A popular Himachali legend has it, that during his pilgrimage to Malana, Maharishi Jamdagni met with a fierce storm. The strong gushes of wind tossed over the basket of sacred idols that the sage was carrying with him, tossing over the deities in several distant places. The local hill-residents, upon finding these idols began to worship them. This is how deity worship is believed to have started in the Kullu valley.
Many centuries later, another incident occurred. During Raja Jagat Singh’s reign over Kullu in the sixteenth century, the Ruler came to know of a peasant called Durgadatta who was professed to possess a beautiful collection of pearls. Even though these pearls were metaphors for pearls of wisdom, the materialistic King insisted on getting those pearls, even at the cost of Durgadatta’s life. A resilient Durgadatta incarcerated himself into the fire and cursed the King to have a fortune whereby he would subsist on worms and blood instead of rice and water.
The cursed King sought after a Brahmin for help in order to free himself of this curse. The holyman divinely ordained the King to seek penance by retrieving the deity of Lord Raghunath from his birthplace in Ayodhya and thereby establish him on the royal throne in Kullu. The frantic King pursued the completion of this task by sending a priest to Ayodhya, who successfully executed his mission. Upon finding their beloved Raghunath vanished, the people of Ayodhya ventured out to look for him. The found the Brahmin with their Lord on the banks of the Sarayu river. After exchanging the story of Raja Jagat Singh’s curse with the Ayodhya folk, the Brahmin found them in an attempt to take Lord Raghunath back to where he belonged. However, they found their deity unusually heavy and difficult to life. At the same time, this very deity would appear very light if taken in Kullu’s direction. Finally, the Brahmin successfully carried Lord Raghunath’s deity all the way to Kullu and placed him on the royal throne. Raja Jagat Singh’s curse was successfully lifted after he drank the charan amrit of the sacred deity. After this incident, the Raja of Kullu was appointed as the regent of Lord Raghunath.
This divine connection between the Raja and Lord Raghunath is annually commemorated in India’s largest Dussehra mela/fair at Kullu. Every year, starting from the day of Vijayadashami until the next ten days, the town’s Dhalpur grounds are adorned with the Valley’s numerous deities who arrive on palanquins being carried by the temple priests and musical troops. These priestly entourages travel all the way from their respective temples by foot and reside within the festival premises throughout the fair. In similar context, the family members from the house of Kullu too accompany Lord Raghunath and lead the festive procession on the first and last day of the mela.
During the procession, the Dhalpur ground is swarmed by thousands of people waiting to witness their deities on procession while praying to them as they pass. The temple priests carrying their deities on palanquins make way through the crowd to go from one end of the ground to the other as people make way for them in reverence. Several men constantly beat drums and play the narsingha to mark the sacred presence of their deity alongside other similar troops. Neighbouring buildings in the area are clustered with residents on their terraces getting an enviable view of the entire facade. Moreover, the venue and its bordering streets are lined with several shopping and eating stalls while at a reasonable distance, there is a thriving amusement park saturated with the excited laughter of little children.
Millions of devotees and tourists visit the cohort of deities at the Dhalpur grounds during this auspicious celebration. The more popular symbolism of Dussehra, namely the victory of good over evil is celebrated by the Himachalis in a fashion that is yet to be fully known by the rest of India. The evenings at Kullu’s Dussehra mela are spent focusing on cultural nights that display various performing artists from across Himachal Pradesh. Amongst these displays, the most notable one is the Nati- a traditional Himachali dance which performed by a group of be-flowered men and women, gracefully treading together in circles while singing native songs. Their dance movements are guided by the accompanying musicians, who subsequently beat their drums and various trumpets. The large trumpets, also known as narsinghasare played at regular intervals, with their pitch matching the power of many conch shells.
It was only in 2016 that I witnessed my first Dussehra mela in Kullu. To be standing amongst a human mega-swarm of over one million people, I was surprised to see the calmness and docility of the crowds. Each person shared with the other this mutual feeling of fascination and awe towards the visual spectacle that proceeded before their eyes. An elderly Himachali couple watched the procession through wrinkled, be-speckled wonder as if they were witnessing it for the very first time. They later told me that they had been a part of the mela every year since they got married and moved to the valley. They determinedly told me that they would continue till their age permitted them to do so. And as I stood with them through the swaying crowd and sweeping palanquins, I perceived the manner in which organised chaos, if directed towards divinity was capable of generating an unexpected and united sense of peace. And just like that, the unfolding of this festive scene made me appreciate the conglomeration of humankind well over the provisional incinerations of Ravana’s infinite mannequins.
The Kullu Dussehra Mela commences on the day after Vijayadashmi/ Dussehra and carries on for a span of ten days.
The Kullu Dussehra Mela takes place on the Dhalpur grounds in the main Kullu town.