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When medieval travellers watched the ‘great feast’

Domingo Paes, Fernao Nuniz left behind eyewitness accounts of the Dasara festival in Vijayanagar

The 2020 Dasara festival that got under way in the city in a subdued manner under the cloud of COVID-19 on Saturday marks the continuation of a tradition whose origins are traced to the practices followed by the rulers of Vijayanagar empire.

There are references to the “great feast” in the writings of the medieval travellers such as Domingo Paes from Portugal who visited Vijayanagar around 1520-22 CE, and Fernao Nuniz who was in Vijayanagar sometime in the 1530s. Both left behind eyewitness accounts of the festival among other things they observed in Vijayanagar.

Their observations are also reinforced by the archaeological ruins described as Mahanavami Dibba at Hampi and from where it is reckoned that the kings would watch the procession go by.

Referring to the “great feast of nine days”, Domingo Paes refers to a structure as the House of Victory which historians equate with the Mahanavami Dibba. There, according to the medieval writer, used to be dais on which the king would rest and watch the feast preceded by worshipping an idol in a shrine.

Paes mentions that alongside the Vijayanagar king, prominent rulers owing allegiance to the former also used to take their seats. Interestingly, it is mentioned by Paes that among those who used to sit with the Vijayanagar ruler was the ‘king of Syrimgapatao’ (for Srirangapatana) and described him as “most prominent”. After the fall of the Vijayanagar the Wadiyars – who ruled from Srirangapatana – carried forward the Dasara tradition and it was Raja Wadiyar who on ascending the throne in 1610 CE, proclaimed that Dasara be celebrated on a grand scale.

It reached its climax during the later Wadiyars and one of the largest murals depicting the grandeur of Dasara was completed in the late 19th century and adorns the walls of the Jaganmohan Palace.

This painting itself is a throwback to an earlier period where the king has been depicted seated on a chariot drawn by elephants. The concept of the king being seated in a howdah mounted on an elephant was a later introduction.

Captured in paintings

The grandeur of Mysuru Dasara attained its zenith during the regime of Nalwadi Krishnaraja Wadiyar (1902-1940 CE) and is best captured in the paintings rendered by palace artists including Y. Subramanya Raju, S.N. Swamy, K.K eshaviah, S.R. Iyengar, Shankararaju and Y. Nagaraju.

The abolition of the privy purse in 1970 and its Parliament approval in 1971 saw a disruption in the proceedings and the last Maharaja, Jayachamaraja Wadiyar, conducted it privately. A few years later, his son Srikantadatta Narasimharaja Wadiyar revived the practice of continuing the age-old tradition inherited from the Vijayanagar period while the State government decided to revive public Dasara and began sponsoring it from 1975.

A festival that is the fulcrum of tourism in modern times and unfolds over 10 days to a sea of humanity, is ironically being held under severe restrictions this year to prevent large gatherings and minimise the possibility of the spread of the pandemic.

Though the celebrations have been scaled down, the tradition has not been given the go by.

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