Karaga, the Hindu fest that stood the secular test

Karaga, the Hindu fest that stood the secular test

Submitted by alvin on Fri, 2016-04-22 09:09 Every April, Bengaluru gets ready for the Karaga festival.  Lakhs of people gather together this day, in a rare secular manifestation of their religious sentiments. The Karaga falls on 22nd April. One of the oldest state festival, Karaga traces its roots back to over five centuries, performed by the Thigala community.  Calling themselves Vanihikula Kshatriyas, the Thigalas claim to have descended from Angirasa, who stake their claim to being the original ancestors of the rulers of the South as Pallava, Pandya, Chera and Chola, who had established kingdoms in the region between the Vindhyas and the Kanyakumari.  Come Chaitra Pournami night and millions of people position themselves over shops, poles, trees and wherever they can reach to get a glimpse of the Karaga. They come from everywhere, Bangalore and its surrounding villages, like Malur, Devanahalli, Kolar and other far-off places.  According to the organisers of the festival, about several lakh people witness the Karaga each year.  And the crowd itself is a fascinating and secular blend of the old and the young, of Hindus and Muslims, all of whom have gathered together for the gala occasion.  Shops remain open throughout the night.  An aroma of hot idlis, dosas and vadas here fills the air, an array of jewellery, colourful ribbons, bangles and kumkum there, or the fragrance of the jasmine whiffing past; all form a part of the variegated pageant. The Karaga itself is a symbolic pyramidal floral structure usually carried on the head of a human being. The actual contents of the Karaga, however, has remained a secret adding to the mystique of the festival.  Its arrival is heralded by hundreds of bare-bodied dhoti-cladturbaned Veerakumaras carrying naked unsheathed swords.  Custom requires that Veerakumaras surrounding the Karaga – carrier target their swords at him the moment he losses his balance and the Karaga falls down. On the rear side of this frenzied procession is a man dressed in a feminine attire wearing a mangalsutra, black bangles with kumkum smeared liberally over his forehead and carrying the bedecked Karaga on the head.  The significance of the Karaga festival is fascinating, the rituals deriving their origin from The Mahabharata, narrating the story of the Kurukshetra battle – the humiliation faced by Draupadi, the exile of the Pandavas, and the loss of Draupadi emerges as the concept for an ideal women, says the convenor of the Sri Dharmaraya Temple. The festivities begin with the recitation of mantras, followed by a flag-hoisting ceremony on the bank of the Sampangi tank. Special programmes start on the sixth day. Draupadi is worshipped with arathi and on the seventh day hasi Karaga (tender Karaga) is brought from a salt water pond. Legend has it that once theKaraga-carrier stood on the pond with water up to his waist. While in deep meditation he felt some weight on his hand, carrying which he went to the Sampangi tank. Then the object was brought back to the Dharmaraya temple and placed next to Dharmaraya idol.  It was at this point that the object became aKaraga.  Veerakumaras are recruited three days before the festival. Only the Thigala community-person can be a Veerakumara.  He has to take deeksha from the temple and remain chaste and pure. On the ninth day, fire walking takes place inside the temple. Veerakumars dance around and hit their swords against their bare chests.  As the dancing and fire-walking gain a frenzy momentum the decorated Karaga, it is believed, automatically positions itself on the Karaga-carrier’s head. Normally, the festivities start from the last week of March and carry on up to the first week of April. During this period the person who carries the Karaga has to necessarily stay in the temple premises itself undergoing certain rituals. He has to bathe in nine different wells earmarked for the purpose. And it is only milk and fruits that he is allowed to consume during the entire period. When the Karaga-carrier is taken from his home by the temple members with great ceremony, the wife immediately assumes the role of a widow and her mangalsutra and bangles are removed. She is not supposed to see her husband or theKaraga during the festival days, till the end of the festival when they are formally reunited in marriage. The route of the Karaga starting from Sri Dharmarayaswamy temple winds its way through the old city via Cubbonpet, Ganigarapet, Avenue Road, Doddapet, Akkipet, Balepet, Kilari Road, Nagarathpet and other areas nearby. The Karaga-carrier goes to the houses of the Veerakumars whose families perform puja for the  Karaga. Before the Karaga reaches the main temple the procession finally halts at the Darga-e-Shariff of Hazrat Tawakal Mastan, an 18 century Muslim saint, adding a uniquely secular flavor to the festival, a sense of unity. Legend has it that once Mastan rushed to catch a glimpse of the Karaga but in the process got hurt and was bleeding profusely. And when the priests revived him by applying kumkum on his wounds, the wounds vanished. At once, the Muslim saint was overjoyed and prayed to Draupadi that after his death, the procession should halt at his dargah. The day after the Karaga, some of the devotees throw turmeric water on one another like during Holi. On the third day. the Karaga is returned to the salt-water tank from where it was originally brought. It is only after this that the Karaga – carrier ends his fast. Another breath-taking spectacle during the festival is the number of grandly decorated chariots of gods and goddesses, about 500 of them from the various temples in Bangalore. The charm of the Karaga festival is something that cannot be merely described. One would have to witness and experience it in order to get an idea of its richness and grandeur. Sometimes beautiful, sometimes grotesque, but always fascinating, the festival has successfully managed to draw huge crowds to it year after year.  Despite being one of the oldest festivals it has not lost its novelty or captivating charm, the influence of which extends to even tiny villages and hamlets around the city.  In many ways, Karaga is not just a religious festival, but more of a joyous jathra or a communal fair. Lately through the huge crowds that used to throng it once have begun thinning out. It would be a pity, if someday, this too it destined to  become just another glorious Indian festival confined to the pages of history.