The Crazy, Colourful and Trippy World of Dasara in Coorg

Mythology gets a shot in the arm at Madikeri’s Dasara float parade.  
Madikeri, Karnataka,
Illustration by Charbak Dipta

It is late in the night.

The hill town of Madikeri bops and hops wildly around huge carnival floats that pump out megawatts of eardrum-blasting disco from on-board sound systems. Elaborately crafted polychrome superheroes and heroines—some up to 15 feet tall—try to outdo each other. This curious sight feels like a mixture of high heaven and the world’s biggest non-alcoholic outdoor religious nightclub.

I’m totally into it. I’m mesmerised by the frenzied dancers and start shaking my hairy legs to an enticing mix of Kannada pop and Hindi rap. This must be what it feels like to do the carnival rumba in Rio de Janeiro. But I’m not in Brazil. I’m in Madikeri, in the serene and a tad conservative hill station of Coorg (Kodagu). Not on vijayadashmi night though, when all citizens head towards the hotspot of the festivities—near the old fort at the centre of Madikeri. This is the culmination of Dasara, when good wins over evil, and the gods succeed in their annual battle against demons.

It is always the same story: morality cancels out immorality. From a forensic point of view the mythical heroes exterminate the netherworld baddies, like in the Clint Eastwood or Amitabh Bachchan movies of yore. It also feels great to jive all night, as it doesn’t get sweaty in the cool October air and there are ample chilled drinks and snacks in the stalls around. I’ve had some delicious roadside chicken biriyani, spicy gobi manchurian, and of course Coorgi coffee. That is what keeps everyone going, because this all-night rave isn’t fuelled
by intoxicants—the police have shut down bars and liquor shops for the day so there’s no public drunkenness or misbehaviour.

Instead there’s jolly energy in the air. He-hunks do their ballyhoo ballet before all the young girls sitting on tiered benches along the street. Even families with kids step out after dinner and partake in merriment till well into the wee hours.

The main amusement is the grand floats. On one there’s a green monster in yellow shorts, like a fiendish character from some Xbox game, with guts spilling out of his tummy. On another, Ganapati with four arms is busy juggling weapons of potential mass destruction, while on the third Shiva meditates on his throne, and on the next float Vishnu flies on his Garuda. A tiger with Viking horns bares his fangs. Another elephant god swings a sword—but this one has ten arms and rides a peacock—and a Mother Goddess looks on calmly in the middle of the madness. Somewhere in the throng there’s even a King Kong.

The figures are built on mechanical frames that make the arms flex and heads turn. Pulled by tractors, the gods enact their dramas based on various ancient plotlines involving gods and goddesses, demons and goblins, while semi-epileptic lightshows and bass-boosted sound effects accompanied by pyrotechnics make the ground virtually tremble under the audience’s feet. A total of ten floats participate each year, all very elaborately done up, making the mythology come alive for one boisterous display of heroic histrionics.

Each float costs between Rs10,00,000-20,00,000, so put together their budget equals a Sandalwood action movie and yet they feature only in a one-night, fully-free, sold-out show. The float teams, all of whom are attached to various temples in town, consist mainly of locals with creative ambitions, but for certain hi-tech expertise like sound they bring in audio engineers from Bengaluru. For fireworks there are pyrotechnical professionals from Tamil Nadu. In some cases special effects men come from as far away the U.S.A. to provide the onlookers with an earth-shattering spectacle combining Amar Chitra Katha aesthetics blended seamlessly with Harry Potter and Hollywood.

*****

Coork, Karnataka, India

Illustration by Charbak Dipta.

Madikeri used to be the capital of the erstwhile princely state of Coorg ruled over by Mudduraja of the Haleri dynasty, who had come down south from northern Karnataka to carve out a kingdom for himself. According to one sign that I find in the hilltop fort, he named it Muddurajanakeri which was later abbreviated to Madikeri, misspelled as Mercara by the Britishers.

Circa 1680, Mudduraja built the city’s fort from mud. His descendants ruled for a hundred years until Tipu Sultan came to conquer briefly. In 1790, Doddaveer Rajendra took over and his family was in charge until 1834 when the somewhat loony Chikkaveer Rajendra was exiled (and interestingly enough buried in London’s Highgate cemetery not so far from Karl Marx). From then on Coorg was developed by the East India Company into a production centre for the best coffee in the world.

Before the British takeover, the rajas started a tradition of celebrating Dasara in the early 1800s to purge the city from plague. The practice of taking the shakthi devathas—or female goddesses of the town’s four Mariamma temples—out for a procession has continued to this day in order to protect the people against illnesses. In those days, menfolk apparently carried deities in palanquins through the streets accompanied by traditional Kodava music and dance. The spectacle ended in the market area on the tenth day of Navaratri at the Banni Mantap with puja and worshipping of the banni (or Indian Mesquite)—a ritually important tree for warriors and particularly significant to the people of Coorg with their strong military traditions.

When it lost its royal patronage, rather than remaining a regal affair like the annual Dasara in Mysuru, this Dasara turned into a people’s party or a janutsava. Local legend has it that one Bheem Singh came from Rajasthan in 1958 to tweak the festivities with exotic colour and change it all from a purely religious ritual into a folksy do. Bheem Singh started using tractors and building bigger floats with wood instead of bamboo. So today there are ten motorised hi-tech floats.

And while the majestic Mysuru Dasara is a tourist attraction with the main events held in the daytime, the Madikeri Dasara remains a homely all-night affair with no king in the picture and is therefore perhaps much more fun. The people want innovative displays every year, which challenges the temple committees to come up with fresh spectacles.

After a long final Navaratri evening of joyous dancing and a slow build-up of excitement, when midnight comes each float will make what is called a “demonstration.” This means they will crank the music up to full blast and ignite the fuses for whatever bombs have been built into the carriages. This show continues till around 4 a.m. while judges compare scores and announce prizes for the most amazing creations.

The winner gets 24 grams of gold and the runners-up are also awarded. And as the sun begins to colour the eastern horizon, the floats—or whatever remains of them—reel around dizzily in the city while the more zealous devotees shimmy in a climactic delirium. By 10 a.m. or so the energy levels dip and the heat of the sun hits with force and fells the last revellers.

The morning after the Dasara float parade, I walk about looking at the residue. Most floats have ground to a halt. Disco still blasts from a few speakers, but generators low on diesel are hiccupping. People are sleeping by the roadside, napping on the pavements and in ditches. They have, with their enthusiasm, once again helped the gods save the world—and they deserve quiet quality time now until next year’s Dasara.

THE VITALS

Getting There

The nearest airport to Madikeri is Bengaluru Kempegowda International Airport (280 km/6 hr by road; taxis charge Rs 6,450). The closest rail junction is Mysuru (120 km/3hr). Regular buses go from Mysuru to Madikeri (state transport buses from Rs 112).

It is possible to plan a trip from Mysuru to spend the night at the festival and then return by an early morning bus. Buses run frequently throughout the night as well.

Stay

Thousands of people gather to experience the event and Madikeri is a very small town, so book accommodation sufficiently in advance if you wish to stay conveniently near the city centre.

KSTDC Mayura Valley View (www.kstdc.co; doubles from Rs 3,900) has the best hilltop views and is near Gandhi Maidan where the Dasara cultural programme take place.

Coorg International (www.indoasia-hotels.com; doubles from Rs 5,000) located away from the main town is one of the region’s oldest hotels.

The luxurious Vivanta (www.vivanta.tajhotels.com; doubles from Rs 14,000) offers cooking classes, pottery workshops, as well as a traditional gudda bath experience.

Festival

Madikeri’s float parade is on 30 September from 10-11 p.m. Floats pass through the town’s Main Street around midnight and are best viewed from the Town Hall, in front of the fort, and near the Kodava Samaja Shopping Complex.

The event is free and includes a week-long programme of dance performances, musical recitals, magic shows, and martial art displays at a stage in Gandhi Maidan. Reach early to grab good seats.

This is a family-friendly festival and also includes a separate Makkala Dasara which has a range of activities and competitions especially for kids.

Many shops stay open later than usual, so tourists can pick up spices, coffee powder, honey, and other local produce. Fast food stalls stay open until the wee hours as well. The fare on offer includes the usual churmuri, gobi manchurian, bhajjis, and delicacies like the local style non-veg biriyani.

  • Zac O'Yeah is the author of the Bengaluru crime novel trilogy "Mr Majestic", "Hari, a Hero for Hire" and "Tropical Detective" (Pan Macmillan India) and his latest travel book is "A Walk Through Barygaza" (Amazon/Westland Books 2017).

  • Charbak Dipta is a Delhi-based graphic storyteller. Reading about about Faxian and Xuanzang in school fuelled his desire to see the world. He now travels widely for his art exhibitions.

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