Born and raised in Bengal as I was, the navratris for me were all about durga puja. The festivities begin with mahalaya, when the goddess begins her journey from her husband’s home in Mount Kailash to visit her maternal home. It culminates on dashmi when the goddess departs. Needless to mention, I knew the significance of all ten days this festival entails.
Memories of childhood
My mother would often reminisce about dussehra in Kullu. This is a beautiful valley in Himachal Pradesh sandwiched between the Dhauladar and Pir Panjal ranges of the mighty Himalayas. She’d spent the first ten years of her life in this scenic town, that lay stretched along the banks of the Beas river.
Every other year, mum would say, “Let’s go to Kullu and spend the puja vacations there. The dussehra in Kullu is like none other!” But with my friends making plans for pandal hopping and showing off our new clothes, there was simply no way I would agree to go to Kullu during pujas. We did visit Kullu though, but only for a brief halt, on one of our many trips to Manali. However, much as she coaxed, we were loath to visit during dussehra.
It is only when mum grew much older that I realised how much she wanted to be in Kullu during dussehra and relive her childhood memories. Only last year I was able to initiate a family gettogether – complete with siblings, spouses and grandchildren. I’d decided I’d figure what the fuss was all about.
Unlike the durga puja festivities that end on dashmi, the dussehra celebrations in Kullu begin on the tenth day of the rising moon and continue for the next seven days. It marks the day when the local King Jagat Singh had installed an idol of Lord Raghunath on his throne as a mark of penance. The seven-day long event is held at the huge Dhalpur maidan, in the heart of Kullu valley.
A history that dates back to the 17th century
Legend has it that Raja Jagat Singh came to know that a peasant named Durgadatta possessed many beautiful pearls. The king wanted those pearls, although unknown to him, the only pearls Durgadatta had, were ‘pearls of knowledge’. But the king was adamant and ordered Durgadatta to hand over the pearls or else face execution. Seeing that there was no way out, Durgadutta set himself and his family on fire and cursed the king for his brutality.
When the king realised his blunder, he turned to a brahmin for advice. The holy man told him that to get rid of the curse, the king needed to get the statue of Lord Raghunath from Ayodhya and install it on his throne. Jagat Singh dispatched the brahmin to Ayodhya immediately and asked him to bring the idol.
Once he reached there, the brahmin quietly took the statue and started his journey back to Kullu. When the locals of Ayodhya came to know that the idol of their lord was missing, they set out in search of the brahmin. They searched far and wide and finally found him on the banks of the Saryu river.
The brahmin tried to explain why he’d stolen the statue, but before he could even complete his story, the locals attempted to lift the statue to return it to its rightful place. To their amazement, the idol proved too heavy to lift. But when they moved in the opposite direction towards Kullu, the statue suddenly became light. Seeing this, the Ayodhya folk realised there was truth to what the brahmin had told them.
Once the brahmin reached Kullu, Lord Raghunath’s idol was installed as the reigning deity of the Kullu kingdom. The king paid his obeisance to the lord, drank the holy water and the curse was lifted! Thereafter, Jagat Singh became Lord Raghunath’s regent. Ever since, dussehra is celebrated in Kullu every October, to rejoice the triumph of good over evil.
Music, dance and culture
The week-long dussehra festivities are a lovely blend of rich culture, history and ritual. The main highlight of the celebrations is undoubtedly the grand procession on the first day. Lord Raghunath’s idol–which was brought from Ayodhya–is carried on a beautifully designed chariot. An integral part of the celebration is pulling this chariot to different sites across the maidan. Thousands of devotees join the procession carrying their own idols of different gods on their heads. It is indeed quite a sight to see the hundreds of gods that are brought to the temple grounds including other famous local deities like Hadimba and Jamlu Rishi. The entire arena is teeming with people dressed in colourful clothes. In addition, there is much singing, dancing and merry making.
Among the many cultural activities, one highlight is the kala kendra festival held at night. There are also various sporting events organised.
The last day of the festival has a symbolic significance – regarded as a ‘day of sacrifices’. The chariot is taken to the banks of the Beas river where a fish, a crab, a rooster, a buffalo and a lamb are sacrificed. Devotees then collect a pile of wood and grass and set it on fire to mark the destruction of Lanka, Ravan’s kingdom. The chariot is then taken back in a procession and the lord’s idol is restored to its original place. It will be once again be taken out the following October.
A scenic hill town and a vibrant festival makes for a great combination
Over half a million visitors from across the globe descend on this beautiful town to witness this majestic event each year. It is undoubtedly the most popular tourist attraction in Himachal Pradesh.
The Kullu dussehra has evolved and changed over the years and it does feel a tad commercialised. However, people’s high spirits and their undying faith have ensured it still retains its charm. Seeing the huge tourism potential this event presented, the state government designated the Kullu dussehra as an ‘International Festival’ in 1972.
Dussehra festivities in Kullu are truly unique and I could finally understand why mum had been insisting on us visiting Kullu at this specific time of year. We’d witnessed many dussehra celebrations earlier but nothing as spectacular as the Kullu dussehra. Much as we created beautiful memories, we also came away with a feeling of hope for a blissful tomorrow.