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Mysore Dussehra

Rudyard Kipling once blamed Providence for having created the maharajas “just to offer mankind a spectacle, a dazzling vision of marble palaces, tigers, elephants and jewels.” Other Western critics have grumped about the legendary extravagance and personal eccentricities of the pampered princes. But regardless of their vices and virtues at least some of the rulers were well-educated, broadminded and aware of their responsibilities in administering their subjects.

In Mysore, once one of the most flourishing and colourful princely states, celebrating Dussehra is an ancient tradition. Come October, the streets and boulevards of Mysore are ablaze with colour. It is the advent of a special season of pomp and pageantry.

In most parts of India, especially northern India, Dussehra is celebrated in commemoration of Lord Rama’s victory over the ten-headed demon king, Ravana. But Mysore celebrates the festival in honour of Goddess Chamudeswari who felled in fierce battle the great demon, Mahishasur.

Chamudeswari is the family deity of the royal house of Mysore and during Dussehra her idol is taken in procession. Her howdah, wrought in solid gold is the piece de resistance.

It was in 1931 that the late Maharaja of Mysore went on one of his several pilgrimages to Mount Kailash and Badrinath. On his way back my late father, whose student the Maharaja had been in the Princes’ College, was invited to visit Mysore as a state guest during the festival season. This rain cheque was encashed a decade later when our family had to migrate from northern India to Bangalore.

A great upheaval was in the offing at the time. The ominous clouds of World War II still hung over the subcontinent. The end of the mighty British Empire appeared around the corner. While India was on the verge of gaining independence, the fate of the 500 and odd maharajas, rajas, and nawabs looked dismal. Yet, ancient traditions live on.

When my father wrote to the then Maharaja, asking whether we could visit Mysore for a glimpse of the great event, the latter did not reply. Instead, His Highness sent Col. A.V.Subramanyaraj, his ADC, to escort us in a Rolls Royce Silver Ghost ! It was a memorable drive.

Although the festival was still a week away we saw brisk activity in the countryside. Villagers could be seen painting the mud walls of their huts with fresoces of gods, demons, men and animals in yellows , ochres and umbers. Cartwheels were being oiled and freased for putting the massive bullock-carts in good shape for carrying the villagers to the festival site. Strains of nadswaram music and drmbeats could be heard from the roadside temples. In some of the affluent villages elephants could be seen foraging for their beloved pakar leaves, their mahouts leisurely dozing atop.

Arriving at Mysore, our escort put us up in the State Guest House, leaving the Siliver Ghost with its chauffer at our disposal. We were free to roam around, visit the neighbouring wonders which included the eyefilling Cauvery Falls, the historic fort of Tipu Sultan is Sriangpatnam, Somnathpuram temple of the sculptor of the Hoysala kings, the terraced Brindaban Gardens, the Chamundi Hill and several other pleasant.

The ADC told my father that His Highness would give him an audience only on the eve of the Dussehra as he was required to participate in the nine day long puja most of the time.

My father spent most of his time in the palaces library and the local club where several of the Maharaja’s kith and kin, former students of my father, assembled in the evening. We with our mother drove around the city visiting temples and going on a shopping spree. The chauffeur, who spoke English as well kitchen Hindustani, acted as our interpreter.

One day aware of our presence in the Guest House, His Highness sent Lt. Bahadur of the Mysore Lancers, to fill us in on the glorious past of the state. Lt. Bahadur literally a handmaiden of the Maharaja, was a goldmine of folklore. Needless to say we spent a few sleepless Arabian Nights listening to the legends.

Before the present dynasty Wodeyars took over the reign in Mysore the Hoysalas, known for their expertise in architecture and sculpture, had lent their magic touch to forts, palaces and temples. The Wodeyars trace their origin to two brothers, Yadura and Krishnadeva who had migrated from Dwarka. Chamaraja, the local chieftain, had just died and his widow and daughter were left at the mercy of an usurper, Maranayak. Responding to the widow’s appeal, Yadura married Chamraja’s daughter, killed the usurper and thus became the ruler in 1399 AD.

In the backyard of the palace used to be the royal stable housing thousands of elephants and horses, most worth their weight in gold. From the Guest House roof we could see the morning drill of these animals – being bathed, massaged and paraded around before being fed.

The number of elephants in the royal stable would have put the late Hannibal to shame – more than 1,500.

Elephants have played an important part in Hindu mythology and figure widely in art and sculpture. Besides, the animals have always been used as mounts of state in all parts of the country. The animals, splendidly caparisoned in rich brocades, decked with ornaments and bells, their head-plates studded with gems, the eyes and trunks painted in patterns from time immemorial and surmounted by ornate howdahs continue to form the chief attraction of every typical Indian pageant.

From time to time, the Royal Mysore Forestry organized kheda operations for capturing wild elephants from sprawling jungles where the pachyderms abounded. Wild elephants were driven into a stockaded enclosure and then gradually broken down to obey the commands of their mahout. When trained, the animals were used for replenishing the stock of the royal stable.

It was a well known practise for the ruler to give away elephants as gifts to priests and local feudal chiefs during sacred ceremonies. The state also earned useful revenue by selling the surplus jumbos to other states, various zoos and circuses. Saboo the Elephant Boy, who made his sensational appearance in Hollywood once grew up with elephants in the forests of Mysore.

Lt. Bahadur was kind enough to show us project bearing the stamp of the Maharaja’s farsightedness and the rich contribution made by stalwarts like the late Sir Mokhgundam Visvesvaraya and Sir Mirza Ismail Beg.

Visvesvaraya, a gifted engineer, rose to be the Diwan (Prime Minister) of Mysore at the turn of the century. It was his pioneering vision that transformed the sprawling, sleepy state into a progressive, dynamic entity. He set up the Bellary Steel Plant and commissioned the country’s first hydroelectric power generation plant at Shivsamudram. Sir Mirza who played an equally important role in modernizing Mysore, was an enthusiastic town planner and a very efficient administrator.

Both Visvesvaraya and Sir Mirza infused a cosmopolitan spirit in provincial Mysore. Sir Mirza’s association with the government contributed a lot to fostering communal harmony in the predominatly Hindu state. He enjoyed the confidence of the British therefore his innovations were never doubted.

When we got up in the morning aromas of choicest Karnataka cuisine drifted in through the window. The backyard also had a huge section, partly open, which served as a general kitchen for guests as well as for His Highness’ personal household. Breakfast, and also other following meals, were served in our rooms – arranged in a spacious trolley inlaid with mother o’pearl and ivory.

We were later told, too late indeed, that all guests in the Royal Guest House were expected to walk away with the silver while departing ! With each meal was served a steaming pot of coffee brew and a silver trayful of paans, betel nuts and mouth-fresheners.

Just on the eve of Dussehra, the Maharaja kept his word and our family was given an audience in the Durbar Hall of the palace, also known as the Dussehra hall. It was customary for the ruler to show himself to his people, seated on the solid golden throne, at the end of the Navratri (nine days preceding Dussehra).

The throne was remarkable. Originally fashioned out of fig wood and overlaid with ivory and studded with precious stones, the throne was presented to the Raja of Mysore by Aurangzeb.

It was customary for everyone meeting the Maharaja to offer nazranas (present). But when my father offered His Highness a gold coin, he merely touched it but declined to accept the nazranas. “You have been my guru, so how can I accept money from you ? It is my duty”, he said, and presented a silk turban, an ivory handle dagger and a small velvet bag of gold coins to my father. My mother received a pair of gold bangles and the rest of us were given 100 rupees each “for buying things of our choice.”

Finally, the big day arrived. From early morning the procession route was being spruced up. Roads were swept several times and glistened like skating rinks. Lush green trees stood on both sides of the path and a very large crowd had already begun to collect. Hucksters were doing brisk business by selling balloons and flowers, which the enthusiastic crowds were to toss at the procession.

Thanks to our status of “Maharaja’s personal guests”, we were provided with ringside positions for whatever ceremonies we desired to watch.

The Maharaja’s puja of the patron deity was supposed to be a very private affair. In fact, even relatives barring the Maharani and the royal offsprings were kept away from the function lasting hours. The idol was carried out from her temple in an impressive procession of caparisoned elephants and incense burned.

The royal purohit, or the chief priest, led the procession, spraying the path with the holy water from the Ganges. On both sides of the privileged elephant carrying the idol walked servants with braziers in which sandalwood powder and incense burned.

His Highness and his family had observed fast during the Navratri and were to break it only after the puja was over. When he came out of the prayer room, despite his opulent regalia, the Maharaja’ s face appeared tired. Yet a broad smile greeted the relatives and

guests who awaited his final audience before the procession. Once again the nazranas were offered to the ruler and present given back in return.

The Maharaja then returned to his dressing room to change into his ceremonial attire.

In the meantime, hundreds of elephants draped in gold tapestries and their foreheads painted afresh had lined up in the front courtyard. One massive bull elephant was being decked up for carry in the idol of Chamundeshwari. As for flowers, one had to wade through the thick layers of rose petals strewn on the ground. Whiffs of slow burning musk, sandal and jasmine buffeted across the spacious courtyard.

Spectators stared as a 21-gun salute boomed. Amidst the peal of bells and rolling of drums the Dussehra procession started. Dressed in his ceremonial best, the imposing figure of His Highness Shri Jai Chamaraja wodeyar, rode the elephant following the animal carrying the deity.

Hundreds of other elephants flanked by the Royal Mysore Lancers and a tall trail of liveried soldiers followed. The soldiers carried obsolete weapons of war – muskets, scimitars , heavy swords, shields and lances. Some sported armour. Another platoon carried Lee Enfield rifles and appeared more modern.

The entire palace in the background, and all other important buildings were illuminated to such perfection that the entire panorama appeared like a giant set of a Disney spectacular. Fireworks streaked across the horizon like stray comets.

The spectators were enthralled. They sang praises of Chamundeshwari, clapped and hurled flowers and wreaths at the great elephants rumbling forward. The Maharaja kept waving back at his subjects.

Like marching soldiers, a blend of “old” and “new”, pipe and drum accompanied traditional music provided the marching music.

It was impossible to estimate the number of people who were watching the procession – probably more than a million. One could only admire their patience, having spent hours on their feet, just to get a glimpse of the great show.

Since my first glimpse of the great Mysore Dussehra half a century ago, I have visited Karnataka at least five time. Twice during post-independence Dussehra. There are several changes now. The state governor now presides over the “official” function instead of the Maharaja. “The olde charm” is missing. The traditional gold howdah for the leading elephant belongs to the erstwhile ruler. The latter lends it to the state government in return of a stiff fee.

For me, at least, a glorious chapter of the Arabian Nights has closed. I shall not see the like of it again.

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