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Dasara 500 Years Ago

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Though Dasara or Navaratri is an ancient festival going back to the times of mythology, its recorded and dated history goes back to the times of Vijayanagara Empire, almost five hundred yeas ago. The earliest reference to Dasara during this period is furnished by a Persian traveller, Abdul Razzak who was invited to witness Dasara festival during 1442 - 43 AD, by Vijayanagara emperor Devaraya II. This is how he has described Dasara of that year which he saw: "The infidels of this country who are endowed with power are fond of displaying their pride, pomp, power and glory in holding every year a stately and magnificent festival which they call Mahanavami."

The King of Vijayanagara directed that all his nobles and chiefs should assemble at the royal abode from all the provinces of his country which extends for the distance of three or four month's journey. They brought with them a thousand elephants arrayed in armour and adorned with howdahs on which Jugglers (magicians) and throwers of naptha were seated and the foreheads, trunks and ears of the elephants were painted with cinnabar and other pigments. On that beautiful plain were raised enchanting pavilions of two to five stages high on which from top to bottom were painted all kinds of figures that the imagination can conceive of men, wild animals, birds and all kinds of beasts down to flies and ants. All these were painted with exceeding delicacy and taste. Some of these pavilions were so constructed that they revolved and every moment offered a different face to the view.

In front of the plain, a nine - storeyed pillared edifice was built, which was of exceeding beauty. The throne of the king was placed on the ninth storey. Abdul Razzak was assigned a place in the seventh storey exclusively for himself and his friends. In the open space were singers who were mostly young girls. They were seated behind a beautiful curtain opposite the king. All of a sudden, the curtain was removed on both sides and the girls began to dance with such grace that the soul was intoxicated with delight. After the dance, there was a display of acrobatics and the crowd enjoyed it. An elephant was made to stand on a wooden plank and dance to the tune of music. This was a great attraction. The King gave away the prizes to young dancing girls and others who took part in various items. Abdul Razzak was particularly impressed by the rituals of the last three days which coincided with Durgashtami, Mahanavami and Vijayadashami which showed the culmination of the Dasara.

Every evening King Devaraya held a durbar in which all the feudatories and nobles came and bowed to the King and gave rich tributes of gold coins, ornaments, precious stones and pearls. King Devaraya II smiled and accepted them as if he was doing a great favour and the feudatories felt happy at this gesture. Abdul Razzak was also taken to the King who enquired about his welfare, his Kingdom and other details and gave him betel leaves and a silk bag containing gold coins and wished him good luck. Abdul Razzak was supremely satisfied by this kind gesture of King Devaraya. He wrote "My eyes have not seen a better King than Devaraya."

During the time of Krishnadevaraya, Dasara was celebrated with greater pomp and wealth. This has been described by another foreign traveller Domingo Paes who visited Hampi in 1520 AD. Krishnadevaraya celebrated Dasara in his Palace called “House of Victory”. In a spacious hall was kept the Golden throne which had four sides with a round top. The wood work was covered with silk cloth and had lions of gold, rubies, diamonds and seed pearls. Gold images are found on all the sides. During the Dasara festival, the King set on this gold throne. Opposite this was kept a solid gold - image of a goddess. The King before sitting on this throne worshipped this image. After worshipping this Goddess, he worshipped royal horse, royal elephant and the Brahmins.

The function in the evening was more spectacular. Every one was seated in the arena before the King arrived. The King was dressed in white silk clothes covered with embroidery of gold flowers, jewels, diamonds and pearls. The female chauri bearers stood near the King and the chauris (fans) had solid gold handles. The feudatories and nobles came in order of protocol, touched the feet of the King and gave rich presents. Domingo was amazed at the gold ornaments of the dancing girls. Then took place wrestling which evoked great interest among the people and the King, a wrestler himself took lively interest in it.

When it became dark, the whole area was lit by many types of light so that it looked like the day. Different types of fire sports and fire works took place. After this the king retired to his Palace and the gold image of the Goddess was also taken into the Palace. On the Vijayadashami day, the King held a review of his forces. Thus he took this opportunity to exhibit the preparedness of his army to his enemy kings. The forces were so vast and occupied a wide area, Domingo was provided with a horse to move about.

Dasara of King Achyutaraya’ s period (1532 AD) was described by another Portuguese traveller by name Nuniz. We do not find much change in Dasara. Numiz particularly mentions that the royal women also took part in the festival. The royal women had overburdened themselves with so much of gold ornaments that it became difficult for them to move about freely.

The Mahanavami platform in Hampi today stands as a mute witness to the grand pompous Dasara celebrated during the Vijayanagara period. Though comparisons are bad, the present day Dasara of our city is shorn of the royal splendour and religious commitment of the bygone centuries.

The splendour of the wealth of Vijayanagara in the form of gold, diamond and other precious materials during the Dasara is definitely a forgotten chapter now. That was royal Dasara and now we celebrate people's Dasara.

Prof. A.V. Narasimha Murthy,
Former Head,
Department of Ancient History & Archaeology,
University of Mysore.

Courtesy: Star of Mysore

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