Dussehra, Dasara, Vijayadasami, Dasain - A Day of Many Victories (Part 2)
In this, the second part of our autumnal celebration series, we move from the myths of matriarchs and maidens to the world of warriors and warring clans, triumphal marches and tribal lore. (Find the first part, with stories of the great goddesses of the subcontinent here, and our final wrap of fasting and feasting traditions here.)
The prince’s triple triumph
In much of northern India, especially the upper Gangetic plains, the celebration of Dussehra commemorates the victory of the Vishnu-avatar, the Aryan prince Ram of Ayodhya, over the Lankan king Ravana and his greatest warriors (chiefly his son Meghnad, aka Indrajit; and his brother Kumbhakarna). It is thus also Vijayadashami, the tenth-day victory.
Raavan Dahan in Chandigarh - Image by chandigarhmetro.com
According to legends associated with the day, there will be effigies of Ravan, Meghnad and Kumbhakarna set on fire with flaming arrows shot by an actor performing the role of Ram in the Ramlila performance, based on the Tulsidas version of the Ramayana, the Ramcharitamanas.
Equally, though, the Ramayana serves as backdrop in eastern and parts of central India, with the worship of the goddess foregrounded. Here, the story revolves around akaal-bodhan: for Durga or Ambika was originally worshipped in spring (the other navaratri remains prominent in the northern regions), but Ram needed her blessings to defeat the Shiva-honoured Ravan.
Lotus eyed god
He calls on the goddess in an untimely (akaal) ritual, requesting her manifestation (bodhan) as a mark of her favour—for there is none that may withstand Shiva’s ire except his omnipotent consort! At first, she does not respond. Ram then hits upon the stratagem of locating her favourite rare flower—the ‘blue lotus’. Hanuman is dispatched to locate 14 of these beautiful blooms, and he searches high and low, but comes up… one short! In desperation, Ram recalls that some have called his own eyes ‘nilotpal’, likening them to the flower in question (though, honestly, don’t you think a human eye is more likely to look like a krishna-kamal, or passionflower?). He offers up one last prayer, and then takes a arrow to gouge out one eye to make up the full bouquet of fourteen… At last, then, the goddess pays attention, appearing to stop his arrow and promising both her support in the war and protection against Shiva’s piercing gaze—if anyone knows how to beguile him, it is Uma, after all.
Admiring the other army!
Contrary to the dominant narrative, there are many cultures in India that celebrate the honour, valour and wisdom of Ravan, even if he was defeated and unlike the victor, did not get to dictate the mainstream narrative. This is true of several tribes and some communities self-identifying as Dalit or Bahujan as well.
Interestingly, in some even Hindu narratives of the Ramayan-katha (tales of the Ramayana) in various languages, Ravana is far from being asura (anti-deity), or rakshasa (demon), which would make him outcaste to Hinduism. Rather, he is acknowledged a Brahmin (priest caste) and a descendent of Brahma himself, thus actually higher in the Hindu caste hierarchy than Ram himself, a mere Kshatriya (warrior caste) prince. As a result, Ram must later seek ritual purification to cleanse himself at Rameshwaram of the sin of Brahmahatya acquired when he killed Ravan and his relations.
The king of Lanka is also acknowledged to be both accomplished and honourable. Even the ancient Valmiki Ramayana notes Ravan’s treatment of Sita is far from heinous, especially when compared to the incident that instigated her capture—Ram and Lakshman’s punishment of Surpanakha by cutting off her ears and nose for demanding their attentions and (in some versions) insulting Sita. He is noted as a favourite devotee of Shiva, as a patron of the arts and sciences—witness his possession of the pushpak rath, a flying chariot, and supposed invention of the Rudra veena, named after his own patron deity. Likewise, he was said to have been an astronomer in his own right, and credited with the text of the Ravan Samhita, supposedly dictated to him by Shiva himself.
A common Gondi and a Venerable Ravana - Image by Vivek Pataria
Other versions, such as the Bhagvata Purana, identify him and Kumbhakarna as reincarnations of Vishnu’s own doorkeepers, Jay and Vijay, who begged to be killed by the god himself so that they might attain nirvana and come to Golok. The Jain and Thai tellngs of the epic also
The Gond people, for instance, trace their descent from Ravana, and worship as the god Dashanan (the ten-visaged) alongside his son Meghnad. His image is carried in procession on elephant-back on this day. In Vidisha, Madhya Pradesh, a supine statue of Ravan receives great attention on Dussehra—with prayers for the departed king’s soul, and pouring of oil into the navel to soothe his pain, for it is there that Ram’s arrow entered. In Odisha’s Gond culture, this is the day of Dassar Puja, the worship of weapons—a curious parallel to which is seen in more mainstream Hindu cultures, where the day is associated with Vishwakarma, the god of tools. (In other parts south of the Vindhyas as well, it is the day of ayudh—ie, tools—or astra puja. While astra is mainly used for weapons, it can also imply instruments, an usage preserved in the Hindi equivalent of ‘surgery’, for instance.)
In Rajasthan, there is a Ravan temple near Jodhpur, and there is a community where Ravan is a common surname. The Maudgil brahmins of the region will have just ended the pitrpaksha (ancestors’ fortnight) prior to the devipaksha (goddess’ fortnight) with prayers for the ancestral spirits—including Ravan. Even in the vicinity of what is now considered the true and ancient Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh, there is Bisrakh village in Uttar Pradesh, whose people either claim the name commemorates Ravana’s father, the sage Bishrava, or that this is the birthplace of his mother Kaikeshi, fiefdom of his maternal grandfather Sumali. There is likewise a Ravana temple in Kanpur, also in Uttar Pradesh!
Even the Kanyakunja Brahmin community of Vidisha, in Madhya Pradesh, claim descent from Ravana and worship him. So do some Saraswat Brahmins of Uttar Pradesh.
In the south, in Kakinada, a ‘Ravan temple’ is actually dedicated to Shiva, taking its name from the legend that it was Ravan himself who established this house of worship.
Meanwhile, up north in Kangra, people are horrified at the effigy-burning of the plains people—surely, they say, Shiva himself would take offence at his devotee being so insulted?
Another prince, another triumphal march?
Goddess Danteshwari - Image by Blogshwari from Pinterest
We spoke last time of the Bastar equivalent of Durga in Chhatisgarh, the devi Danteshwari. The prosperity of the Gond people in that area is credited to this legend: The king Annamdev was granted a boon that he might claim all the territory he could walk with his face covered, and the goddess would go with him, walking behind him as his guardian. Only one condition: he was not to look around. After a while, coming to a river, Annamdev noticed the sound of the devi’s anklets had stopped; alarmed that she had abandoned him, he uncovered his face and looked back. Alas, there she was—it was the river sand that was dampening her bells. This, though, was the spot that would become Dantewada, the limit of Annamdev’s territory, and the goddess kept his people safe there for 22 generations, it is said.
Cautionary note... and invitation: We are not claiming any of these traditions are universal or mandatory! There are enough people in every region and community who do not in fact follow these rituals or set much store by these tales. We do know that.
On the other hand, if you have a story or tradition we have not heard of before, please, please do share in the comments!
Further reading for alternative takes:
Manidipa Mandal is a seven-year-old parent still learning about parenting. She also likes to read and write about ecology, biology (especially gender), food and travel.