Himachal Pradesh fashions itself as the ‘Dev Bhumi’ of India. Even for a country that has places of worship on every street corner, the number of temples in the state and the very specific rituals associated with each can leave anyone dazzled. Add to this the pahadi spirit of having fun whenever possible in the middle of their tough mountain lives, and you have a bunch of festivals and fairs that keep everyone and their gods busy through the year. And if there’s one festive event that can aspire for the crown of the state festival, it’ll be the Kullu Dussehra, often referred to by the very grand name of International Mega Dussehra Festival.
Just one of the several aspects that make the Kullu Dussehra unique is that the festivities here start on the day when celebrations everywhere else in the country wind down. Beginning on the day of Vijaya Dashmi, the last day of the traditional 10-day Dussehra period, the seven-day festival sees lakhs of visitors from India and foreign countries descending onto this small town, which is otherwise a poorer cousin tourism-wise to the hill station of Manali.
Photo by ellen reitman
According to local legend, the Kullu Dussehra was started in its present form by Raja Jagat Singh, who ruled over the then very prosperous kingdom of Kullu between 1637 and 1672. Because of a curse from a Brahmin, who had killed himself and his family because of the king, the kingdom fell into penury. A repentant king was told that he could escape the curse if he brought over the idols from the Tretanath temple in Ayodhya and dedicated his kingdom to Lord Raghunath, one of the names of Lord Ram.
An envoy sent to Ayodhya managed to steal the idol of Lord Ragunath, but was stopped by the protesting residents some distance from the temple. However, the idol refused to budge when they tried to carry it back to its original site. When the man from Kullu took the Lord upon his shoulders again, the idol became lighter as he moved towards Kullu. Eventually, the idol was brought to the kingdom and the king asked all surrounding villages to bring their own gods to pay obeisance to the newly arrived Lord Raghunath.
Photo Courtesy Aqil Khan/Hindustan Times
The tradition of gods from surrounding areas coming down to Dhalpur Maidan, the main location for the festivities, has continued over the years. Over 300 idols are carried by devotees in colorful palanquins, sometimes from miles away after a journey of 2-3 days, to the venue. The procession is led by Goddess Hadimba, the deity of the royal family, brought down from the famous temple in Manali. One notable god who doesn’t come down is the Jamlu Devta from the isolated community of Malana. The idol of Lord Raghunath is placed in a beautifully adorned chariot and pulled to a central location in the maidan, where it stays for the duration of the festival.
On the final day, the gods assemble again in what is known as the ‘Mohalla’. The chariot is pulled to the banks of River Beas, where a pile of thorny bushes, standing in for the city of Lanka, is set on fire.
Photo by Shubh Singh
The head of the royal family still leads many of the rituals. Till very recently, the custom of sacrificing animals was prevalent here, with the current nominal king expected to do the killing. But, after the Supreme Court put a ban on the practice, it has been replaced by a much more peaceful smashing of coconuts.
The Kullu Dussehra festival would be a grand affair if it were just for the spectacle of hundreds of gods and goddesses moving in tandem. But, this is a fair in the true Indian sense. Traders, artists and farmers from across the state and beyond set up shop around the maidan. In preparation for the oncoming hard winter, people make full use of the great bargains available here and do some bumper shopping.
Photo Courtesy Hello Himachal News
Where there are large festive crowds, there are great food options too. Himachal Pradesh, despite its small size, is a medley of several distinct cultures that developed within the many small kingdoms here. The Kullu Dussehra festival is one of those rare occasions when you can taste the best of all these cultures at one location.
The International Folk Dance Festival also runs parallel to the Dussehra celebration. Troupes from different Indian states and many foreign countries visit this small town during this week for a carnival of culture. And the local dancers compete in full force – the national record for the largest number of folk dancers performing together (over 9000 dancers) was created a few years back here.
Kullu is 270 km north of Chandigarh, reachable via NH154 and NH205. The road condition is excellent, but owing to the hilly route part of the way, it can take between 6 to 7 hours by car to get there. Regular A/C bus services are available. Chandigarh s the nearest major airport, and also the nearest major railway station, along with Ambala. Kullu has an airport at Bhuntar, but the service is not regular.
Kullu Dussehra is a great place to see the varied cultures of Himachal Pradesh in one go, unless you are really allergic to large crowds. While the town and surrounding areas have excellent hotels, resorts and home stay options, finding accommodation during the festival period can be difficult unless booked well in advance. The weather in October, when the festival dates typically fall, is fairly comfortable, with the heavy winter just setting in.
Featured Photo Courtesy Himdev.com