The graceful goddess adorned with precious jewellery and silk is a vision of beauty. With flowers and incense perfuming the air, and prayers and hymns invoking devotion, the festivities of Navratri magnify the aura of Goddess Durga. The magnificent nine-day festival rings in Vijayadashami, the tenth day of Dussehra. According to legend, Vijayadashami marks the spectacular defeat of Mahishasura (a demon) by Goddess Chamundeshwari, an incarnation of Durga, after a nine-day battle with the goddess.
While Dussehra is a common man’s festival celebrated with much grandeur across India, it takes on a regal avatar in Mysore. The festival has been celebrated every year for over four centuries by the royals of Mysore. During this time, the tranquil city transforms into a hub of festive extravaganza.
Dasara wasn’t always a part of Mysore’s culture. It was, in fact, an adoption of the celebrations organised on the occasion by the Vijayanagara Kingdom in Hampi in Karnataka. When the Vijayanagara Empire fell in the 16th century AD, Raja Wodeyar I saw an opportunity to make the Kingdom of Mysore independent and expand it for the successive line of Wodeyars. He nevertheless continued celebrating Dasara in Srirangapatna near the city. Eventually, under the British rule, Mysore became the capital once again, welcoming Dasara into its fold.
It’s not surprising that the Mysore kings continued the Dasara tradition. The festival has a deep connection with the Kshatriya (warrior clan) way of life. Goddess Durga is an embodiment of the fierce warrior spirit of the Kshatriyas. She’s a symbol of strength, power, energy and resolute will. Explains Mysore historian Professor Sheik B Ali, “Durga stands for assertion and aggression. These were qualities needed in a Kshatriya for the expansion of kingdom and authority. Naturally, the Mysore royals too came to worship Durga, alias Chamundeshwari, during Dasara.”
“Dasara was an ingenious way for the Wodeyars to assert their power. Particularly on the ninth day of Dasara, during Ayudha Pooja (worship of weapons), regal items–especially the throne, the pattada katti (royal sword), and the crown–were worshipped.”
For the layman, Dussehra is a celebration of the victory of good over evil. However, the more we observe the finer details of the festival, the more it is evident that Dussehra isn’t just about victory over evil. It began as a festivity of war conquests in Mysore, just as it did in many other kingdoms. The royal celebrations appeased the goddess for victory in possible wars.
The very timing of Navratri (the ninth day of Dussehra) and Vijayadashami (the tenth day of Dussehra) has a rationale behind it. It was conducive for military activities. A writer of spiritual and cultural topics, Swami Sivapriyananda, explains this logically in his book Mysore Royal Dasara. He writes: “In most parts of India, South West monsoon is the heaviest period of rainfall. During this time, rivers are flooded and communication is disrupted. So, in the past, all warfare had to stop as armies could not march across flooded rivers and muddy countryside. At autumn, the rains reduced, the skies cleared and the harvested grains provided food for the troops. So even when there were no urgent battles, kings marched their armies and engaged in military exercises.”
According to Sivapriyananda, Dasara was an ingenious way for the Wodeyars to assert their power. Particularly on the ninth day of Dasara, during Ayudha Pooja (worship of weapons), regal items–especially the throne, the pattada katti (royal sword), and the crown–were worshipped. On the tenth day, which is observed as Vijayadashami, victory parades and mock battles were conducted, with vajra mushti (a wrestling match) as a major highlight. During the match, opponents wore spiked knuckle dusters and fought until one of them bled. The contestant’s blood was smeared on the royal sword as sacrifice. The sword was then placed in a palanquin that carried the king for the Jumbi Savari. It was a procession from the Mysore Palace to the banni tree atop the Chamundi Hills.
“Today, Dasara is a festival not only of the royals, but also of the common man. Over the years, the festival has evolved into a celebration of our innate ability to vanquish inner demons. Inside each of us is a soldier, waiting to fight fears and conquer darkness.”
The tree itself was believed to bestow victory upon His Majesty in upcoming battles, as it had a special legend associated with it. It’s said the Pandavas had hidden their weaponry right under this very banni tree before the Kurukshetra war. Given the glorious victory that followed for the Pandavas, the tree became symbolic of invincibility. So, the Jumbi Savari procession from the palace to the hill ended with special rituals by this tree. With that, the king would begin his war expedition.
Today, we may not wage wars like before. Mysore may not be a kingdom anymore. But the grandiose scale of celebration–which was the very hallmark of the festival–hasn’t changed. Even to this day, Jumbi Savari is carried out on Vijayadashami. Vajra mushti too continues, albeit with blunt studs; an ash gourd marked with vermillion is offered to the sword as a symbolic sacrifice. The grand procession then begins at the Mysore Palace and concludes at Bannimantap. Only, instead of the king, the idol of Goddess Chamundeshwari sits in the golden palanquin carried by the royal elephant.
The goddess is now symbolic of the Kshatriya spirit that the kings of yesteryears once stood for. The Mysore Dasara might have begun as an exercise to assert royal power. But today, Dasara is a festival not only of the royals, but also of the common man. Over the years, the festival has evolved into a celebration of our innate ability to vanquish inner demons. Inside each of us is a soldier, waiting to fight fears and conquer darkness. Dussehra is a reminder of that warrior spirit within us.