A celebration of culture and history
Reviewed by Mahesh Sharma

The Dussehra of Kulu: History and Analysis of a Cultural Phenomenon
by Karuna Goswamy, Aryan Books in association with IIAS, Shimla.
Pages 313. Rs 3,600

The author has captured the history of Dussehra of Kulu and how it still bonds the localites
The author has captured the history of Dussehra of Kulu and how it still bonds the localites

The Dussehra of Kulu is an exceptional event where number of deotas, representing particular area and community of the erstwhile kingdom, gather at the Dhalpur ground to pay homage to the presiding deity, Sri Raghunathji, who is the ruler of the Kulu state since the mid-sixteenth century. The royal dynasty of Kulu is in fact ruled on behalf of the deity as its foremost diwan or the Prime Minister. While the ceremonial, ritual and pageantry combines to make the Dussehra of Kulu an event, recognised today as the state festival, it is also a cultural site where shamans, oracles, rulers, courtiers, traders and general public, all participate for 10 days to relive and commemorate the victory of Rama, as also the coming of Rama in Kulu.

The author, whose work on Kashmiri and Pahari painting is well known, shows remarkable dexterity in analysing this cultural event — gorgeous and well thought out and captioned photo-essay consisting of 110 half-page coloured plates that captures the entire festival without one feeling the need for words — that not only performed a certain historical role in the consolidation of the medieval Kulu state, but also seats in its body the vestiges of the past long forgotten, making it a ‘cultural phenomenon’ of a kind.

The book consists of six chapters. The first chapter expertly navigates the shifting historiography of cultural studies. It provides us a glimpse into the range of analytical tools that the author commands, particularly the insights gained from cultural anthropology and geography, which adds to her refined sensibilities as a trained historian, art-history in particular. The author then eases into the history of the western-Himalayas in general and Kulu in particular to build a context for the coming of Vaisnavism in the hills.

She reminds us how the bhakti tradition of the Ramanandis of Galta and its foremost propagator in these hill states, Krisnadas Piyohari was instrumental in converting the ruler of Kulu, Jagat Singh around 1640s. How the ‘swaroopa’ was brought from Ayodhya, followed by the class of priests, and how it became a bond that cemented the disparate regions and communities in Kulu is narrated in a captivating manner. Thereafter, she goes into a detailed analysis of the deotas and their role in the local society, polity and economy, which is critical in comprehending the significance of Kulu Dussehra in political and spatial cohering of the differing and often opposed strands into a composite whole. This ‘whole’ was represented by a sanskritic deity that was acceptable to all the disparate elements represented by the deotas. In the process, the deotas and the society that they characterised were ‘Hinduised’.

As an important aside to the festival, the author narrates the fascinating tales of deotas’ capricious behaviour, some being so difficult to manage and control; the subtle contest that goes on to catch the ‘royal eye’, seeking attention and influence that goes into the making of hierarchy defined by the place occupied by each on the Dhalpur maidan; and then the stories of how each deota came into existence and carved a kind of worshipers’ hinterland for itself, a territory that eventually became its patrimony. No wonder the author calls Kulu Dussehra a ‘cultural phenomenon’.

The book is an outcome of a thorough assiduous research. The author has painstakingly culled material from various records of the Kulu state; archival records; land-settlement records and the administrative reports of colonial times; temple account books; hazari rosters and nazrana registers; and painting associated with Kulu and Vaisnava ritual traditions. What is impressive is the sustained fieldwork, spread over two decades, consisting of interviews with a huge cross-section of people: the Raja, courtiers, priests, pilgrims, tourists; the shamans, oracles, mask-makers, etc.

Participating in the event so many times imbued in her an uncanny insight into the working of this event and the frenzied activity that takes place behind the curtains to make it a success. The appendices provide us such details in original. For instance, we can savour the time in the wording of contemporary inscriptions; the tabulations from various registers of grants, tributes, honours and felicitations; maps; the lists and classifications of various deotas of Kulu and their respective hierarchy and spatial place in the event, etc. These are in themselves a valuable resource to those who would like to further understand the complex working of this event. While ‘intuitively’ capturing the ‘spirit of the age’, such detailed sources have resulted in raising perceptive questions, which makes this book so valuable to the lay and informed readers alike.