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Kulu Dussehra - The Gods Pay Homage

A few days after the country celebrates Dussehra, Kulu, the valley of gods comes alive with an assembly of deities congregating to pay homage of Raghunathji. The colorful celebration attracts thousands of people from India and abroad.

Legend has it that Shiva and Parvati once came down to the lower Himalayas for a brief sojourn. All the local gods and goddesses ran to pay homage, bearing gifts of flowers and fruit. They fussed around Parvati to such an extent that she was completely bowled over and resolved to take them back with her to Mount Kailash. Stuffing them all into a large cane basket (pitari) she flew with Shiva towards Mount Kailash.On the way they stopped to rest on a mountain peak overlooking Kulu valley. The moment Parvati put down the ‘pitari’ on a rock, a mighty gust of wind flipped open the lid and away flew all the gods and goddesses, to land at various places scattered over the valley. And there they remain to this day, which is why every single village in Kulu has at least one and sometimes more deities of its own to boast of. And Kulu goes by the name of the Valley of Gods.

In the early 19th century Raja Singh of Kulu, an ardent Vaishnavite, brought an idol of Raghunathji (Rama) from Ayodhya and installed it in a temple at Sultanpur in Kulu town. Seeking to spread his faith over the entire kingdom, he decreed that all the gods and goddesses of Kulu valley should bow to the idol of Raghunathji on the occasion of Dussehra. The tradition still carries on.

Thus Dussehra at Kulu is not only a celebration of the victory of good over evil. It is also an occasion to pay homage of Rama, who has long been the presiding deity of the valley. Strangely, the festival begins on Vijaya Dashmi, the last day of Dussehra celebrations elsewhere in the country. No historical explanation of this phenomenon has yet been found. The delay could be a deliberate step, calculated to permit people from the plains time enough to join the Dussehra fair and generally provide a fillip to local trade. Strangely again, no effigies are burnt at the Kulu Dussehra. Celebrations over, a small heap of dried grass is set alight, to symbolize the burning of Lanka and the destruction of the forces of evil. As a final act comes the ceremonial sacrifice of a buffalo, originally performed by the rajahs of Kulu, with one fell sweep of the sword.

The unique features of Kulu Dussehra do not end here. Whereas every other god and goddess in the valley must come to the venue of the celebrations a day in advance, one particular goddess is permitted to arrive late. She is Hidimba Devi demon wife of Bhima, the second Pandava brother. From times immemorial Hindimba has been honoured as the powerful patron deity of the rajahs of Kulu and celebrations are withheld till she has arrived from her temple at Doongiri (Manali).

Dussehra is traditionally celebrated on the spacious, grassy, deodar lined Dhalpur maidan in Kulu town and lasts a total of seven days. The centerpiece of the fair is a brightly coloured tent put up to receive the idol of Raghunathji in all its splendour. But naturally, as the guest of honour he comes much later. The first to arrive at the maidan are the devis and deotas from all over the valley, some 360 strong, borne on palanquins by a merry throng of pujaris and chelas and bhaktas. At night these processions can be seen descending mountain trails in the magic aura of pine torches while the devout lead the way, dancing to the eager beat of kettledrums.

The gods of Kulu valley are not always manifest in the form of idols. Sicne a full size idol made of metal is expensive, many of the humble villages have opted instead for masks cast in silver. When marching in procession to the Dhalpur maidan, these masks are tied to the uprights of the palanquins which in turn are profusely decorated with coloured drapery and garlands. There is always a ceremonial umbrella (chhatri) overhead, red velvet richly, lovingly embroidered in gold and silver. A Kulu deota going to the Dussehra fair makes a colourful picture indeed.

On the opening day, seated on a gorgeously draped, flower bedcked wooden chariot (rath), the idol of Raghunathji is brought to the Dhalpur maidan. When the priests have offered prayers and sprinkled water around the rath, the gods of the Kulu Valley from a circle around it. The descendants of the rajahs of Kulu also go around the rath several times (parikarama). After this ceremony the rath is reverently pulled by the local people to the far corner of the ground and duly installed in the tent. A chance to pull the rath is considered a stroke of great good fortune. On every single day of the celebrations, morning and evening, all the gods are invoked and taken in a procession over the ground. Like their followers, the gods too have ‘relatives’ among others of their kind and make this an occasion to call on them, so as to keep up the links. A day before closing, all the gods reassemble at the abode of Raghunathji of pay him homage (deota durbar). On the last evening Raghunathji is taken to a puttu with a square design, And you can come with a tricoloured bag. We’ll meet in Kulu. But do bring a juicy coconut alone,We’ll eat it together and I’ll stay with you’ll make me your bride!

There are songs on farming and other pastoral occupations, on fun and festivals, history, legend and mythology. The heroes are, to us, unlikely people like forest guards, rangers, tehsildars and patwaris. Since independence however, songs have also been composed on economic and social development, on defence and the glory of India and Himachal.

Various forms of folk dance grace the Kulu Dussehra, teams of dancers swaying on nimble feet, with spirit and passion. Performed to folk tunes and only in the prescribed costumes, thirteen different forms of dance are currently is use, with names that have an unmistakable local ring like Banthara, Luddi, Bashahri, Bakhli and Kharait. While the men wear black berets and tunics of white woolen cloth, the women are attired in rainbow bright churidar-kurtas, spangled with silver or gold. And they’re invariably loaded with silver jewellery. Beautiful and vivacious as they are, Kulu women carry the lot to perfection.

Traditionally, like many other outdoor activities, the dance was performed by men only though they obviously played to the women. Not to be outdone, in places women with spunk performed in purdah. But now they have begun to participate freely in the open whirling away to the tune of the shehnai, pipes (peepni) and drums (dhol and nagara). Kulu dance troupe itself has become a member of the National Folk Dance Club and Kulu Dussehra is now a state festival, recognized even at the international level. Through folklore, song and dance and their highly individualized modes of worship, the people of these hills have faithfully preserved their culture, safeguarding it against assimilation into the mainstream.

Trade is naturally one of the main attractions at the Dussehra fair. In the days gone by, merchants would trudge down from as far afield as Tibet, Kabul, Peshwar and the remote hill areas with the best of their wares. Even today they come from lahaul-Spiti, Ladakh, Kashmir and the farthest reaches of himachal as well as the plains. On the sale are wool, pashimina shawls and pattus, also embroidered Kulu caps, readymade garments and footwear, beads, trinkets, carpets and utensils. But basically th eKulu Dussehra is one vast social gathering where people meet old friends and relatives Romances are born and marriages are arranged. In between bouts of buying and selling and long after dark on those seven days, the hookah is passed around and many a tall tale is retold in the lap of the Kulu Valley.

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