As with the rest of India, Bastar celebrates Dassera. In fact, it is the region's most important festival, and all the tribes participate in the 10-day event. But Dassera in Bastar is different from anywhere else. Here, instead of rejoicing over the triumphant return of Lord Rama (the hero of the epic Ramayana) to Ayodhya after 14 years of exile, the tribals celebrate Dassera as a congregation of Devi Maoli ( Bastar's native deity, revered as the "elder sister" of Devi Danteshwari, the family goddess of the ruling Kakatiya family), and all her sisters. Hundreds of priests bring flower-bedecked local deities to the Danteshwari temple in Jagdalpur, arriving with all pomp and show.
Bastar Dassera is believed to have been started, in the 15th century, by Maharaj Purushottam Deo, the fourth Kakatiya ruler. This would make it a 500 year old festival. For 10 days, the king (as the high-priest of Devi Danteshwari) would temporarily abdicate office to worship Danteshwari full time. He would seek, in confidence and through a siraha (a medium "possessed" by the devi ), a report on the state.
Though the ruling family was Hindu and the festival has its roots in Hinduism, it has assimilated many tribal elements and is a perfect example of the unique amalgam of traditional Hinduism and tribal traditions that make up the local culture.
Bastar Dassera is unique!
- Bastar is in Dandakarnya, where Lord Rama is believed to have spent the 14 years of his exile. Yet Bastar Dassera here has nothing to do with Lord Rama or the Ramayana.
- Beginning with amavasya (dark moon) in the month of Shravan , Bastar Dassera spans over 75 days, ending on the thirteenth day of the bright moon in the month of Ashwin. It is thus the longest Dassera in the world.
- Bastar Dassera involves the participation of diverse tribes and castes, each of whom is assigned a specific task, which they continue to carry out 5 decades after monarchies were abolished in India. For example, to build the two-tiered chariot, carpenters come from Beda Umargaon village; the special, massive ropes are twined by the tribals of Karanji, Kesarpal and Sonabal villages; the smaller chariot is pulled by the youth of Kachorapati and Agarwara pargana s; the larger chariot is pulled by the bison-horn marias of Killepal. Singing hymns at all rituals is the prerogative of munda s from Potanar village.
- The festival involves rituals of extraordinary rigor like a girl swinging on a bed of thorns; a youth ( jogi ) sitting in vigil, buried shoulder-deep, for nine days; mediums, reputedly possessed by the local deities, dancing eerily on the roads.
- The festival provides a forum for elected representatives, administrators and old-time tribal chieftains to confer on the state of Bastar at the Muria Durbar .
- One of the most awaited events is the rath yatra . The massive rath (chariot) might look primitive to an outsider, but it is symbolic of the king's desire to patronize locals instead of bringing a fancy chariot from elsewhere and tribal taboos on using sophisticated tools to make the chariot. It is hewn afresh each year, and the sight of 400 marias pulling it leaves a potent impression of tribal faith.
Components of Bastar Dassera
PATA JATRA, Worship of the Wood
Wood is considered sacred by tribals, and felling of the timber to make the chariot is preceded by a ritual. A log of wood is laid at the Simha Dwar (Lion Gate) of the Palace temple on Shravan Amawasya ( also called Hareli Amawasya) and duly consecrated with sacrificial blood. This ritual kicks off the festival.
DERI GADHAI, Posting Of The Pillars
In the month of Bhadon , on the twelfth day of the bright moon, two pillars are posted in the Sirasar (traditional town hall outside the palace, the hub of Bastar Dassera activities).
KACHAN GAADI, A Throne For Kachan Devi
On the Ashwin Amaswasya , a young girl of the Mirgin-Mahara caste (a Scheduled Caste) becomes a "medium" when possessed by the caste deity, Kachan devi . She swings on a bed of thorns, brandishes a sword, and grants to the king (who comes in a procession to seek her blessings) a flower symbolizing her sanction to proceed with the festival.
KALASH STHAPANA, Installation Of The Urns
On the first day of the bright moon in the month of Ashwin , the navaratri (nine holy nights) part of Bastar Dassera begins with the installation of the holy urns in the temples of Danteshwari, Maoli and Kankalin devis in Jagdalpur. The Brahmins begin sacred recitations, which continue for nine days and nights.
•JOGI BITHAI, The Jogi's Penance
On the evening of the first day of the bright moon in the month of Ashwin, a jogi (youth) from the Halba tribe sits buried shoulder-deep in a pit in the Sirasar, doing penance for the success of the festival. Sacrifice of a goat and seven mangur -fish precede his vigil.
•RATH PARIKRAMA, Chariot Circuit
A day after the jogi has commenced his penance, the 4-wheeled flower-chariot, phool-rath , begins to circumambulate the Maoli Temple every evening. This continues till the seventh day. Formerly there was a single chariot of 12 wheels, but as this was too unwieldy, it was replaced with two smaller chariots - one of 4 wheels (for the daily circumambulation) and the other of 8 wheels (for the longer journey on the tenth and eleventh days). On the eighth and ninth days, the chariot is rested.
•NISHA JATRA, The Nocturnal Festival
On the eighth day of the bright moon in the month of Ashwin, (better known as Durgashtami) a procession of lights leads to the puja mandap in the Sunday Square, Itwari. This spectacular ritual is known as nisha jatra .
•JOGI UTHAI, Raising of the Jogi
On the ninth day of the bright moon in the month of Ashwin, the penance of the jogi comes to an end. He is ceremoniously raised from the pit he sat buried in, and honored with consecrated gifts.
•MAOLI PARGHAV, Reception of the Devi Maoli
Maoli, the pre-Kakatiya presiding deity of Bastar, considered an elder sister of Danteshwari, is the Chief Guest in the congregation of deities. She is borne from Dantewada in the doli (palanquin) of Danteshwari. She arrives, borne on the shoulders of four media swaying under her spell, to a spectacular reception. She is then led to the palace-temple of Danteshwari.
•BHEETAR RAINI, The Inner Circuit
On the tenth ( Vijaydashmi ) day of the bright moon in the month of Ashwin , the 8-wheel chariot runs the usual circumambulatory course around the Maoli temple. It has a swing in the top tier where the king used to sit. Currently, the raj-guru sits here, holding the chhatra (holy umbrella) of Devi Danteshwari. After it has completed its inner circuit and been parked for the night, around 400 Marias and Murias 'steal' it away to Kumdakot, a sal grove about 2 kms away on the southern bank of river Indravati.
•BAAHAR RAINI, The Outer Circuit
On the eleventh day of the bright moon in the month of Ashwin, the king used to visit Kumdakot to offer the goddess rice cooked from the new harvest. He would then partake of her prasad . After this, the chariot would be (still is) pulled back ceremoniously through the main road to the Lion Gate of the palace.
•KACHAN JATRA, Thanksgiving
This is a thanksgiving ceremony organized on the twelfth day of the bright moon in the month of Ashwin to celebrate the successful conclusion of the festival through the grace of Kachan Devi.
•MURIA DURBAR, Tribal Chieftains' Conference
The same day the tribal chieftains confer with the elected representatives and administrative officers on matters relating to public welfare. Formerly, the king presided over this conference.
•OHADI, Farewell to the Deities
On the thirteenth day of the bright moon in the month of Ashwin, the deities brought from various parts of Bastar are bade a ceremonious farewell. Maoli, come from Dantewada is also bid a farewell with new clothes and ornaments which go to adorn the main idol in Dantewada.