Bastar is a region in southern Chhatisgarh.
A land of complex cave systems, rolling hills, dense forests and swift rivers, Bastar is home to a diverse population, including several communities of indigenous people who call themselves the koitor, but have been referred to as the Gond people.
While they may differ in their vocations, habitations and practices, the inhabitants of Bastar come together every year to celebrate their festival of Dussehra.
Unlike other parts of India, where Dussehra commemorates Lord Ram’s victory over the Demon-King Ravana, the Bastar Dussehra is a day of giving thanks to Danteshwari- the principal deity of the Royal House of Bastar.
Her shrine at Dantewada is a Shakti Pith, a hallowed place of pilgrimage.
The celebrations in Bastar last for seventy-five days and draw crowds from all over the region.
The opportunity to participate in the Bastar Dussehra is considered an honour, and the highest blessing from the Goddess Danteshwari.
The Kakatiya rulers of Bastar migrated to the region from the kingdom of Warangal in the 14th century, after being displaced by the Bahmani Kingdom.
They brought with them their cultural practices, and installed a new mother goddess- Danteshwari Mai.
The Dussehra festivities at Bastar were instituted in the 16th century by Raja Purushottam Deo, of the erstwhile Kingdom of Bastar.
Today this practice is continued by the current king, Maharaja Kamal Chandra Bhanj Deo, pictured here.
Inspired by a visit to the Rath Yatra at Puri, and a gift of twelve chariot wheels that he received from the Lord Jagannath, Raja Purushottam Deo decided to create a festival to honour his kingdom’s Mother Goddess.
The Dussehra of Bastar combines the cultural practices of the royal house of Bastar with the rituals and beliefs of the indigenous communities of the region.
Various communities join the preparations for Dussehra. The success of the festival depends on the contribution, cooperation, and inclusion of everyone involved.
The Mambranis are a group of women from different villages who contribute to the many ceremonies that precede the day of Dussehra.
The first phase of preparation is the Dussehra Bokda Mangani Char- gathering the offerings.
The responsibility for this collection is vested in the village headmen, known as the Manjhi.
This is followed by a Salt Distribution ceremony. The salt, provided by the king, is both a blessing from the Goddess, and a literal interpretation of the metaphor that connects salt with loyalty.
The inauguration of festivities begins in late summer, on the Hareli Amavasya- the day of the New Moon. This is the day of the Pat Jatra.
A tree is cut down, and a log, exactly four feet in length, is brought to the main gateway of the palace at Jagdalpur.
It is customary to fell a sal tree (Shorea robusta) for the Pata Jatra. This task is assigned to the residents of the village of Billouri.
The essentials for the ceremony- the puja samagri- is offered by the royal family, through the Mambranis.
Offerings to the log include white flowers - a symbol of peace and fertility, collected by the Panara community, fish, offered by the Kewat, a community of fisherman, gram and fried rice, and a goat, brought by the Saora community.
A final sacrifice of local liquor, extracted from the Mahua flowers, completes the ceremony.
An iron nail , offered by the Lohar community, is hammered into the log. With this addition, the tree transforms into a protector against evil.
With any evil successfully warded off, the people can now focus on a vital aspect of the festival- the preparation of the chariot that will travel through the lanes of Jagdalpur in a five-day procession.
The Deri Gadhi ceremony is dedicated to two deities- Kanchan Devi and Rella Devi.
They are clothed in red and white, decorated with bangles and offered rice, turmeric, fish and five leaves from the mango tree.
Kanchan Devi and Rella Devi are protective deities. They are part of a vast pantheon of local deities who have watched over the people of Bastar, long before the arrival of the Royal Family.
In order to have a successful Dussehra for Danteshwari, the other deities of Bastar must be appeased and their blessing must be sought.
Music is an important element in all the ceremonies of Dussehra.
Percussion instruments such as the Mohri Halbi, and wind instruments like the Mohri Baja are played at many of the ceremonies.
In order to lead the proceedings, the Raja must have the permission of Kanchan Devi, a goddess of fertility and progeny.
A young, unmarried girl from the Pankha community serves as a medium between the deity and the king.
Her seat is a garlanded swing made from the thorns of the bel plant.
Clad in black and draped with garlands, the medium is placed on the swing.
The Maharaja must approach her, and ask for the goddess’ assent to begin the main festivities of Dussehra.
The Jogi Jatra is another ceremony conducted to cement the success of the festival.
A member of the Jogi community enters a ceremonial pit, and remains there for the duration of the festival, as penance.
This solemn ceremony seeks to balance the exuberance and joy of the festival, to prevent it from being jinxed.
Nine communities contribute towards the creation, design and locomotion of the Chariot Procession.
They are the Panara, the Dhakads, the Sundis, and Halba, Bhatra, Dhurwa, Gonds, Saora and the Bison-Horn Maria.
The procession is joined by another group of guests- the chief deities of different villages, brought there by villagers to participate in the festival of the Supreme Goddess.
The Bel Jatra is a joyous celebration, scheduled on the sixth day of the Dussehra fortnight.
A symbolic marriage ceremony, the Maharaja arrives with a procession at a village outside his capital.
The Maharaja anoints a bel tree (Aegle marmelo) with a red saree, a garland, and red vermillion- all symbols of marriage.
A pair of bel fruits is picked from the tree and installed in the temple at the Jagdalpur Palace.
This symbolic marriage strengthens the link between the Divine and the Ruler, and by association, the link between the Ruler and his People.
The yellow tones of turmeric make many appearances throughout the festival. Turmeric is both an offering to the deities, and a marker of their blessings to their devotees.
On the day observed by others as Durgashtami, Bastar observes a night procession known as the Nisha Jatra.
The ceremony involves a sacrifice of the goats donated to the King by the different villages of Bastar.
On the day before Dussehra, it is time to receive the Chief Guest.
The Maoli Parghav is dedicated to the goddess Maoli, a deity that protected Bastar before the arrival of Danteshwari Mai.
It is the duty of the Maharaja to make the journey to the neighbouring town of Dantewada, to invite Maoli to the main festivities of Dussehra.
On Vijay Dashmi, the day of Dussehra, Bastar celebrates Bheetar Raini .
The Chariot reaches an area known as the Goal Bazar, where it is greeted by devotees.
The central event of the Bheetar Raini, though, is the kidnapping of the Chariot.
The Chariot, a symbol of the royals and their cultural practices, is taken to the Kumhadakot forest, a place where the koitor have authority.
The Maharaja of Bastar must enter this forest to free the Chariot from its captors.
This ceremony seeks to remind the king that his authority is derived from the approval of his subjects, and that their relationship must be one of consultation, and not of forceful imposition.
Once the raja has appeased his subjects, the Chariot exits the forest, in a ceremony known as Bahaar Raini.
The day of the Bahaar Raini coincides with the festival of Nayakhani.
To celebrate Nayakhani, the chariot procession, led by the Royal Family, reaches a place known as Kumdakot.
Men of the Raut Community cook a feast, made from newly-harvested rice.
The feast of new produce is relished by deities and mortals alike.
The retreat begins with the Kutumb Jatra.
A ceremony at a Mother Goddess temple bids farewell to all the deities who visited and blessed the Dussehra festivities.
They are bid adieu, and requested to return next year.
Next, it is time for the Muria Darbar.
Originally envisioned as a court for the Raja to address the needs and concerns of his subjects, this darbar is now shared by the King and officials of the State and District administration.
Danteshwari Mata, and her sister Maoli Mata are bid farewell.
Draped in red and white, and bearing offerings of sarees and prasad, their processions return to their temples at Dantewada.
As the million inhabitants of this ‘single village’ return to their homes , they do so with a promise to reunite next year, when it is time to revere Danteshwari Mai again.
Credits: Anthropological Survey of India