All About the Indian Festival Dussehra, Also Known as Vijayadashmi
Dussehra is a Hindu festival celebrated every year in September or October. It is one of the major Indian festivals and it is celebrated all over India.
Dussehra is also spelled Dussera, Dasara, Dashahara or Dashera. The name is derived from the Sanskrit word Dashahara, which means the conquering of the ten-headed demon king, Ravana—dasha means ten and hara means conquering.
The demon Ravana supposedly had ten heads. However, it is thought that the ten heads referred more to the fact that Ravana was highly learned and a great scholar—he was well-versed in the Vedas and Upanishads—rather than him actually having 10 physical heads. However, when effigies of Ravana are made, they invariably have ten heads.
Dussehra is also called :
- Vijayadashmi in North Indian states
- Durga Puja in Eastern India, with the strongest traditions found in the state of Bengal
- Kullu Dussehra in the state of Himachal Pradesh in North India, celebrated in the Kullu valley
- Mysore Dasara in the state of Karnataka in South India, celebrated in the city of Mysore
- Dashain in Nepal
In fact, the Dussehra celebrations are a culmination of the 9-day Navratri festival. The 10th day is celebrated as Dussehra. That's why in South India it is called the 10-day Navratri festival.
What Does the Dussehra Festival Celebrate?
The Dussehra festival is a celebration of the victory of good over evil. The events that mark this celebration are:
- The killing of Ravana by Lord Rama
- The killing of demon Mahishasura by Goddess Durga
- The end of the exile period of Pandavas and their return to their kingdom. Their story is recounted in the epic Mahabharata.
- The day of the Goddess Saraswati, the deity of learning and knowledge
The festival is celebrated with rituals that vary from state to state, but each with equal verve and enthusiasm. On this occasion, people worship the Goddess Durga, reenact Ramleela, and burn effigies of Ravana, his brother Kumbhkaran, and his son Meghnath. The burning of the effigies symbolizes the victory of good over evil and exhorts people to kill the bad/evil in them and follow goodness/truth henceforth.
All over the country, huge processions and fairs are organized for the occasion.
Legends Associated With Dussehra Festival
There are several legends associated with the celebration of the Dussehra Festival. Below are a few of them.
The Victory of Lord Rama Over the Demon King Ravana
The epic Ramayana, one of the Hindu scriptures, narrates this entire episode. Lord Rama was the son of King Dashrath, the ruler of Ayodhya. His stepmother wanted her own son, Bharat, to be crowned as the King. With this in mind, she managed to persuade King Dashrath, her husband, to send Lord Rama into exile for 14 years. Lord Rama was accompanied by Sita, his wife, and Lakshman, his brother.
While in exile, Soorpanakha, the sister of Ravana, became enamored with Lord Rama and wanted to marry him. She threatened to kill Sita if her desire was not met. This infuriated Lakshman so much that he cut off her nose.
Seeing this, the demon king Ravana abducted Sita. Lord Rama, along with his brother Lakshman, his most ardent follower Hanuman, and Hanuman's army of monkeys, fought a long and mighty battle with Ravana to rescue Sita. It is believed that Lord Rama invoked the blessings of the goddess Durga for success in defeating Ravana. This day is called Vijayadashmi because their victory came on the 10th day of battle.
The Victory of the Goddess Durga Over the Demon Mahishasura
The demon king Mahishasura was granted a boon that he could not be killed by any male or weapon with a male name. This made him confident and haughty. He started wreaking havoc in Heaven and on Earth, which scared the gods and caused them to approach Lord Vishnu for a solution.
Accordingly, the three gods, Brahma, Vishnu, and Mahesh—the Creator, the Sustainer, and the Destroyer, respectively—joined their energies to create a female goddess, the 10-armed Durga. She was given their special weapons. During the battle with the demon Mahishasura, the Goddess Durga rode a lion. This battle lasted for 9 days and 9 nights. On the 10th day, Goddess Durga managed to kill the demon.
In Bengal, this festival is called Durgotsav, meaning the festival of Durga, marking her victory over demon Mahishasura.
How Mysore Dasara Is Celebrated in South India
Mysore Dasara is a state festival in Karnataka, in South India. It is also called the 10-day Navratri. Mysore city has a 400-year tradition of celebrating Dussehra with royal pomp and showmanship. The tradition was started by the Vijayanagar Kings in the 15th century and was later continued by Raja Wodeyar I. During this occasion, the Mysore palace is illuminated for the entire 10 days of Dasara.
Even today, the descendants of the royal Wodeyar family worship and hold a royal durbar, or assembly, which is attended by other members of their clan, special guests, state officials, and the general public. On the 9th day of Dasara, the royal sword is taken out in a procession filled with horses, elephants, and camels.
On the 10th day, the day of Vijayadashmi, the traditional Dasara procession is taken to the streets of the city. An idol of the Goddess Chamundeshwari is placed on a golden structure atop an elephant and lead through a procession.
Before the procession, the royal couple and other guests offer prayers. Colorful floats, dance groups, musical groups, police bands, musicians, artists, and royal guards in their traditional dress form an integral part of this procession, which starts at the Mysore palace and ends in a place called Bannimantap about 2.5 miles away. Here, the Banni tree is worshipped as per the legend of the Pandavas.
The Pandavas used to hide their weapons in this tree during their first year of forced exile. The Banni tree was been traditionally worshipped by kings praying for victory before going to war. Later, a torchlight parade starts on the grounds of Bannimantap, followed by a display of fireworks.
The Exhibition Grounds Near the Mysore Palace
Another major feature of these celebrations is the Dasara exhibition that is held on the exhibition grounds opposite the Mysore palace. This was started by King Wodeyar X as a way to educate his subjects on the developments being undertaken by the state. The exhibition is a 2-month long affair and attracts lots of visitors. The exhibition has a festive atmosphere and has stalls selling various household items and snacks.
Kullu Dussehra Is Celebrated in North India
The Dussehra festival celebrated in the state of Himachal Pradesh in North India is also known as the Kullu festival. It is celebrated at the Dhalpur maidan, or ground, in the Kullu Valley.
Here, Dussehra celebrations commence on the Vijayadashmi day and continue for the next 7 days. Started by King Jagat Singh in the 17th century, the idol of Lord Raghunath, the ruling deity of Kullu valley, is worshipped in this celebration.
This festival is also known as Dashmi in the state of Himachal Pradesh. One major difference between Kullu Dussehra and other similar celebrations is that in other states, the effigies of Ravana, Meghnath, and Kumbhkaran are burned, while in Kullu, five animals are sacrificed. These five animals are symbolic of the five inherent evils in man: lust, anger, greed, attachment, and ego.
Kullu Dussehra has no direct relation with Lord Rama, Ravana, or even the epic Ramayana. It is about the story of King Jagat Singh, who while on a pilgrimage to Manikaran learned that a Brahmin Durga Dutt living in the village possessed many precious pearls.
The greed to acquire these precious pearls made the king send his soldiers to retrieve them. However, Durga Dutt had only pearls of wisdom, and he tried to convince the soldiers and the king that such were the pearls he had. His pleas fell on deaf ears. The king ordered that either he hand over the pearls or else be executed. Fearing for his life, Durga Dutt committed suicide, cursing the king as he died: "Whenever you sit to eat rice, it will appear as worms; and water shall appear as blood." After this, the king's health began to fail.
The king sought a holy man to ask how to be rid of this curse. The holy man suggested that the king bring an idol of Lord Raghunath from the city of Ayodhya to be installed in his kingdom. After this was done, the king slowly started to regain his health.
From that day, the king spent his life in service of Lord Raghunath. Hence, Dussehra is celebrated with gusto in Kullu, albeit a bit differently.
An idol of Lord Raghunath is placed in a chariot and taken out in a procession along with the idols of other gods. During these seven days, Lord Raghunath's idol is removed from its regular spot in Dhalpur maidan and shifted to another spot across the ground. Big, strong ropes are used to pull the idol-bearing chariot, as per ancient tradition.
One interesting aspect is that all the deities are supposed to attend these Dussehra celebrations in Kullu. The chariot of Lord Raghunath is taken to the banks of the Beas River. There, a pile of wood and grass, symbolizing the kingdom of Ravana, is burnt. After this, the ceremonial sacrifice of five animals is carried out.
Many Cities Have Theatrical Ramleela Preformances
Ramleela is a dramatic performance of the life of Lord Rama. It is performed during the nine days preceding the day of Dussehra or Vijayadashmi. On the evening of the 10th day, the battle between Lord Rama and the demon Ravana is reenacted.
The actors who portray these legendary characters are ceremoniously taken out in a street procession as they make their way to the place or town square where the battle is to be reenacted. This is then followed by the ritual burning of the effigies of Ravana, Meghnath, and Kumbhkarna.
The biggest effigy is burnt at the Ramleela ground in New Delhi, the capital of India. The Ramleela performance is believed to have come into existence after Saint Tulsidas wrote Ramcharitramanas, a rendition of the life of Lord Rama in verse.
There are various presentation styles of Ramleela that have developed in different parts of India. Though the local dialects differ, they are all reenacted with the same melodramatic fervor, with couplets from Ramcharitramanas used as dialogue.
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© 2012 Rajan Singh Jolly