If you are in India around October, you cannot miss the palpable sense of excitement in anticipation of a major festival: Dussehra. It is preceded by nine days of ritualistic worship of the mother Goddess, when she is worshipped in different names and forms, each having a special significance. The first three days are devoted to Durga (for valor) the next three to Lakshmi (wealth) and the last three to Saraswati (learning and wisdom). The order is different in south India, so there is diversity even in the worship of the same figures! While dining with Indian friends during the nine days, do not be surprised to find many of them abstaining from certain foods, or even fasting!
Plan your travels to include at least a day in Kolkata (West Bengal), where Dussehra, called “Durga Puja” (Puja: worship) is the main festival. According to legend, Goddess Durga visits the earth (her parents’ home) for four days, but celebrations start earlier. Images of the goddess are worshipped in community centers. According to tradition, the gods were defeated by the demons, and then the goddess Durga was created and armed with special weapons to combat the evil forces. You will see images of her seated on a lion and driving a spear into the demon. The weapons in her ten hands are symbolic, as are her four children surrounding her!
Experience a different flavor in north India, where the festival has another origin. Here Dussehra is a celebration of the victory of good over evil—of the victory of the Hindu god Rama over Ravana, the demon king of Sri Lanka. This war is described in the religious epic: The Ramayana, and enacted through plays known as Ramlila over the nine days. The plays are staged in the open air, attended by large crowds in an atmosphere much like that of a country fair! Witness a performance in Old Delhi, with the grand finale on the tenth day, when huge effigies of Ravana and his two brothers are stuffed with firecrackers, and finally torched with flaming arrows! The northern, hilly state of Himachal Pradesh is famous for colorful Dussehra fairs, especially in Kulu.
Different scenes await you in South India! In Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, “Bommai Kolu” is a special feature. Families treasure dolls which have been handed down from generations, and you might be able to see these displayed on artificially made steps, (usually seven) decorated with lamps and flowers. Dasara (as spelt in South India) dolls symbolize creation, and every family tells a different story with the arrangement. People visit each other to admire the collections, and exchange coconuts, sweets and clothes.
In some southern states, the ninth day commemorates an incident from the epic “The Mahabharata.” Do not be surprised to find many professionals on a holiday– people lay down their “weapons”, which today means any “tools” used for a livelihood (even pens, computers and books qualify!) and worship them. Vehicles, as a means of livelihood for some, are decorated with banyan leaves and flowers!
A trip to South India is incomplete without a visit to the royal city of Mysore, where the Dussehra procession is legendary. The Palace is illuminated all month, and the festival ends with twelve caparisoned elephants leading a colorful procession through the streets. They are decorated with jewels, and the leader carries a golden “howdah” (seat). Preparations start earlier, with a special diet and pampering for the “gentle giants”!
If your trip takes you only to the western part, enjoy the colors of Gujarat, which reverberates with the carefree sounds of two folk dances: Garba and Dandiya. In Garba, women dance in circles around a pot containing a lamp, to the sound of devotional songs and clapping. Dandiya is rather different. Men and women dance in pairs, holding small decorated bamboo sticks (called dandiyas). It begins as a slow dance, and then the tempo builds up, faster and faster, till the dancers start by striking the partner’s stick, and finally those of all the dancers around them.
So no matter which part of the country you visit, the distinct flavor of Dussehra cannot fail to excite and give you a glimpse of the color and pomp associated with Indian festivals.
Festivals of India: published by National Book Trust
India: Lonely planet