Walking through the catered food, sipping cocktails and shopping for handicrafts, I realized it was a much different Dussehra celebration than I had anticipated. Yes, India is evolving, and the way that Dussehra is celebrated is a perfect example.
What is Dussehra?
Dussehra, also known as Vijayadasami, is a national holiday in India. Dussehra is celebrated on the 10th day of the month, known as Ashwin in the Hindu calendar. The first nine days are celebrated during what is known as Maha Navratri, meaning ninth night, and on the tenth day Dussehra begins. The day honors the victory of the triumph of Lord Rama over Ravana. It also celebrates the killing of demon Mahishasur by Goddess Durga. According to the Hindu religion, the goddess fought with Mahishasura for ten days and nine nights before finally defeating him. Therefore the day is a celebration of good over evil and as is the case with most holidays in India, it is celebrated in many different ways depending on the region, but they almost all have one thing in common. The night ends with a giant burning of a depiction of the Lord Ravana. Everywhere on the streets are giant masks of him. The Indian people make, or purchase, the models and then burn them in a spectacular fashion, often with fireworks, which they call crackers. It is kind of like America’s Burning Man, but in India, and without the nudity and drugs.
How is it Celebrated?
We began our evening with a particular festival in mind located about ten miles away from my apartment. Traffic was horrible and we got a little lost, but finally scored a great parking spot directly across the street from the venue. Decorated wagons full of rowdy locals were parading down the street. The rigs had giant horns blaring Hindi music. Some had colorfully dressed women dancing provocatively in the middle. Vendors were selling balloons and cotton candy and people were dressed in their formals. Everyone was in a good mood and the energy was amazing.
I was most excited to see the burning of the demon, but unfortunately we arrived only to find out that we had missed it! That explained the perfect parking spot! Feeling disappointed, we headed off to another celebration nearby to check it our instead. That festival was the exact opposite of the first one. It was advertised as one of the few eco-friendly Dussehra festivals. Instead of burning a giant mask, they told the story of good over evil with a well done laser light show. Everyone was equally as excited, but the ambiance was quite different. Kirti commented several times about how different it was from the traditional festival and that it didn’t have the same zeal. Indeed, it was in a posh part of town and catered to the more affluent people. It featured catered food, cocktails, handicrafts for purchase and a pottery wheel available for use.
I paid my 200 rupees so I could give it a shot. I hadn’t made pottery since high school. It was such a blast and it seemed that many people were curious about the white woman getting her hands all filthy on the pottery wheel. Before long I had a number of people watching me. When I was done I had an imperfect little pot that I will treasure forever. After that we pigged out on all kinds of great Indian food, including cheese dosa and a very sour flavor of shaved iced which reminded me of a snow cone back home.
Both celebrations were fun and it left me feeling like India is finally trying to do something about all its pollution. The burning of all those masks in one night must be horrible for the environment. But as they say, progress always comes at a price, and in this case, the price is tradition and ancient custom.