October 23, 2008

Goddess Durga Rides Tiger on Dussehra


The rickshaw paused for a moment to let a jeep pass before taking the turn and accelerating down the slope. To our right, set back from the road lay residential housing societies, their gates opening into short driveways that led to squat buildings arranged around a central space where children played in the evenings. At each of the gates a lone security guard or two sat on makeshift stools by the gatepost or lolled around, watching traffic and people on the road, their uniforms having dulled from long hours in the heat.

Before long the Sun would begin its descent behind the hills and Dussehra, having marked the end of nine days and nine nights of Navratri, would now draw to a close. Devotees who had installed the idol of Goddess Durga in their homes or in a community pandal on the sixth day of Navratri would now bear her away in a colourful procession for immersion in a river or a stream, marking the end of Dussehra, the tenth day that had concluded the nine-day long Navratri festival the day before.


As the rickshaw gathered speed on the slope faint drumbeats from a few moments ago grew louder and in the time it took me to realize what the commotion was about the rickshaw had passed a small procession in the opposite direction bearing Goddess Durga for immersion.

“Stop, stop, stop,” I half-shouted, tapping the driver on his shoulder. It took him a moment or two to register my urgent plea before he slowed down to the side of the road. Leaping out I half-sprinted back to where the procession was making its way up the gentle incline. By now pedestrians had slowed down to keep pace with the procession. Security guards stood outside the gates they guarded, watching the three drummers coax beats out of their drums.

Behind them in a wooden cart that street vendors use to hawk varied wares on regular days an idol of Goddess Durga astride a tiger was placed in the centre with religious paraphernalia arranged around her; coconuts, incense sticks, vermillion powder, and holy water (tirtha) among other things. Unlike the ferocious image of the deity one would normally see in the various representations of Goddess Durga, here her face exuded a serenity that contrasted with the occasion. It was on the tenth day, after nine days and nine nights of titanic struggle, that she vanquished the demon, Mahishasura. So the nine days and nine nights came to be celebrated as Navratri, and the tenth day as Dussehra (Dussera) or Vijayadashami, marking the triumph of good over evil. It is considered an auspicious day in the Hindu calendar for beginning new ventures.

Garlanded with flowers she sat on the tiger, a trident in the left hand while the right was raised in blessing. The men who accompanied the procession pushed the cart along while women and children in bright clothes walked behind the cart. Celebratory colours marked their shirts, and faces. Having taken a few pictures I offered a quick prayer to the deity and was handed prasad (offerings blessed by the deity), usually sugar based. Behind me the drummers sounded their drums, drowning the sound of garlanded vehicles plying on the road.

From as far back as I can remember I’ve always looked forward to Dussehra. There was a time when I would wait for Navaratri to end so that on Dussehra day, a school holiday, I could garland my bicycle, say a small prayer and ride it all day with my friends. At first when I was too young to understand why folks cleaned their vehicles and garlanded it on Dussehra I used to derive a sense of anticipation and purpose from seeing brightly coloured garlands, usually marigolds strung together with twine, adorning vehicles, working implements and other items of household utility. Needless to say they lent the environs a festive air and I was more than happy to rejoice in it.

It was only later that I came to learn the significance of the day and so also the ‘why’ behind the ritual.

On Dussehra day (October 9) I woke up to the Sun slanting rays through cracks in the curtain. Looking out the window on a footpath across the street from where we stay I saw a lady ensconced against the retaining wall with a basketful of marigolds, coloured a deep saffron and yellow, resting at her feet where she sat on the footpath. Even as early morning customers, folks who hadn’t got around to purchasing flowers the previous day, began trickling in she continued stitching the flowers into garlands of varying sizes, only pausing to effect a sale. Her young daughter, not older than eight, sat alongside and helped her with stitching the flowers into garlands. Sales were brisk, and before I got ready to venture out after a quick bath and prayers she had shifted from the footpath to the side of the road shaded by a tree. The Sun was gathering strength.

The road outside was awash with shiny vehicles, helped no doubt from early morning washing, followed by puja (a hindu ritual) before being adorned with colourful garlands. Stepping out of the building I saw in a corner of the parking space a small bicycle with a tiny garland adorning the handle bar. I could imagine the surprise awaiting the kid on discovering the garland gracing his bicycle. A few feet away a car was decorated similarly. There was no one about.


Most of the rickshaws on the road had garlands affixed to the front. So when we got into a rickshaw that didn’t have one it almost seemed odd. The driver, a Hindu, who had rented the rickshaw for a daily fee told me that it belonged to a Muslim. “That’s why there’s no garland on it.” Though it made eminent sense not to garland the rickshaw I knew how it must feel not to for, all implements of daily use, particularly those which help earn a living, are considered sacred and treated as such. In celebrating them as in offering prayers and decorating them on Dussera they’re elevated from being mere implements to that which sustains life. It matters little if they belong to you or not so long as you use them to earn your livelihood.

So a municipality worker will garland his broom and the hand cart like the one I came upon on Dussera day. Worn from use on the streets the broom might as well have been invested with life as it lay in the hand cart, flowers adorning the two extremities. It’s a humbling experience to see a rusting hand cart and a broom accorded respect and worshipped not so much for its utility on the streets as for its significance to the person wielding them. It is a matter of livelihood. Sometimes it is difficult to understand the importance that the seemingly ‘unimportant’ holds in the overall scheme of things unless confronted with the evidence like I was that day.


Stopping by a newspaper vendor to buy a newspaper I took care not to brush my knees against the garland adorning the wooden platform he had fashioned out to display newspapers.

To my right a motorcyclist stopped by a handcart to buy a length of garland for his motorcycle even as a little girl, her skirt mirroring the colours of flowers in the garland that the vendor held up for the motorcyclist to see, passed by. For a moment I wondered if her choice of dress was deliberate, celebrating the marigolds that abound on Dussehra. It could have been a coincidence for all I know, more so considering that India, for the most part, is as much a land of coincidences as it is a land of colours, flowers or otherwise.

Flowers must necessarily invest life in all that they grace, and nothing is so insignificant as to be unimportant to flowers.


Returning from work on the last day of the nine-day Navratri festival I ran into a thick wall of people in the small flower market in Dadar where tiny hole-in-the-wall shops line one side of the walking path that exits the station in the direction of Parel. To the other side, vendors sit with their backs to the bridge, their baskets of flowers in front, narrowing the path even further. Between these two rows commuters exiting the station in the direction of Parel have to make their way past a steady stream of customers come to buy flowers.

On normal days a bit of twisting and turning gets me through. But this was not a normal day. The next day was Dussehra and demand for flowers as well as the number of people come to buy them was large. Squeezed for space in the best of times, the passage now seemed more like a dam near bursting.


Men, women and children crowded the space. Above the din rose voices from hole-in-the-wall shops with vendors calling out prices for their wares. I’ve rarely seen so many flowers in so small a space. Wherever they could make some space women spread out worn jute sacks and set about stitching flowers into garlands while their children looked on.


“Ten rupees for a metre (of garland),” one lady called out to me when I turned to look in her direction. Across from where she sat with two other women helping with her task a man caught my attention and pointing to garlands he had hung from a makeshift wooden T, he said, “Thirty rupees a metre.” I moved on, dazzled in part from seeing the riot of colours and delighting in the activity occasioned by the festive occasion.


On the retaining wall of the bridge that enclosed the path at one end, vendors had stuck various posters of Hindu deities, depending on the gods they worshipped and under whose benign eye they carried out their business. So posters of Goddess Durga riding the Tiger, of Lord Shiva, of Lord Krishna and others from the famed pantheon of Hindu gods graced the wall.

I was barely making a metre a minute along the path, such was the pre-Dussera rush. A youth stopped by to check a pretty garland of flowers. A rucksack hung from his back. The shopkeeper emerged from the hole-in-the-wall room and said, “Eighty-five for it.” Two men sat to the side stitching more garlands. I seriously doubted if they could supply the demand. Some vendors were selling loose marigolds at rupees thirty a kilo. In the rush it was difficult to pin a voice to the basket, voices floating like erratic moths around a bright flame.

On the bridge passing overhead, a cameraman, most likely from a local news channel, rested his camera on the parapet of the bridge and aimed it at the crowd of festive shoppers below. Behind him trucks and taxis made their way in the direction of Parel.


As I took the steps up the public footbridge to make my way to the railway platform the rush of similar activity on the bridge overtook the one I had just passed in the narrow lane (gulli). Vendors lined the bridge on either side, and unlike on other days when they call out to passing commuters to press their sales they had little or no time today.

Heaps of leaves from the Shami tree (Prosopis spicigera) were going at five rupees a bunch. Commuters on their way home stopped by the vendors to buy them for use on Dussera the next day when Hindus exchange Shami leaves (known as Banni in Kannada) to wish each other ‘victory’ with their ventures and the like.

The leaves of the Shami tree have come to symbolize success and wealth, drawing their significance from the Mahabharata thousands of years ago. Exiled for fourteen years from their kingdom and in disguise for one year when they had to travel incognito, the Pandavas hid their divine weapons in a Shami tree as they went their way. On returning after a year of traveling incognito they found their weapons intact. In gratitude they offered their prayers and thanksgiving to the Shami (Banni) tree and to Goddess Durga for strength and victory as they prepared to battle the Kauravas. In the ensuing battle they emerged victorious (‘Vijaya’ in Sanskrit) and made a triumphant return from their exile. Since then the leaves of the Shami (known as Banni in Kannada) are exchanged between worshippers on Vijayadashami (Dussera), wishing each other ‘victory’ in their efforts with their ventures, not necessarily business ventures.

The heaps of Banni leaves on the bridge brought a welter of memories rushing in, for, exchanging leaves of the Banni is among my earliest Dussera memories. On Dussehra day Dad would send me along to our neighbours to wish them well and exchange Banni leaves with them. What made it even more memorable was the fact that exchanging Banni leaves was not restricted to people we knew, we exchanged them with strangers as well, in turn spreading good wishes around even as we partook of it ourselves, in large quantities I must add.

As I descended the steps to the platform and waited for the train that would take me home I watched trains pass adjoining platforms, delighting in the colourful garlands adorning the massive engines on the eve of Dussehra. Some trains had their windows garlanded, in effect framing passengers as they looked out the windows.


In a coach of an Asangaon-bound train I found a garlanded poster of Goddess Durga riding a tiger, and the day she destroyed the demon Mahishasura came to be celebrated as Dussehra, marking the triumph of good over evil. While posters advertising sundry services crowded Goddess Durga her image radiated strongly the symbolism marking the celebrations. Standing there I could not help but reflect on the deadly Bombay train bombings carried out by Islamic extremists in July 2006 that left over 200 dead and scores injured. On that fateful day I was delayed at the office by an impending delivery, and chances are I probably missed being on one of the seven trains that was bombed that day.

There’s much evil that still exists and maybe that’s one reason why some of India’s festivals bring alive the context even though the events they celebrate occurred thousands of years ago.

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39 comments:

Anonymous said...

what a colourful post...

ugich konitari said...

I was avidly checking, over the last few days, for your Navratri post part II. And it was totally worth the wait.

You have a knack for making the ordinary and mundane, wonderful. And the pictures are so perceptive. Made me feel as if I was in Dadar myself, the crowded bridge/flower market and all.

And your last para makes one think. I think these festivals kind of keep us going as well as make us think.....

Arun said...

thats a beautiful story supported very well with pictures.

Do you always carry the camera with you?

Bee said...

We all need a day (or many of them, actually) where good triumphs over evil! I wish that this auspicious day for new ventures would have coincided with the U.S. Presidential election.

I like the way you weave your personal memories of Dussehra into the story. India being colourful is a cliche I suppose, but all of the flowers and crowds and that highly decorated goddess just reinforce that image. I particularly liked the picture of the little girl in her marigold dress -- coincidence or design, it was exceptionally lovely.

heidi said...

the flowers.. the colors.... how do you close your eyes to sleep at night?! Beautiful!

N said...

i just realised that you might be interested in this(but who does not know abt my blog-fyi ;)) is having this photo exhibit @ ncpa, 1st to 10th nov. its called Utsav.

Anil P said...

Anon: Thank you.

Ugich Konitari: Thank you. It was partly because of you that I hurried with the part II :)

I'm glad you liked the post. Yes, rightly said. They keep us going as well as make us think.

Arun: Thank you. Not always, but most times, yes.

Bee: Yes, we need more of the days where good triumphs over evil.

Thank you. Most of these festivals have many of my memories associated with them.

The little girl's dress was the exact colour combination of the marigolds on sale with the vendor in the picture :)

Heidi: Each day brings fresh colours. Eyes close after committing the colours to memory.

N: If I'm around I'll surely make it to the exhibition. Who's exhibiting the work, wasn't clear to me.

worldphotos4 said...

A very educational and enjoyable post. You tell a very nice story. Thanks.

alice said...

I'll have to come back several times because I amn't very fast reading in English, but I do like the atmosphere! Thank you for visiting my blogs :-))

Parul said...

Your posts are well written and structured. and pictures just make us go through every moment you'd have gone through.

great!

Judy said...

What a great story about your customs and holidays. I enjoyed all the pictures and descriptions of the people and could imagine the festivity.

Jeanne said...

Once again your words and images capture the imagination of those reading. Thank you for your comments. In answer to your question about scrapbooking. I don't believe the pictures need constrain the thoughts. My pages are various and at times I use one photo with more writing. Sometimes the opposite. Having a blog helps me to organize my thoughts and I sometimes use those words when doing a layout. I'd love to see what you create!

Anil P said...

Worldphotos4: Thank you.

Alice: Thanks. It's nice to know you liked the atmosphere of the post.

Parul: Thanks. I suppose in some way pictures will eventually retain the feel of the place visually. Eventually each picture is a potential archival material given the changes that threaten tradition.

Judy: Thanks. Festivities start in full swing post-monsoons, and they're many in number.

Jeanne: Thank you.

Yes, I agree with your thoughts. Pictures need not constrain. Any constraint, if there is one, can only come from the limitation of space as in a layout. I suppose once the medium is mastered as in using it optimally it should not be a problem.

I quite liked the way you've planned the layout in your scrapbook. And like you said, a blog will help organize thoughts for sure.

I hope I can create one. I would want to.

Shillu said...

You have such a beautiful blog! love the pictures - i am going to comeback to read all the old posts soon!

please sir said...

Colorful and looks so fun!

mark said...

beautiful, anil

N said...

lol. i ate up some words...

someone i know but who doesnt know abt my blog..........

thats what i was trying to say. that person is hosting the exhibition.

Anil P said...

Shillu: Thank you. You're most welcome :)

Please Sir: Thanks.

Mark: Thanks, Mark. It's been a long time :)

N: Oh, Ok. Now I get it :) I might be out of town for the duration of the exhibition. I usually check on the NCPA for upcoming photography exhibitions, seen many there. Hopefully the next time when he puts one up.

kenju said...

Beautiful, colorful photos, Anil. Many people here in the US missed being in the Twin towers on 9/11 for some odd reasons. They too feel blessed.

Ravi Kumar said...

You r so industrious. Your sincerity is infectious. Keep writing!

Sarah Laurence said...

A tiger is such a beautiful and scary animal in both life and art. I love the vision of a goddess riding one adorned in flowers. From your opening photo, I had imagined they were life size.

What a lovely observation you made in the morning light. It must be nice to live in country with so many flowers. With your words and photos, you bring this festival to life.

Lucy said...

I think this is one of my favbourites, especially of your festival posts.

A while back I posted a little poem that began 'Little is lovely that is orange...' and ever since I've had the loveliness of orange brought home to me time and again! The marigolds here here are such a magical, joyous theme of colour. I love the little girl's dress, but also the little bike and the sweeper's cart and broom.

Your writing is great too. I like the idea of the objects becoming animate through their inclusion and decoration in the festival.

A super post, Anil, thank you.

Anil P said...

Kenju: Thank you. Looking back now I can imagine how they must've thanked their luck for having played a part in their lives.

I'm sure there'll have been the other side as well, of people who weren't supposed to be there that day.

Destiny!

Ravi Kumar: Thanks, Ravi, for the very encouraging words.

Sarah Laurence: The tiger is a recurring motif in India, finding itself represented in various ways, usually peculiar to respective regions.

There are life-size statues of the Goddess as well. Calcutta comes alive to Durga Puja when life-size representations of the Goddess, the tiger, and her slaying of the demon are creatively represented by local artists.

I'm planning on telling the story of Durga Puja on my friend's behalf, based on his time in Calcutta during Durga Puja. If I can pull it off then I might put up a post to that effect. I've never been to Calcutta myself, as yet.

Lucy: Thanks, Lucy. It's a great feeling to be able to reach out and find acceptance for the spirit of the festival in a land far, far away. It's indeed a pleasure to know you enjoyed the post.

What a coincidence it must be to have the orange theme recurring so frequently and in so many different ways.

The marigolds are as vibrant a flower as any other. Somehow, having seen them over the years on festive occasions I tend to associate Indian festivals with marigolds as much as I associate festivals with their own set of traditions, and history.

I agree. Objects no longer remain objects when included in the festival.

I like the beginning of the poem. Orange is indeed a sunny thought to have.

Lakshmi said...

The last para says it all..and the pics depict the festivities..on the eve of another festival, hoping for another beautiful post from u..happy deepavali

Cuckoo said...

These festivals always brings in so many facets of our life. No ?

Mridula said...

Happy Diwali to both of you Anil.

DeLi said...

culture is truly interesting and something to be proud of. thank you for sharing

Ramya Vijaykumar said...

Nice that you carried your camera... How much I miss these festives and it does give the kids to work with parents garlanding even the tinest of their vehicles... No wonder the Hand cart was garlanded its definitely a festival of colors and bring in all the enthusiasm even in the dullest and the poorest in the country... I felt I was in the procession all along :)

Deborah Godin said...

This is my first visit here - Bobbie (http://bobbie-almostthere.blogspot.com) sent me here because I had a painted elephant in my blog post today, but didn't know much about it. If you get a chance to stop by, you might know what the image is. I really enjoyed your words and images of the festival, and will be sure to visit again!

Anil P said...

Lakshmi: Thank you. Hopefully I can come up with one on Diwali. Thanks for the wishes. Wish you a very happy Diwali too.

Cuckoo: Yes, they do.

Mridula: Thank you. Wish you a very happy Diwali.

DeLi: Yes, culture is interesting. It refines humanity.

Ramya Vijaykumar: It's difficult to keep kids away from something as colourful as flowers. Finding the handcart and the broom garlanded was a touching moment, faith transcends most things. Thank you.

Deborah Godin: Thanks to Bobbie for referring my posts to you.

The forehead might've given a clearer idea of the context of the big cat pictured on the elephant.

Elephants are revered, and their association with Lord Shiva (vis-a-vis Ganpati, the elephant-headed god) is often depicted using the words 'Om Namah Shivai', a picture I put up in one of my earlier posts.

Here, the Big Cat appears to be chasing deer, and could well be depicting a jungle scene with little or no religious connotation to it.

A frontal picture might've helped understanding it better.

Sunny Daffodil. said...

Wonderful use of pictures and words..!

CoyoteFe said...

Congratulations! You have received the "I Love Your Blog" Award!
Go here to pick it up: http://coyoteroad.blogspot.com/

Thanks for your wonderful blog!

Shireena said...

What a lovely post told in such entertaining story-like prose. The garlands placed on every vehicle and workplace and home etc, seems so special and devotional to me, deepening my respect of Hinduism even futher. The picture of the broom and your description made it all the more poignant. I can imagine the excitment of being a child during festival time!

I am struck by the closeness at which you came to boarding that train. Human's capacity for evil never ceases to frighten me. Our capacity for goodness also never ceases to amaze me.

Anil P said...

Sunny Daffodil: Thanks.

CoyoteFe: Thanks for considering my effort for the award. It made my day. Thanks :)

Shireena: Thank you. Time puts distance between events, but the margin of probablity will always keep the event fresh in the mind.

I'm happy to learn you enjoy reading about India and its traditions.

Shireena said...

I completely agree with you about time. I feel the same way about 9/11, when I was on my way to an interview in the towers (and late) here in NYC.

Coffee Messiah said...

Great story and such vivid colors. We pale by comparison.
Thanks as always for the photos and informational tour!

Cheers!

Anil P said...

Shireena: That was close indeed.

Coffee Messiah: Thank you. The festivals are very vivid.

Braja said...

Hey Anil...thanks for dropping by today. You write beautifully, really. I think it's one of the astounding, sense-pounding contradictions of India is the ability to war and party at once...it stuns the western world, but it is amazing how in the blink of an eye everything is forgotten as soon as a new festival descends...
Love the references to the Pandavas. Anything mention of them is worth reading....
I'll be back... :)

Anil P said...

Braja: Thank you. It's like an unending peeling of layers, except that they peel by themselves. Sure, you're most welcome :)