Glistening calmly, ensconced in a wooden palanquin, is the metallic idol of Chamunda Devi. The devi (goddess), dressed in red and garlanded in marigold, is not alone. Also present in these teeming grounds is the devta Ghatotkach, who fought on the side of the Pandavas in the Mahabharat, and devi Hidimba, mother of Ghatotkach and wife of the Pandava prince Bhim.

Indeed, in attendance is a constellation of divinities from the epics Mahabharata and Ramayana, each interrelated, all swirling in a great bowl of mythological soup.

The sound of a conch pierces the crisp Himalayan air around the sonorous calls of bugles, the buffalo-horn Narasingha trumpets among them on this October morning. Drums beat out their dhadak. And the rath, a palanquin-chariot bearing Chamunda Devi, is raised aloft.

Bearers struggling to steady the idol of Chamunda Devi
Bearers struggling to steady the idol of Chamunda Devi

Hoisted upon the hardened-shoulders of devotees, the palanquin begins to sway, watched keenly by the mass of believers, the trademark Pahari topis on their heads. Village elders rush to the devi in supplication. They cajole and implore her to move, and to pay her respects to Lord Raghunath on whose bulaava (divine calling) she has come in the first place, before eventually making the return journey to her home— the village of Jhadag Chachoga.

The minutes pass. The devi finally shows signs of acquiescing. There is a pause in the convulsions and the bearers gingerly trod three steps forward; but then the shaking restarts with a renewed vigour and they are forced to come again to a shuddering stall.

To me, it seems as though the bearers are competing to see who can put on the best show of throwing their idol off-balance without actually letting it fall.

“Why are they shaking the idol?" I blurt out.

“Shaking?!" An elderly man standing beside me laughs. “Nobody can shake the gods. Bhagwaan pravesh kartein hain (God enters them). Why don’t you take the rath on your shoulders and discover for yourself."

I do not know what stimulant is at work but the sceptic in me goes silent, because in that moment I am seized—gripped—by the magic of what I am seeing.

***

I have come to Kullu, in Himachal Pradesh, to immerse myself in the annual Dussehra Mela, a massive festival with 4-5 lakh visitors in attendance. It is during this time the devotees believe that the idols come alive, injected by “shakti", the power of God. But for me there is another attraction: The custom of bali (animal sacrifice)— made all the more significant because it is the first year of celebrations after the Himachal Pradesh high court banned the practice.

“Kullu is the valley of gods," Maheshwar Singh tells me when we meet at his palace. Maheshwar Singh is the raja of Kullu, and his palace is at once stately and forlorn. The walls of the living room hold on to the faded portraits of deceased royals, their grandeur long gone but not forgotten. He tells me the story of how the Dussehra Mela came to Kullu.

The mela was started during the reign of raja Jagat Singh, who reigned over the then flourishing kingdom of Kullu from 1637-72. He had heard that a Brahmin, Durgadutt, was in possession of unique pearls. Convinced that they had been stolen, the raja ordered that he return them at once. Durgadutt was incensed at the accusation, and feeling dishonoured, set himself and his family ablaze. But not before he cursed the raja.

Soon, Jagat Singh’s kingdom fell into penury. Desperate for a way out, he undertook a pilgrimage to Manikaran, located 42km from Kullu, in the Parvati valley. There, he was told he could escape the curse if he brought the idols from the Tretanath temple at Ayodhya to Kullu, and dedicate his kingdom to Lord Raghunath.

The raja sent a Brahmin named Damodar to Tretanath. One day, when the path was clear, Damodar stole the idols and fled. He had not managed to get far when he was stopped by the protesting residents of Ayodhya.

They seized the idol of Lord Raghunath from him, determined to restore it to its rightful place. When they attempted to lift it, however, the idol wouldn’t budge; it was as if it was fastened to the earth. But when Damodar took the Lord again upon his shoulders, the idol became lighter and lighter with every step he took.

“So you see," Maheshwar Singh says cheerfully, “Raghunathji came on his own to Kullu."

Jagat Singh then dedicated the village grounds to the devtas (the gods), and asked all surrounding villages to bring their gods there every Dussehra.

Since then, Lord Raghunath has loomed large in the consciousness of Kullu. In December 2014, when the idol of Lord Raghunath was stolen from the temple within Maheshwar Singh’s residence, the entire valley was desolate. For whom would the gods gather on Dussehra now? Happily, though, the idol was found soon after, and the thief caught.

***

A Devta being taken to the Dhalpur Grounds
A Devta being taken to the Dhalpur Grounds

It is afternoon and my ears are throbbing with the beating of drums. Overhead, a hoarding calls for an end to animal sacrifice.

The Dhalpur grounds are a sea of people, with gods bobbing around the island tent inside which rests the festival’s chief deity, Lord Raghunath.

Additional bearers have been employed to steady the raths and a group of women have broken into a dance.

As I take in the spectacle, I am pushed to the side by a heave of bodies. Trains of chariot-palanquins, out of control, are zigzagging into the crowds. These are the Nag-Bhumi devtas (serpent-gods), entrusted with the task of clearing the way.

On this last day of celebration there will be a final procession of the gods, culminating in a bali.

***

Typically, five animals are slaughtered on Dussehra: a buffalo, a goat, a rooster, a crab and a fish, each representing one of the five weaknesses of lust, rage, selfishness, attachment and ego.

When I asked Maheshwar Singh about the ban on animal sacrifice, he said what they did was no different from what a butcher did. He recounted the story of a saint, who pained on learning about the practice, had sought him out. He told Singh, “If it is so necessary, then cut me before you cut any animal."

“If I cut you I will have sinned. Plus, you will be of no use to me because I can’t eat your flesh," Singh replied. Maheshwar Singh believes that it is important to uphold the parampara (tradition) because it is closely tied up with his people’s belief in ‘shakti’.

“Is it also a parampara to make a show that the idols are possessed?" I ask.

“Although some people might like to show off, I have personally witnessed the force of ‘Shakti’,"Singh says . “The people here have total belief in the god; you people from Delhi might doubt all this."

***

Thousands and thousands have gathered in anticipation along the path of the procession, on balconies, rooftops, and bus stops. A man near me, his tongue lolling, shakes like he is possessed.

Just then, followed by his entourage, Singh strides into the sacrificial compound. Somebody shouts, “Phones off! Sab band! (Switch off everything)"

“Is the bali really going to happen?" I ask nobody in particular. I am nervous and eager.

“Bilkul (absolutely), but it will happen covertly. If you take a photo, it will be a problem for you and for us, but if they do it in pardah (hiding), then you’re happy and we’re happy and the gods are also happy," a man says.

The horde pushes forward, as I am thrust to the rear of the pack. I crane my neck for a peek. It is a pointless exercise.

Murmurs. Expectant faces. Then, silence. A thunderous crack.

Is it a goat?

Through a gap, I can see now that Singh’s face is flushed. His cheeks are slick with tears. Men leap to hold him, for he is so spent that his legs can at any time give way.

Slowly, with great effort he starts walking, but he still needs support.

The passage opens up.

I hurry ahead, towards the sacrificial site, only to find on the floor traces of vermillion, flowers, and a smashed coconut.

The 2016 Kullu Dussehra Mela begins on 11 October and runs for a week.

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