The Gods Travel
the road to the valley of Kullu, we met a god...
god was represented by gold and silver masks, draped in expensive
garments, enshrined in a palanquin carried by his devotees. And the
procession was preceded by drummers and other men carrying the long
brass and silver trumpets to proclaim the passage of the god.
Accompanying the god was his chief attendant, the head priest
pujari. He carried the ceremonial silver scepter of his divine
office. You have a car, said the pujari, please
drive on. We shall proceed with all ceremony and arrive in due time.
He asked the palanquin carriers to pause and allowed us to cross.
arrived at the fair after sunset. The great field to the right of the
road was teeming with visitors, cattle had been brought down from the
villages in the snow-dusted mountains around and were tethered to
stakes next to their owners camp fires, a giant Ferris wheel
moved slowly against a dusk-darkened sky, and great fortresses of
brass and steel utensils glinted in ordered array. Stalls displayed
festoons of beads, bangles and baubles next to rows of photographers
shops. Its the done thing to have yourself photographed to
prove that you have visited the fair.
fair, or rather the festival around which the fair has grown, is a
delightful blend of the old and new. Once it was a fair for horse
traders from Tibet and tea and cottage-craft traders from India.
Then, according to a member of the former ruling family, about three
centuries ago, a local king named Jagat Singh brought an idol of Lord
Raghunath, an aspect of Lord Vishnu, from the holy city of Ayodhya.
He decreed that all the other village gods and goddesses would have
to come down from the mountains and pay their homage to Lord
Raghunath, in Kullu, during the pre-winter festival of Dussehra. It
is being celebrated from the 8th to 11th October this year.
forty years ago, an estimated 350 gods and goddesses used to come
down to Kullu. Today, sadly, it has become too expensive for the
lesser divinities to make the trip with their obligatory retinues.
Nevertheless, one can expect to see about a hundred devtas in
their little tents lit by single, naked bulbs and surrounded by their
camping attendants. After the lesser gods and goddesses have arrived,
Lord Raghunath is carried from his temple near the Kullu palace,
across the foaming Beas river, to the spreading field where the
festival is held. The tent of the Lord is guarded by his regent, the
man who would have been king of this area if the days of kingship had
not ended in India. During the dussehra celebrations in Kullu,
however, the traditional royal court lives again.
the penultimate day of the festival, we hurried to the royal tent and
waited. At exactly 5 pm, the Raja appeared. He was dressed in his
regal turban and robes, protected by two liveried mace-bearers and a
man carrying his sceptre and fly-whisks. He sat on his divan-throne
just behind Lord Raghunath and the great Devata Durbar, the
Court of Gods, began. Drums thudding, trumpets blowing, cymbals
crashing, the gods and goddesses of Kullu came swaying and bobbing
above the surging crowds. The gold masks trembled in the sunset
light, their garlands swung and the palanquins took on a life of
their own. Every devta was brought into the royal tent and
placed before Lord Raghunath. And all the while, the drums pounded,
the cymbals crashed and the trumpets roared stridently to the
was an exciting, draining experience. We were a little tired the next
day but we went to see the final ceremony. The Raja mounted a great,
wheeled, wooden chariot and stood guarding his Lord. And then,
bellowing to the gods to give them strength, hundreds of devotees
grasped the huge ropes tied to the chariot and, sweating and
straining, began to haul them.
the enormous chariot began to move: slowly at first, then faster and
faster. And when it reached the end of the field, there was a pause.
Other devotees then picked up the ropes and pulled the chariot of
their god back to his camp.
shadows of dusk spread over the valley and the sun glittered for a
while on the high, snow-dusted peaks of the Himalayas. Soon the stars
shone and blinkered over the last night of the fair. The gods and
goddesses began to trek back to their homes in the high and lonely
Lady of Good Health
shrine at Vailankanni town is a testament to the abiding faith of
thousands of people.
the 16th century, that is about 1,500 years after St Thomas first
preached about Jesus Christ in southern India, comes a legend that a
shepherd boy saw a beautiful lady with a baby in her arms. After the
baby had drunk milk from the boys pot, the pot still brimmed
over with milk. The pond near which the boy had seen the lady is
still called the Matha Kulam: Our Ladys Tank. Then, a
crippled boy was cured by a vision of the same lady and her child. A
Catholic from Nagapatti-nam built a thatched chapel at the spot and
installed a beautiful statue of Our Lady with the infant Jesus held
in her left arm.
in the 17th century, a storm-tossed Portuguese ship was saved from
being wrecked after its sailors prayed to Our Lady, the Mother of
Jesus Christ. The Portuguese, in gratitude, built a brick and mortar
church and moved the statue from the thatched chapel to their new
the intervening centuries, the church was improved and reconstructed.
More and still more people flocked into Vailankanni, sought the
intervention of Our Lady of Health, and believed that they were cured
after all other methods had failed. In gratitude, many of them made,
and continue to offer, gold and silver donations fashioned to
resemble the boon they had been granted: eyes, when they had regained
their sight, hearts, lungs, hands, feet even cradles from those who
had been blessed with a child. For devotees, a walk round the Museum
of Offerings is a reaffirmation of their belief in the miraculous
powers of the statue of Our Lady of Good Health.
outpouring of devotion is greatest on the 8th of September, every
year: the traditional birth anniversary of Our Lady. The festivities,
however, begin nine days earlier, on the 29th of August. After
attending the Holy Mass, which is the principal religious rite of the
catholic church, pilgrims bring their offerings of garlands, candles
and coconut-palm saplings. Many of them wear the saffron robes of
renunciation, have their heads shaved, and prostrate themselves at
the feet of the statue. When the Mass is over, they often offer each
of these customs are unique to the Church in India. Some like the
offering of coconut saplings are typical of the faiths of our
southern states. Another feature of worship in south India is an
event which occurs at midday: the hoisting of the festival flag, in
this case the Flag of Our Lady. A fair number of the devotees we
spoke to believed that this is the most auspicious moment of the
festival and everyone who is present and sees the flat being hoisted,
receives special blessings and graces from the Holy Mother.
to a well-established Hindu tradition, there are two types of idols
in their temples: the installed idol who is never moved out of the
temple and the processional idol who is carried in a chariot or
palanquin during festive days so that all visitors can get a
grace-bestowing glimpse of the deity. This revered custom, too, has
been adopted by Vailankanni. Every evening during the festival, two
cars and a chariot are carried by devotees in procession. The statue
of Our Lady is enthroned in the main illuminated chariot. It is
considered to be a great privilege to touch the chariot and cars, and
an even greater privilege to carry them which is possibly why women
devotees get preference in carrying one of the cars. Chariots
and cars normally have wheels, we said to one of the priests,
why do people have to carry these vehicles? According to
him, since Vailankanni is on the coast, sand drifts across the roads.
It is very difficult to maneuver wheeled chariots and cars over
the sand, he explained.
evening, after the procession, pilgrims are entertained by poets,
musicians and singers devoted to themes connected with the festival.
On the evening of the 8th of September, the flag is lowered and the
however, attracts visitors and devotees all through the year. The
port town of Nagapattinam is 10 km away from Vailankanni; the most
convenient rail-head is Thanjavur 98 km away; the nearest airport is
Trichy 50 km beyond Thanjavur.