Many people of the Hindu faith observe Dussehra through special prayer meetings and food offerings to the gods at home or in temples throughout India. They also hold outdoor fairs, food, fun, and large parades with effigies of Ravana. The effigies are burnt on bonfires in the evening. Dussehra is the conclusion of the Navaratri festival. Many Hindus also believe that it is lucky to start a new venture, project or journey on Dussehra. They may also exchange gifts of leaves from the Shami tree as a symbol of the Pandavas brothers’ exile in the Mahabharata stories. Dussehra celebrates the Hindu god Rama’s victory over the demon king Ravana and the triumph of good over evil. The epic Ramayana tells the story of Lord Rama who wins the lovely Sita for his wife, only to have her carried off by Ravana, the demon king of Lanka.
Ravana plays an important role in the Ramayana. Ravana had a sister known as Shoorpanakha. She fell in love with the brothers Rama and Lakshamana and wanted to marry one of them. Lakshamana refused to marry her and Rama could not as he was already married to Sita. Shoorpanakha threatened to kill Sita so that she could marry Rama. This angered Lakshamana who cut off Shoorpanakha’s nose and ears. Ravana then kidnapped Sita to avenge his sister’s injuries. Rama and Lakshamana later fought a battle to rescue Sita. The monkey god Hanuman and a huge army of monkeys helped them.
The Mahabharata is another series of Hindu stories that play a role in the Dussehra festival. The Pandavas were five brothers who fought evil forces with a set of distinctive weapons. They abandoned their weapons and went into exile for one year. They hid their weapons in a Shami tree and found them at the same place when they returned from exile. They then worshipped the tree before going to a battle, which they won.
It is observed on the tenth day in the month of Ashwin or Kartik, according to the Hindu calendar. The festival is known by different names in various parts of the country and is celebrated in a unique way everywhere. In the south, east and northeast India, it is called Durga Puja and remembers goddess Durga’s victory over the buffalo demon, Mahishasura. It is the path that goddess Durga took to restore and protect dharma. In the northern and western states of the subcontinent, the festival is known as Dussehra. In these regions, it marks the end of Ramlila and celebrates Lord Rama’s victory over the demon king, Ravana. On the same day or occasion, Arjuna single-handedly annihilated the whole of the Kuru clan that included warriors like Bhishma, Drona, Ashwathama and Karna. The victory of the good (Dharma) over the evil (Adharma) is common to all stories behind the festival.
The festival is celebrated differently across all the states in India. In most of northern and western India, it is celebrated in honour of Lord Rama. Drama, dance and music play called Ramlila, based on the tale as described in the Ramcharitramanas are performed at fairs (mela). Large effigies of Ravana, Kumbhakarna and Meganatha (his accomplices) are burnt signifying their end and the restoration of dharma. This traditional practice was even recognized as one of the “Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity” by UNESCO in 2008. It describes the festival as being celebrated through songs, narration, recital and dialogue based on the text Ramcharitramanas by Tulsidas, particularly in historically important Hindu cities of Ayodhya, Varanasi, Vrindavan, Almora, Satna and Madhubani. In many regions of Southern India, the festival is dedicated to Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of knowledge, learning and arts. People maintain, clean and worship their instruments and tools of their livelihood and worship goddess Saraswati. In west India, both god Rama and goddess Durga are revered for their victory over evil. Celebrations include fasting and prayers at temples and Dandiya and Garba being played while wearing traditional dresses. In Maharashtra, the deities that were installed on the first day of Navratri are immersed in water and sweets are exchanged. On the other hand, the Gondi people, an Adivasi community spread over Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and many parts of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar celebrate Ravana by carrying an image of him riding an elephant and singing praises about him, as they consider the demon king as their ancestor and one of their gods. In east India, the festival is observed as Bijoy Dashomi. It is marked by clay statues being carried towards a water body for a farewell to goddess Durga. Bengali women mark their faces with vermilion (sindoor) on this day and wear some red clothing. The statue is immersed in water and the goddess is believed to have returned to Mount Kailasha with lord Shiva.
The festival, whether it is called Vijayadashami, Dussehra, Ram Navami, or Durga Puja, celebrates the end of evil by the good. Wherever it is celebrated or the manner it is celebrated indefinitely signifies the establishment of Dharma and the abolishment of Adharma. It marks new beginnings, the establishment of new and fresh ideas in society and freedom from negativity and evil that resides inside us. Through all the different stories, celebrations and enactments, the message that is propagated is liberation and emancipation from the present-day evils and taboos that are not in front of us personified in the form of a human or demon, but inside us in the form of biases, stereotypes and prejudices.