The world famous annual event on the tenth day of Navaratri-Dasara of Mysuru culminates in a royal procession. People across the country and globe wait for this annual mega procession, which is held with great pomp and grandeur.
The Dasara procession has a historical and spiritual background associated with the ritualistic practices of the region. As known, Navaratri signifies the worship of the Nava Durga—the omnipresent energies of Shakti and symbolising the vanquishing of demons. The epic and Puranic accounts have interesting associations. Ramayana has a narrative directly associated with the killing of Dasha Kantha-Ravana by Rama to rescue Sita from him. It is celebrated as Vijaya Dashami, the Victory of the Tenth Day. Mahabharata has a narrative that marks the victory of the Pandavas over the Kauravas—on Vijaya Dashami. There is a prayer to Durga Vindhyavasini in Virata Parva of the Mahabharata. Apart from these, Varaha and Brahmanda Puranas explain in detail about how she attained the form of Durga and obtained the weapons from various Gods for killing demons. Taittiriya Samhita makes a reference to Mahishasuramardini. In the later Puranas, like Skanda, Kalika, Markandeya and Devi Bhagavatha, the procedure of worshipping goddess Durga and celebration of Navaratri are explained in detail.
Historical information about the celebration of Navaratri and Dasara in the southern part of India can be gleaned from the Vijayanagara period. Foreign travellers like Nicolo de Conti (1444–46), Abdur Razak (1442–43), Domingo Paes (1520–22) and Fernao Nuniz (1535–37) were astonished by the grandeur of the celebrations and have described them. It appears that Dasara celebrations commenced during the reign of Vijayanagara Emperor Devaraya II (r. 1426–44 CE). It was during Krishnadevaraya’s period (r. 1509–1529 CE) that the celebrations reached the height of popularity. Dasara turned into a cultural festival that also marked the beginning of military expeditions or re-entering the city after victory on this auspicious day. The Mahanavami Dibba at Hampi is testimony to the grand celebrations in the Vijayanagara capital in the 15-16th centuries CE.
In the post-Vijayanagara period, the Mysore Wodeyars inherited and continued to perform the Dasara rituals and also conduct the Vijaya Dashami procession. Raj Wodeyar, the king of Mysore, started the Dasara celebrations from 1610 onwards. But it was during the reign of Kanthirava Narasaraj Wodeyar (r. 1638–1659) that the Dasara festival became an important celebration in Mysore state. Court poet Govinda Vaidya, in his work Kanthirava Narasaraj Vijayam, has described the grand celebrations. The Vijaya Dashami procession and other related rituals of the palace till the finale were systematised in this time. For instance, Vajra Mushti Kalaga was started during this period. The king’s procession would be on a horse; he would greet the public and also receive gifts from his subordinates. The Dasara procession also represented the state’s mighty power—army, horses, elephants, soldiers, etc. Literature of the time has beautiful documentation and narration of Dasara and palace rituals over the nine days.
Visual narrations of the Dasara procession started only during the time of Krishnaraja Wodeyar III (r. 1800–1868 CE). His period witnessed many political and socio-cultural changes as well. He became king after the defeat of Tipu Sultan and the princely throne was shifted from Srirangapatna to Mysore. From 1800, Dasara has been celebrated in a multifaceted way. Since Mysore came under colonial control, certain practices were newly introduced, such as British Durbar, a special function for colonial officers. Many additions were also seen such as a British band, soldiers dressed as the British carrying guns, palace music band along with chariots, palanquins and an elephant carrying a howdah with the king in it.
One of the early depictions of the royal procession of Dasara is in the city’s Jaganmohan Palace. A large narration depicts King Krishnaraja Wodeyar seated in a chariot pulled by pairs of elephants. This painting was done in the early 1860s by the artist Tippaji. The narration has a three-tiered composition. In the foreground are a line of soldiers marching forward with their weapons. Their dresses like pyjama, kurta and turban follow the contemporary traditions. In the central line, the king’s chariot is depicted and he is greeting his people. In the background are another group of people greeting their lord.
Another painting is found at Sri Rama Mandira at Kollegala in Chamarajanagar district. The walls of the Mandira are decorated with Dasara processions of Krishnaraja Wodeyar, datable to the 1840s. Though the painting is badly damaged in the lower portions, details of the subject can be ascertained. Interestingly the king is shown seated on a horse and receiving greetings from his citizens and officers. The soldiers are shown marching in the procession along with him. This shows that earlier, a horse was used in the procession to carry the king. In the previous painting, a chariot was shown.
Krishnaraja Wodeyar IV is considered the builder of Modern Mysore and also eulogised as a seer of politics. A painting by artist Keshvaiah depicts the Dasara procession of the king datable to 1928. Dasara became a state festival in his regime. He also started exhibitions of the industrial, agricultural and artistic productions as a mark of his state’s progress. The king, his brother and nephew used to sit in the howdah. The kings’ army, palace band, British band, traditional musicians, his office-bearers and selected citizens of Mysore all accompanied the procession.
The grandness of royalty has now been replaced by a people’s Dasara and procession. Instead of royal persona, the howdah carries the idol of Goddess Chamundeshwari. The state’s achievements and progress are depicted as tableaus.
Artists have always observed and depicted the activities of the Mysore royal palace. This essay is a tribute to the artists who have immortalised Dasara processions in visual narrations.
R H Kulkarni, Professor, Dept of Art History, College of Fine Arts, Karnataka Chitrakala Parishath (firstname.lastname@example.org)