Written by Vani Venugopal and published on 13 October 2021.
Has your child heard of the festival of dolls or the grand Jambu Savari held in Mysuru? Read on to help her learn about the unique traditions of Dasara celebrations in Karnataka
Priya is excited. She has finished all her schoolwork and has not asked her mom for her phone to play games. She has even forgone her daily two hours of TV time. She is eagerly waiting for her mom to unpack the traditional dolls for bomme habba (the festival of dolls), a part of Dasara celebrations in Karnataka. She has already planned how to arrange and display the dolls. She has got a new dancing doll, which she is excited to put on display. Bomme habba is what made Dasara her favorite festival.
In Karnataka, Navratri, the festival of nine nights worshipping the different forms of Goddess Durga, is popularly known as Dasara. It is a time of great joy and celebration for families. In fact, the festival is so significant in the state's annual calendar that it is called naada habba or the state festival. Spanning 10 days of festivities, Dasara is a festival that includes both the simple rituals that families perform at home as well the grand Dasara celebrations held at the Mysuru Palace.
In Karnataka, Dasara celebrates the victory of Goddess Chamundeshwari over the demon Mahishasura. The buffalo-headed demon was believed to have ruled over the region and caused great misery to his people. Mahishasura was a mighty demon. Once, he performed such a powerful penance that the gods granted him a boon. He asked that no man should be able to kill him. With that boon, he grew more powerful and began to wreak havoc in all the three worlds – heaven, earth and netherworld.
Unable to bear his tyranny, people prayed to Goddess Durga, asking her to free them from their evil ruler. The goddess was moved by their pleas and descended on Earth as Goddess Chamundeshwari, a powerful deity with thousand arms. A long battle, which lasted 10 days, ensued, and on the tenth day, she killed Mahishasura. She then decided to stay on earth and watch over her people from the top of Chamundi hill, where the Chamundeswari temple stands today. The 10 days of Dasara celebrate the victory of the goddess over evil.
The 10-day festival of Dasara includes many interesting traditions, and one of them is the much-beloved festival of dolls or bomme habba, as it is called in Kannada. The story of bomme habba goes back to the legend of Mahishasura and Goddess Chamundeshwari. Mahishasura was so powerful that none of the gods and goddesses could defeat him. Seeing the menace he was causing on Earth, all gods went to Goddess Durga for help. When she descended from her abode, the gods and goddesses bestowed their powers on her and stood still like statues for 10 days. During Dasara, people worship the gods in the form of dolls to thank them for their role in slaying the demon.
During bomme habba, every household sets up a display of dolls. The dolls are arranged in odd-numbered steps, starting with simple ones of seven or nine steps to more elaborate ones. In every display, the most important spot is given to the pattadda gombe, the lead pair or the main characters such as Ram-Sita and Radha-Krishna. The highest tiers of the display are dedicated to the gods, followed by kings and queens, festivals and celebrations, and the lower rungs depict daily life.
Over the years, bomme habba has evolved, with each family adding their unique dolls, decorations and themes to the display. It often features scenes from the Mahabharata, Ramayana and Dasavatara, alongside modern additions such as laptops, mobile phones, and local buildings such as the Vidhan Soudha and the Mysuru Palace. The doll display is a matter of great pride for families. Visiting one another to check out the doll displays and exchanging sweets are a part of the festival. Children love to help arrange the dolls for bomme habba and set up the display. It is also an opportunity for them to learn about the stories and traditions behind the festivals.
Ayudha Pooja is an integral part of the Dasara celebration in Karnataka, as it is in the rest of South India. On the ninth day of Dasara, Saraswathi, the goddess of knowledge, is worshipped. During this time, people pay respect to the tools and instruments used in all walks of life—from machines in factories to medical instruments in hospitals, and computers, laptops and other gadgets. Cars, bikes and other vehicles are washed and worshiped on this day.
The Dasara celebration in Mysuru is famous for its grandeur and splendor. Lasting 10 days, this annual festival has a rich history. It was started in 1610 in Srirangapatnam by Raja Wadiyar and continued to be celebrated by the royal family's later generations. The celebrations later shifted to Mysuru after the death of Tipu Sultan.
This festival has a special significance, according to legend. As mentioned earlier, Dasara celebrates the victory of Goddess Chamundeshwari over Mahishasura. Mysuru is believed to be the city that Mahishasura ruled from. In fact, the word Mysuru is derived from ‘Mahishur’ or ‘Mahishasurana ooru’ which means the land of Mahishasura in Kannada. And that is why Dasara is celebrated in such a grand scale in the city and at the Mysuru Palace.
The Mysuru Dasara celebration is a 10-day spectacle that culminates on the day of Vijaya Dashami. One lakh lamps illuminate the Mysuru Palace during the festival. Throughout the 10 days of the festival, numerous dance, music and other cultural programs are conducted in the city. Artists from all over the country throng to Mysuru for the concerts. Yakshagana, a night-long dance drama enacting stories from the scriptures, is performed every night of Dasara. Traditional wrestling competition (Mysuru Dasara kusti spardhe) is another attraction during the festival.
A grand Dasara exhibition, with numerous stalls and events, is also hosted on the Mysuru Palace grounds every year during this time. The Mysuru exhibition is a long-standing tradition and was started by king Chamaraja Wodeyar in 1880. The exhibition is a popular attraction drawing people in thousands.
The ninth day of Dasara, Vijaya Dashami, is celebrated with a grand procession in Mysuru known as Jambu Savaari. The 5-kilometer procession begins at Mysuru Palace. The idol of Goddess Chamundeshwari is first worshipped by the royal family and then placed on a mantap made of gold on top of a decorated elephant. A grand procession then ensues with a parade of numerous elephants and horses dressed in royal finery followed by bands of musicians, dancers and other performers.
The procession moves through the city and ends at Bannimantapa, a ground that has a sacred Banni tree. Lakhs of people from all over the world gather in Mysuru to witness this iconic event.
The Mysuru Dasara celebrations culminate with the panjina kavayatthu or torchlight parade held in Bannimantapa after the procession. The king enters the parade grounds on horseback and is saluted by his ceremonial military units. Torchlights are lit to welcome the king and the royal army.
While the original purpose of the parade was to showcase the power of the royal army, it is now a tradition that offers a glimpse into the rich history of Mysuru. Today, the parade is accompanied by spectacular fireworks, a laser show and a host of performances.
Dasara is an important festival for the people of Karnataka, one with a rich history and traditions. Beyond the grand scale of celebration, Dasara is also a festival the brings the family together, an occasion of joy and merriment for all members of the family, young and old alike.