Saturday, 2 November 2013

The glittering Dassara that was

The dust has finally settled on this Year’s Mysore Dassara. All the brouhaha over the caparisoned elephant carrying the mammoth Golden Howdah on Vijaya Dashami and the fears on the conduct of the elephant during the Jumboo Savari or procession was after all just fears as the event passed off without any major hitch.
The Dassara was the cynosure of all eyes and lakhs of people made it to Mysore to witness the Nada Habba. The entire city of Mysore looked like one huge moving mass of people as they were to be found everywhere-at the Chamundi Betta worshipping the Goddess; at the Main palace taking in its splendor; at the KRS marveling at the engineering skill and ingenuity of Sir M Visveshvaraiah; at the Jaganmohan Palace gazing in amazement at the Lady with the Lamp, the magnificent musical clock and other rich collections and at the Cauvery emporium looking at awe with the intricate carved goods on display.
For thousands though, the Jumboo Savari or Vijayadashami procession was an event of lifetime. Except for the Republic Day, nowhere else is such an elaborate event held in India. Of course, there are several religious, political and social events but can they match the beauty and ancient history of  the Dassara. What distinguishes this event is the royal touch it gets and the air of religiosity and royal pomp that it breathes into the event.
While the Republic Day event is a little more than six decades old, the Dassara of Mysore goes back to more than four centuries though it was always not held in the City.
The first recorded mention of the Dassara in the Mysore annals is when Raja Wodeyar of Mysore defeats the Vijayanagar Viceroy in 1610 and he also shifts his capital from Msyore to Srirangapatna, which was the capital of the Vijayanagar province (He is the same Raja Wodeyar who was cursed by Alamelu, the wife of  the Vijayanagar Viceroy).
Raja Wodeyar decided to continue with the Dassara tradition that had been conceptualised into a grand and breathtaking affair by the Vijayanagar Emperors from 1336 when they founded the Hindu Empire with Hampi as their capital. Over years and centuries, the Vijayanagar Dassara came to be more elaborate and it transformed into an event that showcased the might and richness of the Vijayanagar Empire.
The ruins of the Mahanavami Dibba in Hampi is the place from where the Vijayanagar Emperors sat with their families and noblemen to witness the Dassara. The Dibba thus can be said to be the first recorded platform from where the Dassara was witnessed. Fortunately for us, we have enough records of the Dassara events held by three different Emperors of Vijayanagar and each is more magnificent than the other.
The first direct mention of the Dassara or Navaratri is by the Italian traveller Nicolo Conti or Nicolo dei Conti (1395-1469). He came to Hampi in 1420-1421 and his description of Hampi and the festivities is among the first of foreign accounts.
He was in Vijayanagar and he writes of the Dassara after the ascension of Devaraya the second (1428-1446). By the way, Dei Ponti never wrote anything himself, his memoires were recorded in Latin by Poggio Bracciolini (1380-1459), the Papal secretary, for the Pope’s information.
Conti was a Venetian merchant who traveled in Persia, India and the East Indies from 1419 to 1444. He embraced Eastern cultures, learning native languages, marrying an Indian woman, and even converting to Islam. When he returned to Italy, the Church forced him to convert back to Catholicism. As penance for his errant ways, Pope Eugenius IV (1431–1447) ordered Conti to retell the story of his travels to his Secretary Poggio Bracciolini.
In one of his chapters on Vijayanagar or Biznagar as he calls it, he describes the Navaratri in the following terms. “ Thrice in the year, they (people of Vijayanagar) keep festivals of especial solemnity. On one of these occasions the males and females of all ages, having bathed in the rivers or the sea, clothe themselves in new garments, and spend three entire days in singing, dancing, and feasting. On another of these festivals they fix up within their temples, and on the outside on the roofs, an innumerable number of lamps of oil of Susimanni, which are kept burning day and night. On the third (this is the Navaratri), which lasts nine days, they set up in all the highways large beams, like the masts of small ships, to the upper part of which are attached pieces of very beautiful cloth of various kinds, interwoven with gold. On the summit of each of these beams is each day placed a man of pious aspect, dedicated to religion, capable of enduring all things with equanimity, who is to pray for the favour of God. These men are assailed by the people, who pelt them with oranges, lemons, and other odoriferous fruits, all which they bear most patiently. There are also three other festival days, during which they sprinkle all passers-by, even the king and queen themselves, with saffron water, placed for that purpose by the wayside. This is received by all with much laughter”.
The next description of the Dassara is by the Persian traveller Abdul Razzak (1413-1482). He too came to Vijayanagar during his travels of India. He witnessed the Dasara and Navaratri celebrations during his stay at Hampi between 1442-1443 and the Emperor then was Devaraya the second.
He was in Hampi or Vijayanagar from the end of April till December 5 1443. Razzak mentions a nine-storied pavilion from which the King and his nobles witnessed the Dassara.
He says, “The infidels of this country who are endowed with power are fond of displaying their pride, pomp, power and glory in holding every year a stately and magnificent festival which they call Mahanavami”.
An awe struck  Razzak remarked of Hampi, “The city is such that eye has not seen nor ear heard of any place resembling it upon the whole earth. It is so built that it has seven fortified walls, one within the other.”
The Dassara celebrations reached the pinnacle during the reign of Krishna Deva Raya (1509-1530). This is described in detail by Domingo Paes during his visit to Hampi in 1520. A Portuguese traveller, his account of Hampi or Bisnaga as he calls it, is one of the most detailed of all historic narrations.. 
 Krishnadeva Raya ensured that the Dassara was celebrated with grandeur  and pomp.
After him the Dassara is described by Fernao Nuniz, a Portuguese traveller. He was in the court of Achyutaraya and he describes the Dassara of 1532.
Tragically, the pomp and glory of the Vijayanagar fades into pages of history as the Muslim Kingdoms of the Deccan rout the Hindu Kingdom in the battle of Talikota near Bijapur in 1565. Hampi is destroyed, pillaged, ravaged and burnt down and all its edifices is ruthlessly and systematically broken down.
Dassara thus vanished after 1565 only to reappear a few years later in the Vijayanagar province of Srirangapatna. The years after 1565 see an uneasy calm between the rising forces of Mysore Wodeyars and the declining power of the Vijayanagars.
In 1610, Raja Wodeyars vanquishes the Vijayanagar Wodeyar and takes their capital of Srirangapatna. He then decides to continue with the Dassara celebrations and since then, the procession has come to be known as Mysore Dassara.
However, Dassara came to Mysore only after 1799: when Tipu Sultan was killed in the fourth and final battle Anglo-Mysore war, the capital was shifted to Mysore and the Kingdom restored to the Wodeyars.
The Wodeyars continued the Dassara at Mysore. The last Wodeyara Maharaja to participate in the Dassara festivities was Jayachamarajendra Wodeyar. Today, his son and heir, Srikantadatta Narasimharaja Wodeyar, continues the legacy but he is no Maharaja but only a Yuvaraja.
The Dassara now has become an event organised by the Government. Naturally, babus and bureaucrats, netas and politicians want to hog the limelight. The crowds that the Dassara draws act as a catalyst for these people who make a beeline to Mysore during Dassara.
Thankfully, nobody has been able to tamper with the tradition of the Dassara which is still kept alive in its antiquity by the Wodeyar family. The Khasa Darbar of private durbar during Navaratri, the exhibition of the Golden throne during Navaratri, the Vajra Musti Kalaga and many other rituals associated with the sacred are still kept alive by members of the royal family. 

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