Dussehra is celebrated in most parts of the country on Vijaya Dashmi to commemorate the victory of Rama over the demon king Ravana. The highlight of this fair is the victory of good over evil. Kullu Dussehra is, however, different in certain ways from the Dussehra celebrations in the other parts of the country. It presents the cultural ethos of the people and their deep-rooted religious beliefs which manifest during this festival with traditional songs, dances, and colourful dresses. It begins on Vijaya Dashmi and lasts for a week.
The beginning of Dussehra in Kullu dates back to the regime of Raja Jagat Singh who ruled Kullu from 1637 to 1672. There is a legend that Raja Jagat Singh of Kullu who had been informed that a bowl full of pearls was in possession of Durga Dutt, a poor Brahmin of village Tipri. The Raja directed his courtiers to fetch the pearls from the Brahmin. Durga Dutt was greatly harassed by the courtiers. Finding the torture rather unbearable, he told them that the pearls would be delivered to the Raja on his return to the village from Manikaran where he was going. When the Raja arrived in the village, the Brahmin locked himself along with his family members and set the house fire. Sitting by its side, he cut his flesh with a sharp blade at every leap of the fire and cursed the Raja for his unjust demand by saying “Have the pearls, O’Raja”. The entire family was reduced to ashes.
After a lapse of some time, it so happened that the Raja was haunted by the spirit of the innocent Brahmin family, stung by the qualms of the conscience he felt every moment the painful and tearing pinch of the strings and arrows of the deadly sin committed by him. Under guilt conscious and hallucination he used to see crawling worms in place of rice and human blood in place of water in the tumbler. The Raja did whatever he could do but of no avail. The news of his illness spread throughout his kingdom and all possible means of curing his disease were explored by his courtiers, prominent hakims, vaids, doctors and religious person’s saints etc. But nothing could stop Raja’s hallucination. At last a Bairagi named Krishan dutt (Pahari Baba) offered his counsel that no medicine can be effective to cure the Raja except the blessings of lord Rama. In this direction he further suggested that the Raja should take charanamrit of an idol of lord Rama. This idea struck sound in the mind of the Raja and further efforts were made to procure a holy idol of lord Rama from Ayodhya. His efforts succeeded in procuring a genuine idol from Ayodhya. For this work a disciple of Bairagi Krishan dutt named Damodar Dass was selected and was deputed for this purpose. Damodar Dass had attained miraculouspower known as Gutka Sidhi. Through this miraculous power he was able to procure the rare piece of Rama’s idol along with Pujari from Ayodhya which was installed in Raghunathjee’s temple at Sultanpur Kullu by observing all the rituals suggested by the learned priests of that time. It may be interesting to record here that a special class of priests were brought from Ayodhya to conduct the rituals and their descendants still continue to keep-up the tradition.
Raja Jagat Singh faithfully observed and followed the suggestions of Bairagi Krishan Dutt. Soon signs of recovery from the dreaded disease were seen. He was greatly influenced by the divine power of Rama, so much so that he abdicated his throne to the will of Raghunathjee and became ‘Chharibardar’of Raghunathjee. This incident had a great impact in his state and as a consequence thereof all the Devies and Devtas accepted the overall lordship of Raghunathjee. The Raja sent his order to all the ‘Kardars’ of all Gods and Goddesses of the State to assemble at Kullu on the festive occasion of Vijaya Dashmi to first pay obeisance to Raghunathjee and then participate in the festivities thereafter. Now the internationally famous Dussehra of Kullu is celebrated in the same tradition.
The Gods and Goddesses are tastefully decorated on the palanquins, known locally as Raths, in the company of a band they come from the interior valleys and villages situated in every nook and corner of Kullu district. Their Raths are carried by the respective Kardars and they travel all the way on foot, for some of whom it takes 2 to 4 days. First of all, they visit the Raghunathjee temple at Sultanpur. The Rathyatra of Raghunathjee from Sultanpur to Dhalpur starts in the afternoon. It is obligatory that Devi Hadimba of Dhungri, a village near Manali where her famous temple exists, first arrives at the Raghunathjee temple. She is considered as the great grandmother of the erstwhile Raja of Kullu and blesses the descendant of the Raja dynasty.
The main attraction of Kullu Dussehra is the Rathyatra of Raghunathjee. The Rath is made of deodar wood having a very huge wooden base, wooden wheels and a temple-like structure. This is mostly kept in one corner of Dhalpur ground. The Raghunathjee’s idol is brought from Sultanpur in a palanquin accompanied by the Raja, priests, and bodyguards attired in their traditional dresses. A huge procession comprising of various deities in the accompaniment of their bands starts usually in the afternoon. This annual Yatra of Raghunathjee is very significant and is greeted by the local residents with great reverence and faith. Flowers are showered on the Palki of Raghunathjee. The Ratha at Dhalpur is tastefully decorated by covering it with screens, clothes and Kalsas. Silver Chhatra at the top and Kalsas on the 4 corners of the Ratha add a special charm to the Ratha. The Ratha is profusely bedecked with flowers and garlands. A huge crowd awaits the arrival of the Raghunathjee’s idol at Dhalpur. The Palki of Raghunathjee is escorted to the place specially decorated by the priests. The procession headed by the Raja and his kith and kin stops at some distance. The priests perform certain rituals. Thereafter, the oracle of Goddess Hadimba appears at the scene. In the state of trance, the oracle expresses the consent of the Goddess for starting the traditional fair without any hurdle or hindrance and also for the well being of the entire people. The Raja goes round the Ratha followed by others. Some of the deities at this occasion also pay their obeisance to Raghunathjee, while all this goes on, the waiting crowd is very anxious to pull the ropes of the Ratha which is driven down to the site of the Mela. It is a wonderful sight to witness thousands of devotees pulling the Ratha. It is considered a sacred duty by the local people to have grabbed the opportunity of pulling the ropes of Ratha during Rathyatra.
This is now the beginning of the festivities. The participating deities come here in turns. These deities camp at the site of the fair during the entire period and they are allotted specific sites where they pitch their tents and keep the deities for holy Darshana of the devotees who have the faith in the powers of these deities. The Kardars and the musicians stay along with their Devi-devtas. Each of these deities is provided a tent by the local administration. In the vast area of Dhalpur, the Municipal Committee allots plots where shopkeepers erect their tents, etc. The entire area is planned in a systematic manner so as to accommodate different types of business centres such as an area for cattle trade, zoo, circus, merry-go-rounds, utensil sellers, sweetmeat sellers, local handicraft sellers etc. The Municipal Committee charges rent from the shopkeepers depending on the site, space, and type of business. The entire planning is done under the overall supervision of the Deputy Commissioner and various committees are formed to manage the activities of the fair. The main highlights of the fair are cultural show by the school and college boys and girls invited from various institutions not only of the state but from other states of the country. Of late, the cultural activities have been extended to the international sphere, and folk parties from other countries are also invited to participate. This festival continues for 7 days and the people not only from the district but from the far off places come and visit the festivities. Foreigners also take part in this fair and a lot of photographers cover the area. Every day the deities visit the Pandal of Raghunathjee. Local inhabitants also visit the presiding deity. The erstwhile Kullu Raja holds a Darbar where prominent persons from the entire district take part. All the activities are carried in a decent and orderly fashion.
During the festival, some of the deities meet each other and enquire about their welfare through their oracles and the Kardars. The local craftsmen such as potters, basket and mat makers, iron-smiths, shoe-makers and weavers sell their articles. On the Pratipada day, just after Purnima, the festival concludes by sacrificing a buffalo, a ram, kekra, fish, and cock on the right bank of river Beas.
The sacrificial spectacle is a great attraction for visitors. The Raja, along with his security men, kith and kin leads the procession to the river bank and offers a darat (big sickle) to a person who sacrifices the buffalo just with one stroke and with this the fair concludes.