If you are planning a visit to the stunning Kullu valley in Himachal Pradesh, then try to make it in October. The monsoon is gone. There’s a lot of greenery everywhere. The rivers are roaring. The Pir Panjal looks majestic as usual to the north. There’s a slight chill in the air, but it’s not that cold, yet. And most of all, it’s the time of the year of the Dussehra festival.
Dussehra in Kullu is a fantastic experience. Sure enough, it is celebrated almost everywhere in the country, but here in the Kullu valley, it’s quite different. There are two basic differences. One – it begins after the rest of the country has burnt their effigies of Ravana and Kumbhkarna. Actually, no effigy is burnt in Kullu. The Ramlila is held though, like elsewhere in the country, where Lord Rama’s victory over Ravana is celebrated. There is also a dramatic display of various incidents from Rama’s life. And Two – Dussehra in Kullu starts off with a traditional Rath Yatra. But this not the Rath Yatra of Lord Jagannath. It is of Lord Raghunathji who is Lord Vishnu himself.
Beginning of Dussehra in Kullu with Raghunathji Rath Yatra
Dussehra in Kullu starts on the “Vijay Dashmi” or the tenth day of the Durga Puja. This is the day when it ends in the rest of the country. The festival goes on for a week after this in Kullu. It begins amid a lot of fanfare with the Rath Yatra of Lord Raghunathji that is held at the Dhalpur Maidan in Kullu. Hundreds and thousands of people come from all over the state to see the beginning of the festival. And not just the locals, there are domestic and foreign tourists in large numbers too attending the event. It’s a dream occasion for both professional and amateur photographers – there are plenty of “Kodak Moments”. The state government has given Dussehra in Kullu the status of an international festival.
Kullu Dussehra and the Local Deities
There is a week-long fair every year coinciding with this festival. The unique thing about this fair is that, common villagers from the hills all around bring hundreds of local deities and display them so that everybody can see them decorated, show their respect, and pray. There are some idols from the adjoining Mandi district as well. Gaddi shepherds come down from their homes in the hills. There is always a procession of villagers and their idols. Bands play loud music. Everybody is seen singing, dancing, and praising the Gods. It’s certainly one of the most spectacular processions you can see anywhere in India.
Every year, it is estimated that as many as 250 to 300 idols would be taken to the main fair from the hills. These idols often adorn gold and silver. Goddess Hadimba, one of the main deities, is brought down from Manali. Hadimba is the Goddess of Kullu’s royal family. So at the entrance of Kullu, there is a Royal Stick that welcomes her and escorts her to the Palace. She is then blessed by the royal family, and then taken to the fair ground at Dhalpur. The idol of Raghunathji is saddled around Hadimba.
The state government pays the villagers a cash incentive between Rupees 10,000 and 70,000 for bringing these deities. This goes towards the cost of the journey. Of course the main deity is always Raghunathji, who is the presiding deity of the valley.
The Story behind the Idols of Kullu Dussehra
There is an interesting story behind the idols. The legend goes like this. Maharishi Jamdagni had just returned from Kailash. He was carrying a basket with eighteen images of different Gods while going to his hermitage at Malana. But there was a fierce storm when he was going through the Chanderkhani pass. The basket got tossed out and the images were scattered and eventually found by villagers. But to their surprise, these images then took the form of Gods. So they started to worship them.
What Else Can You Expect At Dussehra in Kullu?
The Dussehra festival in Kullu is not just about Ram, Ravana, all these hundreds of idols and even Raghunathji. It’s about the fair too that is held over seven days. In fact, the fair that is held here coinciding with the festival is regarded as one of the most colorful fairs in the country. You will see the locals wearing their colorful clothes and traditional dresses of the villages, including the famous Kullu cap. Many of them will even take out their special dresses from their closets just this one time of the year. So if you are here, you can see the locals all decked up in their best and the most traditional dresses.
The fair itself is worth exploring. There are hundreds of stalls in the fair grounds of all sizes. If Himachal Pradesh is known for its apples, then the Kullu valley is famous for its traditional shawls. You will find the Kullu shawls in many of these stalls. Woven on wooden handlooms, these shawls are remarkably warm and light. You should certainly get one as a souvenir. There is the famous Kullu cap too on display in various sizes and color combinations. Plus, there are handicrafts and local items from all over the state. And of course there are food stalls, and those for kids too.
The locals and some visiting tourists too, get involved with a lot of singing, dancing and merry making. This is a natural outflow of the fun nature of the locals. It’s a great opportunity for outsiders to see some of the local customs of the state, including the dresses, songs and dance performances. Everybody is seen celebrating and in their best mood on these seven days of the Dussehra festival. There are cultural programs as well during the evening, the most important being the “International Cultural Festival” at the Kala Kendra, which is an open-air theater.
Rituals of Kullu Dussehra
The Gods are invoked and paraded every day in the morning. On the sixth day of the festival, there is an assembly of the Gods. This is known as the “Moholla”. It’s a rare, but impressive sight where you will see many palanquins of Gods displayed around the camp of Lord Raghunath.
And on the last day of the festival, the chariot of Lord Raghunath is taken to the banks of the River Beas. Ropes are attached to the Rath to make pulling easy. Members of the Royal family are also seen pulling the chariot along with the locals, much like the Rath Yatra of Lord Jagannath in Puri.
Some grass and a heap of wood are then set on fire. This symbolizes the burning of Ravana. But please note that unlike the rest of India, no direct effigy of Ravana is burned in Kullu. Only some grass and wood is burned, symbolizing this tradition. There are depictions of some stories from Mahabharata as well in Kullu, unlike elsewhere in India. The Rath is brought back to its original place after the burning of grass and wood. Some selected animals are sacrificed after this. These animals include buffalo, lamb, crab, fish, and a rooster.
How Did the Kullu Dussehra Start?
There is an interesting story behind how this festival started.
Raja Jagat Singh was the ruler of Kullu valley in the 16th century. Once he found out that an ordinary villager by the name of Durga Dutt from village Tipri had some beautiful pearls in his possession. These were supposed to be the “pearls of knowledge”. The King wanted to have them at all costs, and so he asked Durga Dutt to give the pearls to him. He would be hanged otherwise. Durga Dutt told the King that he did not have any of these pearls. The King would have none of this, and gave him a last chance.
The man got very scared and burned down his entire family including himself. He also cursed the King saying that there would be blood in his water and worms in his rice. The King eventually had leprosy and believed that this was because of the curse. He was filled with remorse.
Raja Jagat Singh wanted to know what he could do. Kishan Das, known as Fuhari Baba, advised him that he should get the idol of Lord Raghunathji from the Tret Nath Temple in Ayodhya and establish it in his empire. The King promptly sent Damodar Dass to steal the idol from the temple. The people of Ayodhya on finding that the idol was stolen, gave the Brahmin a chase, and caught him beside the Saryu River. They retrieved the idol and tried to bring it back to the temple. However much to their surprise, the idol of Raghunathji would become very heavy on its route to Ayodhya, and very light on way to Kullu. So finally they obliged and allowed the Kullu King to have it.
The idol of Lord Ragunath was installed in Kullu finally. The Lord was made the official deity of the kingdom. The King drank the Charan-Amrit, and finally the curse was lifted. Dussehra has been celebrated in Kullu, and the Rath Yatra of Lord Raghunathji has been held here since then. The Dussehra festival in Kullu has been going on without a break since 1637 AD.
You might also like to read about Dussehra in South India