The Goddess Comes To Town

The ten-day Karaga festival celebrates mythology and local lore.

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Karaga Shaktyotsava is a religious festival celebrated with much flair, and a reminder of old Bangalore’s kings, legends, and people. It is celebrated by the Tigala community, in honour of Draupadi. Photo: Cop Shiva.

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A man steps out of the Sampangi Tank and into the warm Bengaluru night. Within seconds, he is surrounded by a hundred sword-bearing men wearing jasmine garlands, Mysore peta turbans, and red sashes around their waist. The air is alive with the scent of camphor and the loud thumping of drums. Slowly, the man begins to dance, a sign that the energy of the goddess Adi Shakti has entered his body. He slips into a trance amidst a shower of jasmine buds. Shouts of “Govinda! Govinda!” puncture the darkness.

This ritual is part of the Karaga Shaktyotsava, a ten-day festival at Bengaluru’s Dharmarayaswamy temple, dedicated to the Pandavas and their wife Draupadi. The shrine is venerated by Shakti-worshipping Draupadi followers who flock here to celebrate their goddess. Like Ram Leela performances and Ganpati processions, the celebration gives visitors a chance to immerse themselves in local myth and culture.

I watch as an earthen karaga pot, said to contain the cosmic energy of Shiva-Shakti, is placed inside the dancer’s four-foot-tall jasmine headdress. Dressed in the traditional yellow silk sari with black bangles and jewellery, the karaga-bearer embarks on a procession through the old city. Accompanying him are swordwielding Veerakumaras, members of the Tamil Tigala community, who believe they are descendants of the warriors Draupadi created to help her vanquish a demon. Draupadi left her anguished “sons” after the demon was slain, but promised to return once a year. Her arrival is celebrated as Karaga Shaktyotsava. I elbow my way through the crowd, checking out pavement stalls while I wait for the procession to begin. It is Chaitra Purnima, the ninth night of the festival. Around midnight, there is a sudden shift in energy. As the karaga leaves the temple, the crowd goes crazy trying to touch it, showering the bearer with coins, and asking for blessings.

The procession stops at shrines and Tigala homes before it circles back to the temple at 8 a.m. for the chariot procession. The route winds through the old Pete (pronounced “pay-tay”, Kannada for market) where the city was founded in 1537, mapping an imagined landscape of Tigala tanks and sacred groves. These landmarks, lost to urbanisation, are temporarily resurrected by the devout. The most interesting stop that the karaga-bearer makes is at the brightly lit Sufi dargah of Hazrat Tawakkal Mastan Shah Suhrawardi in Cottonpete. Local legends offer many explanations for why the procession stops here. The most plausible is the Tigala community’s connection with Haider Ali, the erstwhile ruler of Mysore. The sultan engaged the Tigalas’ horticultural services while laying out Bengaluru’s famous Lalbagh Botanical Garden. He was a follower of the Sufi saint and built the shrine in the 18th century.

Once the idols are brought into the dargah’s sanctum, the Khadim-e-Dargah, the shrine’s caretaker, smears vibhuti on the Veerakumaras’ foreheads. Lemons, symbols of “cool energy” for this fiery goddess, are exchanged by the khadim and karagabearer. A prayer is read for the departed saint. My skin prickles as I witness the rituals of this age-old syncretic relationship. It stands out in these fractured times. The karaga-bearer then whirls out into the dawn. As he rushes past me on his way back to the temple, I sense the presence of an inexplicable energy, and I wonder, who or what is inside the pot he is carrying? Procession begins at the Dharmarayaswamy Temple, Nagarathpete, on 15 April. Rituals begin at 11 p.m. and continue until 8 a.m. (bengalurukaraga.com).

Appeared in the April 2014 issue as “The Goddess Comes to Town”.

A D V E R T I S E M E N T

A D V E R T I S E M E N T

A D V E R T I S E M E N T

A D V E R T I S E M E N T
  • Aliyeh Rizvi is a curator at the Centre for Public History, Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology, Bengaluru.

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