dc3868388add2770c8ec4a767ab2dcb9-2“I didn’t use to believe in the devi-devta (goddess-god) culture either until a few years ago,” says Rahul. “I was at the Kullu Dashahara with some friends. We went along with the throngs of people, and very soon found ourselves in the palace of the Maharaja of Kullu. Apparently, one of the royal family members had annoyed the gods, who had then decided to show the extent of their displeasure. The Maharaja promptly apologized to all the gods who had assembled in his court. But Jamblu, the devta of Malana was not one to be appeased. All of a sudden, to our astonishment, the Maharaja and the Crown Prince started banging their heads and jumping up and down. It wasn’t until the women of the palace came out and begged Jamblu to forgive that these normally dignified men stopped their antics. There was no obvious explanation but the only one that everyone espoused, ‘This is the work of the devis and devtas.’”

Rahul’s story has me completely engrossed, and I decide to head out to the Kullu Dashahara. This is my first visit to the mountain state of Himachal Pradesh. I have come here on an America India Foundation fellowship, working at a rural non-government organization called Navrachna. Always an urban chic, I find this rural culture, especially with its mountainous flavor quite intriguing. And now, after hearing my supervisor’s incredulous experience, I am more than keen on witnessing such a spectacle.

dc3868388add2770c8ec4a767ab2dcb9-3The Kullu Dashahara is one of the most famous festivals in this part of the Western Himalayas. It takes place in the city of Kullu situated on the banks of the river Beas. Driving through the Kullu valley is like wandering through the heavens. The region is defined by steep mountain walls, narrow valleys, cascading waterfalls, gurgling streams, and meandering rivers—the Beas, the Parbati, the Sutlej, and their many tributaries. These rivers cut through the landscape, adding a splash of aqua blue and foaming white to the greens. Augmenting this canvas of colors are shades of orange, red, and yellow from apple, orange, and persimmon orchards. People dot the hills—women dressed in the colorful, traditional woolen pattu (wrap) and printed headscarves, and men with their brightly designed Kullu hats.

The Kullu Dashahara begins on the day of Dashahara and continues in full force for an entire week.

As is the case with many Indian festivals, this one too has a story attached to it. During a previous visit to the Kullu region, a young, handsome professor recounted the tale to me. A 17th-century ruler, Raja Jagat Singh, once heard that a peasant Durga Dutt owned beautiful pearls, and the former was overcome with greed. Despite Dutt’s earnest pleas that there were no pearls, the Raja persisted. The fearful Dutt burnt down his house along with his family, all the while cursing the raja. Soon after this incident, the raja developed leprosy. His adviser, Fuhari Baba, advised him to install the idol of Lord Raghunathji in order to cancel the curse. Damodar Dass, one of the raja’s courtiers, was sent to steal the idol from the Tret Nath Temple of Ayodhya. The idol was then installed in Kullu in 1,651 C.E. Raja Jagat Singh was miraculously cured, and decided to turn over a new leaf. He devoted his kingdom and life to the Lord and celebrated Dashahara with great pomp. To this day, the tradition continues. The Maharaja of Kullu invites all of the 365 gods and goddesses of the valley to perform a weeklong yagna in Raghunathji’s honor.

The Dashahara festival cannot begin until the royal family’s kul devi (patron goddess) Hadimba leaves her ancient wooden pagoda temple in Manali, and comes down to city of Kullu to give her blessings. Soon thereafter, the idol of Raghunathji is placed in an elaborately adorned rath (chariot), which is pulled with ropes by young Kulvi men.

“It’s a great honor, you see, to be pulling the chariot, even if one is just able to touch the ropes,” explains a stately Kulvi gentleman.

dc3868388add2770c8ec4a767ab2dcb9-4However, the result of too many hands is confusion and chaos. Finally, the vehicle finds its way to the center of the Dhalpur Maidan (grounds), where it remains for the next six days for the Kullu gods, goddesses, and mere mortals to pay their respect.

The Kullu valley is home to a rich heritage of devis and devtas. Every village has a local deity. “Our devis and devtas are our friends,” says an associate from the area. “We have a direct link to the gods; we have frequent conversations with them. They are our dearest friends and advisors.”

The devis and devtas are physically depicted as having gold-masked faces and wearing flowing, shimmering technicolored robes. They come to the Dashahara festival mounted on colorful, metal palanquins, their golden faces gleaming under the sun. The musical entourage for each god consists of dhol (drum), bugle, and flute players. After the opening ceremonies, all the gods, along with their many companions, take their residence in the adjoining grounds, where they stay put for the rest of the week. Their many attendants camp right next to them, throwing down their gaddis (mattresses), chaddars (sheets), kambals (blankets), and huge pots and pans. Men relax with a pipe of tobacco and sometimes hashish, since this area is renowned for its high-quality wild marijuana. After all, it has been a long trek from the high country.

An elderly gentleman, with a wizened face and squinting eyes, informs me, “The villagers have come on foot accompanying their village deity. Some villagers, from way up in the highlands, leave as early as 20 days prior to the beginning of the festival in order to reach here in time for the opening day. Though now,” he says scornfully, “the younger people have started hopping onto the bus instead. The gods don’t approve of this new trend.”

I wonder how the gods communicate their likes and dislikes to the humans.

“We know the gods’ feelings through the gur (also known as a chela),” he says. “This is our devta’s gur,” as he introduces me to a middle-aged, portly man.

“The devta has chosen me to be his conduit,” says the gur. “He speaks to the people through me. When there are conflicts, he settles them through me.”

“But, why you? What’s so special about you?”

He simply shrugs and looks upwards, “The gods work in mysterious ways. We don’t question their decisions. We just follow them.”

Walking through the fairgrounds, I am transported into some B-grade horror movie for which an apt title could be A Claustrophobic’s Nightmare on Kullu’s Streets. The grounds and neighboring hotels have become a sea of human bodies. And in between this sea are shifting islands of clothing. The festival coincides with the last vestiges of fall, and as such, there is a thriving market of secondhand woolens and jackets. I find some great steals, but soon get depressed to see expensive REI-ware being sold for a few hundred rupees. I want to kick myself for making my Fremont REI richer when I could have easily bought similar clothing at a fraction of the price. To overcome this dejection (and to escape the shoving, pushing, and groping), I decide to head back into the warm embrace of the Samridhi booth, a local women’s cooperative with whom I work. However, refuge there is short-lived. The back of the booth is being used as target practice, and the resulting stench of fresh urine and yellow streams that begin to pool around my shoes drive me back into the tenacious grip of the human sea.

dc3868388add2770c8ec4a767ab2dcb9-5I elbow my way over to the grounds where the gods are residing. I am on the lookout for Jamblu, the god of Malana, who had, according to Rahul, given the maharaja such hell in the past. The holy ground consists of several rows of gods and goddesses. However, even after going through each row twice, I am unable to locate Jamblu. I turn to one gentleman who is busy straightening his Kullu hat.

“Sir, can you tell me where Jamblu is?”

“Who?” he asks, scratching his jaw.

“The devta Jamblu from Malana.”

“Oh, that one,” he replies. “He doesn’t come here. He thinks it is beneath him. That one has too much arrogance. He stands on the other side,” he says pointing across the Beas. “He laughs at all of us for coming down here.”

Disappointed, I take leave. This is supposed to be my adventure, and there is no Jamblu. The truth is that I am completely intrigued by the introverted village of Malana situated high up on a remote plateau in the Parbati valley and its powerful Jamblu devta, who still controls the administration of this supposedly oldest democratic republic. The people are firmly grounded in their utmost faith in Jamblu. He is the ultimate authority on all decisions. Thus, if his decision is to boycott the Kullu Dashahara, all the villagers of Malana refuse to participate as well.

Taking my disappointment in stride, I decide to make the best of this affair. After all, there are more than enough interesting participants who make up for Jamblu’s boycott. And though it seems impossible to believe, the attendance on the last day rises by 100 percent as people from all over (sans Malana) come to witness the closing ceremony. I try to walk around, but there isn’t any place to stand, let alone explore, and I decide to go with the flow rather than resist. Besides, trying to go against thousands of aggressive desis is like trying to swim upstream, and I am in no mood for a salmon-like experience.

The various deities have started assembling in the fairgrounds. People line up on two sides (as best as Indians can line up) while baton-armed khakied policemen attempt to keep the middle path body-free. At the end of the path, set apart from the crowds, stands a majestic white horse, its saddle heavily adorned with blankets and trinkets.

“Whose horse is this?” I innocently ask a man in a white uniform.

Unwittingly, I have touched upon a raw nerve since the man spits out a slurred tirade of “this is our culture … we are not kooks for believing in devis and devtas … you can’t make fun of our beliefs …” The man is obviously drunk and crazy. Wiping off the spittle from my face, I look around me, searching for sympathetic faces. Instead, the onlookers are glaring at me, their mouths set in decidedly unpleasant lines. At this point, slinking silently back into the anonymous crowd seems a better option than pursuing any other journalistic inquiries.

As with the opening festivities, the closing ceremony begins with the goddess Hadimba, who clears the path of any errant human. “This is a good tradition,” I think as I watch the huge chariot of Raghunathji come hurtling down at great speed. And as it hurtles, so does the gigantic ball of human tissue, and along with it, me. At the banks of the Beas, the chariot stops all too suddenly; my face bangs into the person in front of me. I pray to the gods to spare my nose any further damage.

The Maharaja goes down to the riverside where a bonfire of wood and grass is lit to signify the burning of Lanka. He sacrifices an unsuspecting buffalo, brings the head back to the chariot, and offers it to Raghunathji. (Contrary to my earlier belief that cows and buffaloes are treated equally, in India only cows are considered holy; buffaloes are fair game.)

At this point, the various gods and goddesses come up to the chariot one-by-one and take leave before heading up to the mountains again. The Supreme God of the land, Raghunathji, is carried back to the temple in Raghunathpur. People disperse and head back to shop, shop, and shop some more. The famous Kullu Dashahara festival has come to a close.

In the distance, across the Beas, I see something glittering. I suppose it is the golden mask of Jamblu watching this spectacle, smirking at the folly of humans and gods alike. “Why endure this claustrophobia,” he is probably thinking, “when you can enjoy it from a distance?” But, then again, the Kullu Dashahara is all about an up-close-and-personal experience, where the gods and mere mortals walk side-by-side for a short time.

This year’s Kullu Dashahara is from Oct. 2 thru Oct. 9.

A resident of the San Francisco Bay Area, Rinoti Amin travels to lesser-known places in search of cultural misadventures.

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