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The Dussehra Festival in Kota
Udaipur (India), October 26th 2007

India is famous for its festivals and holidays because of its many religions and traditions. Some festivals are small and modest and are mostly celebrated within the families. Other festivals are huge, famous, spectacular and visible for everybody. For travellers, it’s great if you can join one of the festivals during your visit to India. However, some festivals are so popular with tourists that the authenticity has gone. The Ladakh festival in Leh for example, is such a festival. If you search well, it is still possible to find authentic festivals that are not overrun by tourists and film crews. The Dussehra festival in Kota is still pure and authentic. Dussehra is a Hindu festival that celebrates the victory of the good over the bad. It is celebrated in the whole of India, but only in some places it is accompanied by great festivities. The Dussehra festival is based on the Ramayana. The Ramayana is a Hindu text that is originated in the second century BC. The Ramayana tells the story about Rama (incarnation of the god Vishnu) that defeats the demon king Ravana after a lot of wanderings and heroic deeds. Rama was supported during this battle by a monkey army that was led by the monkey king Hanuman.

The exuberance of the celebration of the Dussehra festival differs from city to city. In Kota, the celebration of the three day festival seems to be very spectacular. The exact date of the festival differs from year to year, because it is related to the Hindu moon calendar (2007: from 19-21 October / 2008: from 7-9 October / 2009: from 26-28 September). Kota is an industrial city that is off the beaten tourist track. That’s why the festival is still authentic and seldom visited by foreigners. During our visit to the festival, we did not see any other foreigners.

At the fair ground huge effigies of the 'bad guys' are erected

We arrive in Kota on the 21st of October in the afternoon, to join the last part of the festival. In the centre of the festival ground, three huge effigies are erected. The biggest one is the demon king Ravana, and the other two are his bad companions. The effigies are made of paper and carton and are between 20 and 25 metres high. The Ravana effigy can even move his arms, mouth and eyes. The effigies that are filled with firecrackers will be set on fire after sunset. This must be a great spectacle! The destruction of the effigies is the highlight of the festival, but till that moment, the people can enjoy themselves at the fair that is organised around the effigies. The fairground attractions are very nice. There is an attraction whereby four small cars are assembled on an iron wheel, and that is turned around by hand to create a carousel effect. The kids have great fun. There are also several Ferris wheels. The fairground attractions all have one thing in common; they look to spectacular and to high for the way they are constructed. When one of the fair operators invites us for a ride, we friendly decline his invitation.

Another attraction that is very popular are two white travellers. The man is tall and the woman is short, and they both wear glasses. It is us. Wherever we stop to look around or take a photo, a huge crowd is encircling us. They all smile, want to shake hands, make a short chat or just make a picture of us. The fair is a great place to make pictures, but it is difficult to make good ones. People are constantly trying to find a position in the frame of the photo. But it is still great fun! The festival is pure and authentic. It is a festival for the Indian people.

Two hours before the effigies are set on fire, we go back to the centre of the fair ground to find a good spot. There are already many people present. The organisation of the festival put carpets on the ground, so that people can sit on the ground. While we are trying to find a good spot, one of the supervisors asks us if we want to have a place in the press section. This is a separate section on the fair ground that is not so crowded. We like this place very much because it gives a good view on the effigies and the public. Also in the press section, we are an attraction. A local TV news channel wants to interview us and several newspapers ask us to pose in front of the effigies. The sun sets and it is becoming more and more crowded in the press section. Not only people from the press, but also other people who had the luck to meet a ‘friendly’ supervisor that gave them permission to see the spectacle from this great position. At seven o’clock the ceremony starts. The first part is a procession with performances that portray parts of the Ramayana. People with make-up and in beautiful dresses perform their show. There is also a lot of music that increases the festivity spirit. This is exactly how we like a festival: beautiful, cheerful, colourful and pure.

The highlight of the festival is when the demon king Ravana is set on fire
At around half past seven, the real spectacle starts. With a lot of bangs from the firecrackers, the head of one of the bad companions of Ravana is set on fire. We feel that the temperature increases because of the see of flames. With even more sound, also the body of the effigy catches fire. This is really spectacular. We ask ourselves if it is wise to stand so close to the effigies. We are within the range of 25 metres and if the effigy will tumble down, it probably falls over us. Burning pieces of carton are flying in the air. Some of them are still burning when they hit the ground. There is no time to think about the security, because the second companion of Ravana catches fire under loud applause of the crowds.

The effigy of Ravana is even bigger than his by now carbonized accomplices. He is the last one that is set on fire. The huge crowd is shouting with joy when Ravana catches fire. A warm piece of carton flutters against Ivonne’s face. This is the time that we think it is wise to take more distance. The sea of flames is huge, and more people decide to find a safer place. One of the burning pieces falls down in the crowds and a piece of carpet catches fire. There is some panic and the fire brigade comes into action. Fortunately, some supervisors already managed to put out the fire with their feet. Meanwhile, Ravana is still burning and gives with some firecracker bangs his last convulsions. After Ravana felt into ashes some last fireworks was shot in the air, marking the end of the festival. We really enjoyed the festival and are very happy that we planned our journey in a way that we could be present on this great event. This festival is really recommended!

See also the photo impression of the Dussehra Festival in Kota

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