Imagine a Dussehra where nobody tries to prove “my Ravan is greater than yours”; there is no staging of the Ramlila; where children do not play with swords, clubs, bows and arrows, and the victory of good over evil does not translate into noise and smoke. Then go and see for yourself in Kullu. The Kullu Dussehra is deservedly famous, but few know that it is nothing like the festival most of us celebrate. Firstly, it does not end on Vijayadashami, but only begins on that day, then continues for a week. It is certainly connected with the legend of Lord Ram’s victory over Ravan, but that event is not central to it. Rather, it is local knowledge that has shaped the celebration of Dussehra in the Kullu valley over the last few centuries. The story goes that a Vaishnav saint, Krishnadas, advised Raja Jagat Singh (1637-62) of Kullu to somehow obtain the idols of Lord Ram and Sita, enshrined in Ayodhya’s Tretanath temple, if he wanted to be cured of leprosy.
The Raja sent Pandit Damodardas Gosain on this mission and after waiting for a year, the Pandit was able to steal the idols. The idols were first installed in Manikaran, and the Raja served them dutifully and drank their charnamrit, after which he was cured. Soon after, he placed the idols on his throne and called himself a servant of Lord Ram. In the year 1660, he built the Raghunathji Temple at Sultanpur (Kullu) and the idols came to live there. In the same year, the gram devtas or village gods of Kullu (see ‘The Devtas of Kullu Valley’ on page 282), numbering 365 in all, also gathered to honor Lord Ram on the occasion of Dussehra. And ever since, the Dussehra at Kullu has had its own character.
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Things to see and do
Most tourists associate the Kullu Dussehra with the rath yatra in the Dhalpur Maidan on the first day of the celebrations. It is without a doubt the most exciting event of the week, but not the only one worth witnessing. On Ram Navami, a day before Dussehra, the city of Kullu comes alive with the sounds of drums and horns announcing the arrival of the devtas. Colorful processions enter the city from all sides and head for Dhalpur Maidan where the various devtas have their pre-assigned camps. The main event of Ram Navami takes place in the Raghunathji Temple in sultanpur. In the evening, the idols of Lord Ram and Sita are taken from the shrine and placed in a sconce for devotees to worship them. Legend has it that these idols are the same ones used by Lord Ram during his Ashwamedh Yagna. They are small because they symbolize the spirit and they are always kept behind a curtain because the spirit is invisible. So tonight is your only chance to see the idols.
Dussehra starts with the devtas reaching Raghunathji temple. The temple is their first stop, but they spend more time at the nearby Rupi Palace, where they are greeted by members of the royal family. The reception at the palace lasts for hours and it is very enjoyable. No one stops tourists from entering the palace courtyard. In the afternoon, the idols of Lord Ram and Sita are carried in palanquin to Dhalpur Maidan for the rath yatra. Not only the ground, but also the buildings around it are covered with people eager to catch a glimpse of the event. But while the wooden chariot seems to be ready at any moment, the rituals and unruly gram-devtas mean that the yatra doesn’t start until nearly 5 p.m. But if it is, it’s over in the blink of an eye. The cordon of police falls apart as the devtas make a mad dash after the chariot, and suddenly the still ground becomes a sea of bobbing heads. It is an adrenaline rush, which explains why it has become the enduring image of the Kullu Dussehra. There’s not much to see for the next four days unless you take care of the cultural events that take place every night in the fairgrounds.
The fair is mainly a chance for the villagers to buy what they need, from bracelets to cars, but they are unlikely to excite big city dwellers. The sixth day is again important as that is when the gram devtas have their annual meeting with Lord Ram. There is also some good pahari music for the soul. But the last day is exciting again, as the chariot is now drawn to the banks of the Beas, where dry bushes are set ablaze to signify the burning of Ravan’s Lanka. Then the chariot is returned to Dhalpur and Lord Ram and Sita are returned to their temple at Sultanpur. This ends the week-long festivities. The devtas scatter and the villagers follow in their wake.
The famous Kullu scarf originates from the Sutlej River Bushehr state (modern Shimla and Kinnaur). Since Kullu lay on a number of trade routes, many of Bushehr’s expert weavers settled in the kingdom. The valley is today home to some 20,000 weavers; at first glance, Kullu appears to be a sprawling shawl emporium. National Highway 21 is lined with shops selling shawls for many miles. Many of these are tourist traps, outfitted with a loom or two behind glitzy facades: Many of the “Kullu shawls” sold in Kullu town are counterfeit viscose products in Amritsar or Ludhiana. If you want a cheap, utilitarian shawl, then try the counterfeit shops in Dhalpur Bazaar. This is where the locals shop so prices are fair.
A synthetic fiber shawl will cost you less than INR 150, while handmade pure wool scarves start around INR 350. For richer shawls, try the big emporia like Trishla Shawls (in Ramshila, 1km outside Kullu) and Bhuttico, the most respected name in Kullu shawls. This cooperative now produces between 80,000 and 1,000,000 shawls each year, environmentally friendly and made using azo-free dyes. Bhuttico has outlets in Bhutti Colony (7 km towards Mandi), Akhara Bazaar and Sarvari Bazaar. Their shawls are priced between INR 300 and 10,000.