The spirit of Janmashtami and Ganesha utsav is carried forward to the joy of Durga Puja
and Ram Lila, writes Kunjalata Desai

Festive days are here

For most Indians, Dasehra marks the peak of the festival season. The festive spirit, captured during the Janmashtami and Ganesha utsav celebrations, is carried forward amidst the pulsating beats of Navratra dances, the joyous abandon of Durga Puja and the splendorous euphoria surrounding Ram Lila stage shows.

Dasehra is also the time for new clothes, an occasion to catch up with old friends and acquaintances, an excuse to splurge and not feel guilty. The origins of the festival can, however, be traced to primitive fertility rites when the earth was regarded as mother goddess, responsible not only for a bountiful harvest but also for providing able-bodied children in families.

So in agrarian societies, particularly in parts of western India such as Gujarat and Rajasthan, Dasehra is still celebrated as a harvest festival with its attendant songs and dances as an expression of thanksgiving. The garba dances associated with this region during the nine nights (Navratras) preceding Dasehra are, however, more closely related to the fertility rites. The earthen pot, around which young men and women move to the rhythmic crossing of sticks, represents the garbh (womb), from which the dance gets its name.

It is also the most auspicious time for match-making, even among urban Gujaratis and Marwaris. Somehow, over time, the fertility association has turned into an elaborate courtship ritual. In eastern India though the mother goddess myth takes on a different interpretation. Here, the worship is not as much linked to prosperity of the land or family as to celebrating the triumph of the good over the evil. The goddess protects and nourishes her subjects through adversity.

In Bengal, Bihar, Assam and Orissa, it is the visit of Durga during Dasehra that is celebrated on a grand scale. She is believed to be actually on her annual 10-day holiday in her parental home (on earth) and is accompanied by her four children — Lakshmi, Saraswati, Ganesha and Kartikeya. Her representation as a savage, 10-armed warrior, mounted on a lion and slaying a bare-bodied demon that could appear to be at odds with general perceptions of maternal care and protection. Legend provides an explanation for this paradox. The Durga worshipped during Dasehra is the fiercest of her 108 manifestations, as Mahisasura Mardini or the slayer of the buffalo demon. The latter represents the cumulative sins and vices prevailing on earth.

Durga’s 10 arms carry weapons contributed individually by the gods (Shiva donated his trident, Vishnu gave her his sudarshan chakra`85 and so on) to battle this embodiment of evil. And it is in her triumph that humankind is reassured of the rule of dharma prevailing for all time.

Similar sentiments guide the Ram Lila celebrations of northern India, climaxing in the burning of effigies of Ravana on Dasehra day. Here it is the 10-headed monster king who personifies evil while Lord Rama comes in as the saviour of dharma.

The source for this myth is provided by the Ramayana epic, which narrates the sacrifices of the noble king of Ayodhya, his 14-year-exile, wife Sita being abducted by Ravana and how he rescues her from Lanka with the help of Hanuman, Sugriva and their army of monkeys.

These details are enacted in a serialised form during Ram Lila plays at village squares and community centres over the nine nights of Navaratars. Apart from the religious aspect, the plays serve as the only reminders of a folk theatre tradition that is in danger of being extinct. — MF