BANGALORE: One has to experience the enchanting mysticism of Karaga, the most ancient community festival of Bangalore, to believe it.
Though Karaga is celebrated predominantly by Vanniyakula Kshatriyas (Thigalas), the religious fervour, esoteric rituals and grandeur associated with the Karaga have captivated many people from other communities as well.
The festival derives its name from a dance performed by a person who balances a decorated kalasha - kalasha is called karaga - on his head and moves through streets without touching the kalasha with hands.
Though nobody knows when the festival first began to be celebrated in the city, the devotees claim that they have evidence to prove that the tradition was over 800 years old.
According to popular belief, the Pandavas with their wife Draupadi were going to heaven after circumambulating Bharatvarsha on foot. The story goes that Timirasura, one of the demons who was still alive, menacingly moved towards Draupadi in an effort to impress her.
By the virtue of being a manifestation of Adiparashakti, Draupadi manifested herself as Shakti and created an army to kill Timirasura. The army created by Draupadi came to be called Veerakumaras for their valor displayed during war.
After Timirasura was killed, Draupadi resumed her normal form and proceeded to heaven. The Veerakumaras requested Draupadi to stay with them as they were her offsprings but Draupadi had to go with her five husbands. Therefore, she promised the Veerakumaras that she would come to stay with the Veerakumaras for three days before the full moon day of Chaitra Masa, the first month of the Hindu calender.
Karaga is celebrated to mark this time and it is said that wherever it is celebrated, Draupadi resides there.
A community festival
According to K Lakshman, an advocate who has authored a book on Karaga, after Draupadi left, the Veerakumaras entered the service of Parikshit. After Parikshit was bitten to death by the flying serpent, Takshaka, due to the curse of a Brahmin called Sringi, they served his son Janmejaya. The descendants of the Veerakumars came with Janmejaya to Bannerghatta when he came to atone for the sins that he had committed and to get rid of bodily debilities that he was suffering from due to those sins.
The Veerakumaras settled in Bangalore after that and came to be known as Thigalas in due course of time.
The Thigalas then migrated to different parts of south India and carried the tradition along with them and started to celebrate Karaga there.
Karaga is celebrated with devotional fervor in various parts of Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh.
According to S N Indira, the president of the organising committee of the temple, Sri Dharmarayaswamy temple is probably the oldest temple and Karaga is the first community festival of the city.
Though archeologists have agreed that the temple is over 800 years old, coins found in the temple at the recently concluded Kumbhabisheka were around 1,500 years old. Even Kempegowda was a devotee and patron of the temple.
Planning the festival
The organisers plan the festival for at least two months before it begins. All the people from Thigala community gather at the Dharmarayaswamy Temple and delegate works to different people according to their subcastes.
The Yajmans sponsor the festival, Goudas take up managerial jobs, Ghanacharis take up supervisory and administrative jobs, Ghanta Pujaris sing and chant songs and mantras glorifying Draupadi and Chakridhars are entrusted all the remaining works.
A unique feature of the festival is that a chosen man from the Acharya Pujari sect wears a saree and dresses up like a woman and carries the karaga after leading an austere life for six months.
Some people claim that this is done to honor women, while others say it signifies the event when Draupadi accused her husband Yudhisthira for sitting silently like a woman when Dhussyasana dragged her to the court of Duryodana. The Karagabearer removes the mangalasutra (mark of a married woman) of his wife, wears it and lives in a secluded place observing various austerities since Vijayadashami. His wife is not supposed to see him even when he passes from in front of his house bearing the karaga.
The karagabearer gets united with his wife once again through marriage at the conclusion of the festival.
This year, C M Lokesh has been chosen to carry the karaga.
The Thigalas who have taken various vows get enrolled through the association to do various services and to participate in the rituals connected with the Karaga. They are called Veerakumaras after the army created by Draupadi. They carry swords and walk in a procession along with the Karaga. According to the tradition, the Veerakumaras are supposed to cut the head of the man bearing the Karaga if the Karaga falls. Till now nobody has been beheaded.
The Karaga procession that starts at around midnight on the full moon day returns to the temple before dawn. This year, the Karaga festival is on April 18.