Kullu is a district in Himachal Pradesh – Northern India’s Hill Province. The Dussehra celebration in Kullu is globally famous. My article (Kullu Dussehra – Gods’ Own Get-Together) has been carried in the November 2017 issue of Smart Photography – India’s #1 Photography Magazine. You may read it here!

In Kullu Dussehra - Gods' Own Get-Together, the chariot moves
And the chariot is on the move…

Let me admit – I had no clue about the significance of Kullu Dussehra till I was almost near Kullu – on my way to attend the celebrations this year. Somewhere between Mandi and Kullu, I saw a small religious procession that was walking rather purposefully at a brisk pace. A couple of guys were carrying what seemed like a palki (palanquin), while some of the others were carrying Himachali folk musical instruments.

Folk instruments make their presence felt in Kullu Dussehra - Gods' Own Get-Together
Himachali folk musicians heralding the arrival on a god!

Kullu Dussehra – Gods’ Own Get-Together

The procession comprised dancers, priests, hangers-on, palanquin bearers, musicians and more. The palanquin was not the typical veiled box normally deployed when the newlywed bride leaves her parents’ house. It was an open small platform that had some deity’s idol in all its religious regalia perched on top.

Kullu Dussehra - Gods' Own Get-Together
God being brought on a palanquin

The musicians were carrying some wind and percussion instruments. These instruments seemed like a rag-tag mishmash of long and short horns, some single and double skin drums and the like. I was told the S-shaped horn is called Narasingha, the shorter horn is called a Chhannai (Shehnai), the longer horn is a Karnali, and the drums were assorted Nagaaras (single skin drum) and dhols (double skin drums).

Narasingha announces a god's arrival in Kullu Dussehra - Gods' Own Get-Together
Narasingha announces a god’s arrival

Kullu Dussehra and Tales of its origin

Satya, my co-traveller who is from Himachal, enlightened me. Here is what he, and others I met during the festival, shared.

According to the legend, as Maharishi Jamdagni was returning from a pilgrimage, a violent storm brewed up. He was carrying a basket full of idols of gods over his head. The storm imbalanced him and the basket fell, throwing those idols over different areas of the valley. Since then, the deity worship began in Kullu Valley. Subsequently, an annual ritual of these gods assembling in Kullu on Dussehra has been followed for the last 350 years or so.

A tattoo in progress at Kullu Dussehra - Gods' Own Get-Together
Festive fervour – a visitor getting himself a tattoo

It all started as Raja Jagat Singh’s penance for torturing a Brahmin who had cursed the king as he was dying. An Ashtadhatu (Eight Metals) idol of Raghunath Ji (Lord Rama) was brought from Ayodhya and the king diligently worshipped him from then on.

Soon, the curse was lifted and, seeing this, the entire valley agreed to treat Lord Rama as their chief deity. From then on, all the deities from the valley started to gather in Kullu on the day of Dussehra to pay obeisance to Lord Rama.

For more about the origin, hop across to Kullu Dussehra Wikipedia Page!

Kullu Dussehra - Gods' Own Get-Together
God’s trident being placed near his platform

Assembly of gods

The gods arrive from all around the valley on palanquins – just like the one I saw while reaching Kullu. The palanquin carriers are called ‘jamannis‘. They carry the god from their village on foot. Some of these palanquins are as heavy as 200 kg. The others who walk along are called ‘devlus‘. While anyone can be a devlu, not everyone can be a jamanni. Jamannis must have coordination amongst them. Otherwise, the palanquin could get imbalanced and the devta (god) may fall. Along the way, jamannis can only keep down their god at certain designated places.

Naati dance at Kullu Dussehra - Gods' Own Get-Together
Naati dance in progress

These gods are brought on foot from places as far as 60 km. or more. The journey could take them upwards of 48 hours in some cases. Some of these god idols are clad in silver. Each of these gods has a designated place near the Kullu Dussehra Ground (Dhalpur Ground) and they are rested there for the entire duration of the 7-day celebration.

As of this year, Kullu Dussehra’s website officially recognises 389 gods. They all have been allotted designated resting places near the venue. These gods hail from 7 different areas of the valley namely Nirmand, Anni, Banjaar, Sainj, Bhuntar, Kullu, and Manali. This year, 210 of these 389 gods arrived.

A God being placed at a designated place in Kullu Dussehra - Gods' Own Get-Together
Preparatory fanfare for the god to be placed on the resting platform near Dhalpur Ground

Flagging off the Celebrations

On Dussehra Day, the Ashtadhatu Raghunath idol from the famous Raghunath Temple is brought out and it remains on a Ratha (chariot) for this 7-day celebration. Once the idol is on the Ratha, a chharibardar (a guy carrying a long staff) goes to invite the King of Kullu. While the king arrives, the idols of Lord Rama and Sita are endowed with floral decorations.

All this while, the gods are brought from their resting places to Dhalpur Ground for participation in the celebrations. With each arrival, the ground fills up a little more. By the time the decorations of the Raghunath idol are done, all those gods who are permitted to be present in the ground according to their pecking order would arrive. That is when the ground would get totally packed with people.

Colours at the Kullu Dussehra - Gods' Own Get-Together
Balloons being distributed to the Naati dancers…

It is then the Ratha (chariot) is pulled and the procession of gods starts to make its way through the ground. Though there is police arrangement to maintain order, the responsibility of making the way for the chariot rests with one of the gods – Dhoomal Nag. This god arrives from Hallan area near Patlikuhal, some 35 km from Kullu town on Naggar Road.

Dhoomal Nag is considered to be Lord Raghunath’s warrior. He moves through the crowd like a wild elephant and clears the way for the Ratha. Year after year, he performs his traffic cop duty diligently. And, given his bombastic style, he also creates some mirth amongst the admiring crowd.Hundreds of Naati dancers at Kullu Dussehra - Gods' Own Get-Together

The Festivity Continues

On the second day, the big draw is the Naati dance. Naati is a slow, group folk dance from Himachal Pradesh. Both men and women form a large circle and dance together to the beat of the music created by the traditional folk instruments I talked about earlier. As part of the Dussehra celebrations, a large number of Naati dancers from across the valley gather and perform together. In fact, a couple of years ago, 9872 dancers danced together to create a world record that now features in the Guinness Book.

During your stay in Kullu, if you can spare half a day, go for this strenuous yet scenic trek – Bijli Mahadev Trek.

Polka dots in the sky at Kullu Dussehra - Gods' Own Get-Together
Polka dots in the sky

This year, before the dance began, the dancers released balloons and the skies were suddenly filled with colourful polka dots. And then, the musicians galvanised the entire ground! All you could see were bodies clad in traditional Himachali attire gently swaying to the loud yet melodious folk music! This performance continues for a couple of hours with a few short breaks in between. During one such break, some children also performed Naati.

Naati dance by children at Kullu Dussehra - Gods' Own Get-Together
Children performing Naati

It doesn’t end here

For the next four days, the visitors enjoy the offerings of a typical rural fair. Traditional sweets, chai, local delicacies, shopping, music, and dance continue. People meet their friends and make new ones. They spend some downtime recharging for routine. In general, the atmosphere is relaxed and filled with jollity and bonhomie.

All this while, the chariot remains parked near the Dhalpur Ground.

Helping herself to a balloon at Kullu Dussehra - Gods' Own Get-Together
Let me help myself to one

On the seventh day (last day), with great fanfare, the chariot is taken to the riverbank in a procession. Here, the king sacrifices 7 animals. That marks the conclusion of the celebrations. And that is when the gods make their way back to their own villages.

I have shared the various tales and described the festivities for you. But, the most interesting story regarding the origin of Kullu Dussehra I heard was from a visitor. Of course, there is no truth in it. According to him, after Lord Rama killed Ravana, all the gods came over to congratulate him and then proceeded to have a party!

Whatever be the true reason for the celebration, it certainly is one of the most colourful events I have witnessed till now. Do visit this riot of culture and colour. You are bound to remember it forever.

Here is the article as it appeared in the magazine:

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