Ahmedabad and Vadodara, Gujarat
The flashes of colour, from festive clothes to psychedelic lights, will remain with you even after the Navratri festival has drawn to a close. The festival of ‘nine nights’ is no more limited to observing rituals in honour of the Goddess. Dancing the night away and generally making merry are the major attractions today. Celebrated widely across western India, two of the best places to enjoy the festival are Ahmedabad and Vadodara in Gujarat, especially for the night-long festivities. Decorative illuminations, mass dances to recorded music and live performances by reputed artists and restaurants staying open deep into the night combine to make it one long celebration.
On the first day of the festival, neighbourhood communities set up a Garba circle around a shrine that includes a ‘garbo’ or an earthenware pot in which a betel nut, coconut and a silver coin are placed. Each night, one of the nine incarnations of Durga is invoked along with Lakshmi and Saraswati. This is followed by communal singing and dancing. People perform the ‘ras garba’ and the ‘dandiya’ late into night. Interestingly, the dance ‘ras garba’ is related to the worship of Lord Krishna.
There are rituals galore at this unique festival, which is held over 75 days, making it India’s longest-running single event. The festival, although clubbed with Dussehra celebrations from across the country is less a ‘Hindu’ festival than a tribal one, focussing on animism and the region’s indigenous culture. According to local lore, the festival began in the 15th century under the patronage of the Kakatiya king Purushottam Deo. There are many rituals associated with this festival, including the worship of the goddess Danteshwari, chariot processions, and the ceremonial procession of the numerous tribal deities of Bastar, as well as a tribal chieftains’ conference. It’s certainly one of the most unique festivals in the country.
Kolkata, West Bengal
Once you’ve managed to get around the gridlocked traffic and the crowds, your lasting impression of Durga Puja in Kolkata is that the entire city has turned into a walk-through art gallery. You are as likely to come across a village in Kerala as Hogwarts. You might find yourself in a spaceship or the pyramids. Inside, the idol of the 10-armed goddess Durga is likely to be suitably modified to fit the overall theme. So don’t be surprised if you find her dressed like Queen Nefertiti or looking like a Kathakali dancer.
Durga Puja is a version of the traditional worship of the demon-slaying goddess but liberally coloured with typically Bengali sentiment. It is the time when the goddess, accompanied by her four divine children returns for an annual visit to her parental home on earth from the Himalayan abode of her husband. On the 10th day, when most communities celebrate the Dussehra, Durga Puja concludes with the immersion of the idols, symbolising the return of the goddess to her mountain fastness. If you’d like to experience traditional rituals, visit old household pujas, mainly in north Kolkata. You can avail of day-long package tours to do so.
When the towering effigies of Ravana, Kumbhakarna and Meghnad, each over 75 feet tall, go up in flames and the crackers stuffed inside start bursting, to the uninitiated, the sound hits like a whiplash. As you adjust to the high decibel, the night sky is lit up with flares and other pyrotechnic glares.
Kota in Rajasthan celebrates Dussehra in traditional style. The former royal household takes a leading part in the observation of rituals. In the evening, the royal family moves in a procession to the main Maidan where the effigies of Ravana, his brother Kumbhakarna and son Meghnad, are set on fire by a flaming arrow shot by the king. Ramleela or short plays enacting scenes from the Ramayana are held across town. A huge fair is also held to mark the occasion. The state tourism ministry usually organises a water sports festival in the Chambal River during Dussehra.
Kullu, Himachal Pradesh
See and hear the gods converse at this unique Dussehra festival in Kullu’s Dhalpur Maidan, where they arrive in droves from all corners of Himachal Pradesh. Like old friends meeting at a re-union, the gods greet each other and share news and views—all through their designated mediums, of course. The locals thank the gods for any past boons, seek fresh ones and also pray for relief from any misfortune. Occasionally, the gods can get angry, either with each other or with a petitioner, and then there is a lot of shouting, some of the idols even shaking with rage.
Preparations for the Kullu Dussehra festival begin days, sometimes weeks in advance, depending from how far the deities have to travel to reach Kullu. Priests and attendants carry the deities of their respective temples in richly decorated palanquins, occasionally stopping en route to rest or to bless villagers. According to local lore, the festival began sometime in the 17th century when Raja Jagat Singh of Kullu installed the idol of Lord Raghunath to atone for a misdeed. He declared Lord Raghunath the ruler of the valley and declared himself the lord’s vassal. Since then, the gods of the valley, mainly older animist deities of valleys, meadows and streams arrive on the day of Dussehra to pay their respect to Raghunath, whose idols is carried in a chariot procession to the main venue in Dhalpur Maidan. The festival continues over seven days, and one of the highlights is a grand assembly of the gods on the penultimate day. A huge fair and cultural function is held to mark the occasion.
In Mysore (or Mysuru), the 10th day after Navratri, is dedicated to Goddess Chamundeswari and her victory over the demon Mahishasura. The royal family begins proceedings by paying its respect to an idol of the goddess. She is seated atop a golden ‘howdah’ on a vibrantly decorated elephant, and carried in a procession from the royal palace to the Banni Mantap. Decorated horses, elephants, camels and other animals, as well as musicians and dancers accompany the procession. A huge fair is held at the Exhibition Ground opposite the palace. Cultural and sporting events are also organised during the 10-day festival.
It is important to occupy a good vantage point along the Mysore Dasara procession route, especially if you are keen to photograph this colourful procession. As it winds its way through the streets, groups of local artists perform folk dances and skits based on folk tales as well as musical performances.