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The Gods Travel

When The Gods Travel

On the road to the valley of Kullu, we met a god...

The 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.

We 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 owner’s 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. It’s the done thing to have yourself photographed to prove that you have visited the fair.

The 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.

About 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.

On 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 dust-clouded heavens.

It 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.

Creaking, 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.

The 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 mountains.

The Lady of Good Health

The shrine at Vailankanni town is a testament to the abiding faith of thousands of people.

From 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 boy’s 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 Lady’s 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.

Later, 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 shrine.

Over 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.

The 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 other sweets.

Many 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.

According 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.

Every 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 festival ends.

Vailankanni, 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.

¤ Ajmer Sharif ¤ Amarkantak ¤ Amritsar
¤ Bodhgaya ¤ Chidambaram ¤ Chitrakoot
¤ Dargahkaliyarsharif ¤ Dharamsala ¤ Dilwaratemples
¤ Dwarka ¤ Gangasagarmela ¤ Garhwal
¤ Goa ¤ Guruvayur ¤ Hardwar
¤ Jageshwar ¤ Jambukeswaram ¤ Jambukeswaram
¤ Kailashmansarovar ¤ Kamakhya ¤ Maheshwaromkareshwar
¤ Mathura ¤ Parashuramkund ¤ Pilgrimagecenters
¤ Pilgrimagesofsikhs ¤ Rameshwaram ¤ Rishikesh
¤ Sabarimala ¤ Shatrunjayahill ¤ Shivapur
¤ Tawangmonastery ¤ Thirukalikundrum ¤ Tirupati
¤ Travelofgods ¤ Trichur ¤ Tripureshwari
¤ Tungnath ¤ Vaishnodevi ¤ Varanasi
¤ Vrindavan ¤ Yamnotri