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Karaga Festival

For 18 days, chronicles the Mahabharat, the Pandavas and the Kauravas fought heroically on the battlefield of Kurukshetra. Every spring an echo of that grim struggle is heard in Bangalore during Karaga, the metro’s oldest and most important festival. Infused with mythological theme and a rich seam of folklore, Karaga is in a sense a celebration of India’s rich cultural and religious heritage.

The roots of Karaga go back over five centuries, and to the Tigala community which ahs kept the festival alive over the centuries. Mystery shrouds the origin of the Tigalas. By one account, the Tigalas sprung form the loins of the sage Angirasa whose progeny were the founders of most of the dynasties of South India. Yet another account attributes the origin of the Tigalas to Agani, the Goddess of fire in the Hindu pantheon. The Puranas (scriptures) say that Draupadi emerged as the embodiment of an ideal woman. The Tigalas, who hold Draupadi as their principal deity, believe that Draupadi Shakti (power) brims over during the Karaga festival.

Truly there is a power, indefinable but nevertheless pulsating furiously as the Karaga festival, particularly the nightlong procession gets underway to the throbbing of drums and cries of dik-dhi and Govinda from the surging crowds of devotees. The Karaga, after which the festival gets its name, is a symbolic pyramidical floral structure, which is carried on the head of a person selected to be the Karaga carrier. The Karaga carrier is taken from his home by the members of the Dharmaraya Temple Ulsoorpet. Immediately after that, his wife takes on the role of a widow. Her mangal-sutra (necklace symbolizing marriage) and bangles are worn by her husband, and she is not to see him or the Karaga until the conclusion of the festival.

Traditionally, the festivities begin with the recitation of mantras (incantations) and the hoisting of a ceremonial flag on the banks of Bangalore’s Sampangi tank. On her seventh day the Hasi-Karaga (tender Karaga) is brought from a salt water pond near the Dharmaraya Temple. Legend has it that the Karaga carrier while in deep meditation in the waist deep water in the pond suddenly feels a weight on his head. Holding the object like he would a baby, he goes to the Sampangi tank. Then the object is brought back to the Dharmarya Temple and placed next to the Dharmarya Temple and placed next to the idol of Dharma. At this point it becomes the Karaga.

The festival of the Karaga is awaited by hundreds of bare chested, dhoti-clad and turbaned veerakumaras (brave youth) brandishing named swords. Only a member of the Tigala community can be a veerakumara. Fire-walking, these young men dance around while striking their blades against their bare chests. If blood should ooze out, it is considered an indication of the veerakumara’s failure to adhere to the ritualistic formalities required for the occasion. Amidst fire walking and frenzied dancing, the Karaga carrier emerges from the temple, surrounded by the these men the Karaga balanced on his head. For the Karaga carrier, the swords have a menacing significance because by tradition they are supposed to stab the Karanga carrier if he loses balance and falls. Fortunately, this has never happened in the long history of this festival.

One of the distinctive features of the Karaga is the participation in this festival by people of all creeds and communities. An eloquent testimony to the secular character of this festival is seen just before sunrise when the Karaga procession halts before the Dargah-e-Shariff of Hazrat Takwal Mastan, the 18th century Muslim saint. According to legend, Mastan was once hurt when he rushed to have a glimpse of the Karaga procession. The temple priests applied kumkum (vermilion) to his wounds. An overjoyed Mastan prayed to Draupadi that the procession should halt at his dargah (grave) after his death. This tradition has been maintained over the years, giving a distinct secular flavour to the festival.

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