REVIVING THE BYGONE GLORIES OF KULLU DUSSEHRA
THE ROYAL INTRIGUE & A BRAHMIN’S CURSE
Once upon a time, the then Raja of Kullu erroneously convicted a holy man of royal intrigue. His misjudgement cost the innocent victim his life through self-immolation, and until his very last breath, the burning man cursed the Raja for his haughtiness. In lieu of insulting him, the puritan vindictively prophesied the entire royal dynasty to be doomed. And sure enough, Karma caught up with the Raja’s misdeeds. All vitality drained out of his body, and his skin began to fester at an alarming rate.
Petrified by his downfall, the Raja urgently solicited the royal priest for divine intervention. Indeed, he had committed blasphemy by wrongly accusing an innocent and virtuous man of theft. His posthumous forgiveness could only be sought by by personally invoking Lord Rama in his birthplace. Without a moment’s delay, the Raja sent his man to clandestinely abduct the Lord from Ayodhya, such that he could be reinstated as the Raja’s guardian in Kullu. The daring loyalist was successful in lifting the deity off its consecrated sanctorium, but just as he was wading through the Sarayu’s waters, a few localities nabbed him. Outraged by the sacrilegious extent of his theft, the people of Ayodhya were close to executing him when he uttered the circumstances that landed him into this grim situation.
Once they were fully apprised of the Raja’s mishaps, Lord Rama’s devotees were filled with empathy and remorse. However, much as they intended to help reverse the royal curse, they couldn’t justify the parting of Lord Rama from his birthplace. They regretfully assembled to take their Lord back to his holy chambers, but what happened next left everyone agape in astonishment. Even though there were many of them, the people of Ayodhya were unable to lift their Lord’s deity in his homeward direction. On the other hand, the Raja’s man didn’t encounter the slightest hitch in carrying him singlehandedly towards the Himalayas.
Perhaps Lord Rama himself was implying divine judgement, reading into which, Ayodhya’s priests ended the stalemate by granting the Raja’s man their Lord’s deity in miniature form. However, they had two conditions on doing so. First, that the deity be placed upon the throne of Kullu, and the Raja’s dynasty serve their people under the Lord in all humility; and second, that his lineage must never forget the generosity granted upon them by the people of Ayodhya. As his token of gratitude, the Raja was to invoke Ayodhya’s priests to conduct the Dussehra rites in Kullu every year. Should the King’s dynasty breach either of these two conditions, it could be certain of eternal peril.
No sooner had his man returned with the miniature deity (in what is now dated back to 1651 C.E.) than the Raja followed the priests’ commandments. Under the Lord’s miraculous tutelage, he regained his vitality and spent every remaining day of his life in gratitude.
THE KULLU DUSSEHRA
Centuries later, the house of Kullu continues to devoutly adhere to its ancestor’s divine commitments. Each year, the family hands out personal invitations to every temple in the Kullu Valley on behalf of Lord Rama, or Lord Raghunath as he is affectionately known, to join them in celebrating the auspicious festivities of Dussehra. True to tradition, Ayodhya’s designated priests remain the master of ceremonies in a ten day-long festival that assembles over three hundred deities from all over the region. Unlike the rest of India that celebrates over the nine days that precede Dussehra as Navratris or Durga Puja, Kullu’s Dussehra begins on Vijayadashami, or the tenth day of the waxing moon.
On Dussehra, which marks the first of the ten days, divine entourages from various abodes arrive at Lord Raghunath’s door. The advent of these finely draped deities on be-flowered palanquins is exalted with beating drums and trumpets. Kullu’s incumbent Raja welcomes them on behalf of the Lord, felicitating the deities before they are carried into the town’s Dhalpur grounds. All the deities and their accompanying devotees camp at this site for the next ten days such that the visiting pilgrims are able to immerse in veneration to their heart’s content. An elaborate fair is held for these ten days as well, with vendors of fast food & souvenirs flogging the streets. When the day begins to draw to a close, Himachali Nati performances take over and go on until the wee hours. In fact, the Kullu Dussehra gained special prominence in 2015, wherein over 13,000 women participated in a Nati procession in a joint campaign for women’s empowermentF that made its way into the Guinness and Limca Book of World Records.
Anyone and everyone who has witnessed this grand affair is likely to remember it for a lifetime. With the sheer quantum of festive participation, a supernaturally high vibration saturates the air and causes the kundalini or spiritual energy to rise exponentially. In fact, several mystics enter a trance-like state, some swooning, some jumping as if they were on an invisible trampoline. As a bystander, I experienced goosebumps as chills ran down my spine. Such was the magnanimity of a festival that brought together people from all walks of life to share an energy this powerful and positive.
A PLACE WHERE THE RAMAYANA & MAHABHARATA CONVERGE
Interestingly, the Kullu Dussehra is perhaps the only one that subtly sidesteps the mainstream incineration of Ravana. On the contrary, the festival here culminates into a Rath Yatra presided by Lord Raghunatha and Hadimba Devi. The sight of them leading a three hundred deities-long divine procession makes for an unmissable sight. Now, one might wonder how deities belonging to two separate epics come together. After all, the Ramayana dates back to the Treta Yuga and Mahabharata to Dwapara. Lord Vishnu descended upon the Earth as its supreme preserver as Lord Rama in the former, and Lord Krishna in the latter. How then, could Lord Rama and Hadimba Devi be interrelated?
The present ceremonial head of Kullu, Raja Maheshwar Singhji and his older son, Tikka Sahib Danvendra Singhji explain this anomaly through a fascinating mythological anecdote. “Long after the royal curse had been reversed and life restored to normalcy, one of the Raja’s descendants was on his way to partake in his kingdom’s Dussehra celebrations when he crossed the stooped figure of a frail old lady. “Where might you be headed, grandma?”, he coaxed. His tender words struck the old lady’s ears like honey. She staggered and replied, “To the fair”. “I’m on my way there too! Come, oh dear grandma, let your son carry you across. Your feet must be tired.” The dame paused and glanced back at the young Raja, overwhelmed. “Why, son, am I not your grandma? In case of which, it would make this old lady very happy to take her son to Lord Raghunatha’s abode. Come, hop onto my back”. Her proposition left the Raja aghast. How could her frail build and stooped back sustain his muscular frame? His reasonable denial to oblige her only held up thus far, for the old lady continued to insist. Finally, he gave in and mounted on her back as a young child would, only to find that the supposed crone was actually a supernatural being. Seconds after she had levitated and flown him down to the Dussehra celebrations, the Raja realised that she could be none other than Goddess Hadimba herself.
The Mahabharata narrates this forest-dwelling rakshasi being won over by Bheem in a wrestling match after landing an unprecedented defeat over her brother. Smitten, the newly betrothed Hadimba Devi vied to accompany her husband and his Pandava brothers on their exile, until Lord Krishna intervened. “Should you follow your husband’s steps into exile, you will be considered as virtuous and dutiful wife. However, should you sacrifice your companionship with him in order to hold fort here, you will be venerated no less than a Goddess. Stay here, protect your people and raise your newborn son while his father pursues his destiny, for this is where your dharma lies”. Hadimba Devi reluctantly bade farewell to Bheem and rendered her everlasting protection to the people of Manali. Over the years, her son grew up to be amongst Mahabharata’s bravest warriors. He was none other than Ghatotkach. Even after losing her son to his dharma on the battlefield, Hadimba Devi timelessly lived on, only to be revealed one day to the Raja of Kullu. Perhaps, this too was one of Lord Vishnu’s many divine judgements?
The astounded Raja immediately begged for Hadimba Devi’s mercy. His mortal being was unable to recognise the immortal at first, but now that he had discerned the region’s presiding Goddess, the only rightful place that he could accord her would be next to his own Lord Raghunatha. Thus, ever since that day, Goddess Hadimba was incorporated into Kullu’s Dussehra traditions as an integral part. She would lead Kullu’s divine entourage right up till Lord Raghunatha’s doorstep after which, the Raja would invoke her into his humble abode. Till date, the house of Kullu preserves the tradition of asking her “where might you be headed, grandma” identically as their ancestor had. Once they have extended their deepest hospitality to Hadimba Devi, she accompanies Lord Raghunatha into Dhalpur’s grounds. So crucial is her role in the celebrations that until and unless her palanquin graces Lord Raghunatha’s dwelling, Kullu’s Dussehra cannot commence. The mounting anticipation that preludes her long-awaited entry into Kullu’s temple premises reverberates in a beat of its own.
It is only at Kullu that one has the honour of witnessing the annual dissolution of the Treta and Dwapara yugs as Hadimba Devi heralds Lord Raghunatha’s rath yatra as his compeer. This still remains a novel scenario for the rest of the country, which associates Dussehra celebrations solely with Lord Rama vanquishing the effigies of Ravana, Kumbhakaran and Meghnad. After all, Dussehra was the day of Ramayana’s first climax, when Lord Rama’s divine virtues placed a final defeat over Ravana and his ten vices. Each of the heads belonging to Ramayana’s anti-hero symbolise the ten vices that Dussehra calls for our virtues to overcome. They comprise of ego, anger, pride, jealousy, lust, selfishness, injustice, cruelty, attraction & greed. Lord Rama is flanked by his wife, Goddess Sita and one of his younger brothers, Lord Lakshmana, who we know as his most loyal and unwavering companions throughout their exile. Lord Hanuman and his Vanara Sena (army of monkeys) follow suit and richly animate India’s myriad Ram Leelas, but not in the least at Kullu.
The blatant absence of these burning effigies, as well as the fact that Goddess Sita, Lord Lakshmana and Lord Hanuman’s army don’t even feature alongside Lord Rama are thoroughly baffling for viewers who are yet to be acquainted with Kullu’s Dussehra legends. Add to that the image of Bheema’s wife, Hadimba Devi serving as Lord Rama’s prime consort through the Dussehra procession. What the non-Himachali spectator would perceive as apparent peculiarities are actually symbolisms that carry deeper meanings.
UNIQUE SYMBOLISMS AT THE KULLU DUSSEHRA
INTERNAL TRIUMPHS OVER EXTERNAL
It would be a misassumption on everyone’s part if we held the total absence of Ravana’s incineration at Kullu’s Dussehra celebrations. Having had obtained the supreme blessings and guardianship of Ayodhya’s Lord Rama, Kullu takes equal pride in his victory over Ravana as the rest of us do. However, Kullu’s Dussehra explicitly focuses on the implicit. Thus, a pile of wood is set into flames as Ravana’s Lanka by devotees on the last day of the fair. The people of Devbhumi place greater faith in vanquishing their internal vices instead, for the lack of Self introspection renders all external triumphs meaningless and hollow. On the other hand, if each one of us truly dedicated towards self-improvement with a complete and wilful dissolution of the ego, the importance of external combat plunges deep into redundancy.
Each year, the advent of Dussehra brings with it a fresh start in several aspects, such as seeking the forgiveness of those whom one might have wronged intentionally or unintentionally. In many other parts of India, particularly the West, this intent is carried forth through a ceremony of Rama-Shama, wherein the entire townsfolk exchanges apologies and forgiveness to dissolve any quarrels or disputes that might have spun between them since the previous Dussehra. Similarly, Kullu’s divine entourage camps at Dhalpur for ten painstaking days especially so that their devotees have an ample amount of time to visit them and atone their sins. The correspondence of this duration with the ten sins that Dussehra revolves around to vanquish seems deliberately planned.
DIVINE UNITY OVER DUALISM
Kullu’s divine entourage, the frenzied drums and festive elation pierce the air every Dussehra to serve a reminder to one and all even though each one of us embodies a dualism of good versus evil, all hope and possibilities rely on which side we choose to strengthen-virtue or vice. In Lord Raghunatha’s eyes, there is vice in virtue and virtue in vice, and the prevalence of his divinity over standard dualisms permanently liberates our innate humanity, compassion and morality towards the promise of a better tomorrow. Similarly, the Lord doesn’t know how to discriminate between what mortals classify as amoral and moral and thus, Kullu’s Dussehra celebrations remain open to one and all, irrespective of their identities.
A prominent example to highlight the component of divine unity here is the famous ratha yatra of Lord Raghunatha. His ratha or chariot remains the largest and most iconic one at Dhalpur for more reasons than one. Apart from its magnificent appearance, a unique feature of Lord Raghunatha’s ratha is that it requires the joint participation of people from diverse castes to operate. Just as a locomotive is likely to go astray in the absence of its minutest screw, no person is too small to make a contribution towards his/her society. In fact, each one of us possesses strengths and virtues that we impart towards the larger functioning of this world. Lord Raghunatha’s chariot serves these ideals in annual practice.
To elaborate, a set of head priests dominate he ratha at its helm, while the King and his kins follow suit as the Lord’s servants. A group of carpenters and blacksmiths support the ratha without whom it is impossible to manoeuvre the juggernaut. Thus, the three Varnas, namely, the Brahmins, Kshatriyas and Vaishyas are seated structurally around Lord Raghunatha’s ratha, but that by no means has any bearing on their social stratification. Instead, they represent the separate components of a united mechanism which functions on the basis of their coordinated inputs. Given that Himachal Pradesh was no exception to the rampant caste system that plagues Hinduism across India, this age-old custom of co-inhabiting a vehicular space could be considered to be very progressive if not revolutionary in more feudal times.
THE COMPLEXITY OF CASTEISM
It is but natural for the reader to wonder where the Dalits factored in the ratha’s caste conglomerate. The local tanning community was solicited on the subsequent day of the animal slaughters, such that they could join the communal feast and also utilise the large amounts of hide that got cast away. Their involvement in present day is questionable, especially since an official ban was imposed upon cattle slaughter by the Himachal Pradesh High Court in 2014.
It is apparent by now that caste barriers are far from being annihilated in ritualisms of such rigid stature. However, a temporary dissolution of socio-cultural barriers can be observed by the visiting populace that blends into one another in their joint veneration of Lord Rama. Whether or not the caste componential in Lord Raghunatha’s ratha is merely symbolic remains open to individual interpretations. It would be safe to conclude that sociocultural consequences are seldom uniform, and that every subsequent generation mediates these symbolisms with the greater benefit of exposure and liberalism.
I conclude in a similarly positive spirit. Having had the privilege of a relatively liberal upbringing, my utopian self derives immense inspiration and hope from the Kullu Dussehra’s inward approach as against superficial moralisation. The ideas of starting afresh each year of taking on our demons once again; of being more empathetic towards others’ shortcomings after moderating over our own; and of all of humanity celebrating the hope that unites our pursuits is worth capitalising upon. And what better a venue to do so than at India’s most unique and fascinating celebration of good over evil, love versus hate, and most importantly, of life itself.
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