mark the close of the grand ten–day–long celebrations during the days of the kings.

What the Old Tradition Signifies

To the keen observer, it becomes evident that this festival was a local ritual earlier, wherein people worshipped their weapons and Mother Nature, seeking victory and prosperity. This was assimilated by the followers of the Vedic religion, who gave it a broad framework. The festival began to be observed with religious fervor and austerity and in accordance with the various scriptural injunctions.

Yet it is simultaneously a festival of the warriors, propitiating the Divine to gain victory. We find a harmonious blend of the rural and the urban, of chivalry and devotion in this unique festival, and so it is popular amongst all the sections of society irrespective of caste, creed, or social status.

The Modern Navaratri Festival

What was being done during the Wadiyar king has been revived by the Government of Karnataka once again, to the joy of one and all. Nowadays, instead of the king’s sitting on the howdah, it is Mother Durga, Camunda, who sits in the golden howdah fixed to the back of the royal elephant. The main roads of the city are all decorated as usual. The Chamundi Hill, too, is decorated with lights.

The Divine Mother is brought down from the Hill. To worship the city’s deity in this manner, by making her the center of attention during the ten–day–long festival, is a worthwhile effort as this will lead to the supreme good of the whole population. This festival, irrespective of caste, creed, or social status, has become a festival of the state, and it is perhaps an unprecedented and isolated gesture for a government to celebrate the worship of the Divine Mother officially. Hope and pray this will continue for the well–being of one and all.

Sans the kingly touch, the present–day Navaratri festival is marked by daily musical performances by world–renowned musicians at the palace, the setting up of the usual exhibition which attracts millions, and the Vijayadasami parade, which, as we said above, is centered around the Divine Mother.

The entire Vijayadasami procession is colorful, with numerous tableaus, dances, march past, cultural presentation shows of martial expertise, etc. The entire procession is televised with a beautiful commentary that precisely narrates the state’s glory.

The Navaratri festival of Mysore has gained importance as a beacon of cultural diversity and Karnataka. By patronizing the event, the government has succeeded in projecting the rich heritage of the land, thereby boosting tourism and folk arts. Time has not reduced the value of such socio–cultural events, and man, in his pursuit of easy money and temporal desire, cannot relegate spiritual ideals to a secondary position. Especially the natural calamities everywhere only go to show the importance of religious and spiritual traditions.

Mass worship of the deity of any particular region is so vital. The social fabric must be strengthened from within by inculcating such values, and festivals like Navaratri have accomplished this very judiciously.

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