I was 5.7 years old, and my mother went to her maternal house to deliver my brother. My father and I were to join them three months later during the Dasara holidays. We were all eagerly waiting for the news of the delivery. In those days, the only mode of communication was writing letters or sending a brief telegram. Unlike regular post, telegram service depended on the telephone network followed by a person who delivered a typed message. Since this is customized to an individual, the telegram tariff was prohibitively expensive. They used to charge per word, and the telegram messages had their own language. The most common usage of the telegram service was to inform death in the family, and a typical message would be “Grandfather expired. Start immediately.” While this message is loud and clear, and the reference is contextual, some of the messages can be quite humorous. One of the messages I remember was “Rambu arriving express twenty th.” This message is a combination of an attempt to be economical with words and errors on the part of the telegram service. The original message probably meant “Rambabu is arriving on Narsapur express on twenty-fourth Tuesday,” and it was intended to be “Rambabu arriving Narsapur express twenty-fourth,” with the rest of the grammatical details to be understood based on the context. I always wondered about the need for elaborate grammar when people could convey the most important messages through the telegram with minimal sentence structure.
Back to my original story, we finally got the telegram from my grandfather with the message, “Jayashree delivered boy; both healthy.” We were all happy and wrote a long letter to my mother saying that I could not wait to see my brother during the Dasara vacation, along with my suggestions for his name. Finally, October came, and my father and I took the train (Narsapur Express) and reached my grandmother’s home. For a skinny (yes, skinny) five-year-old, my brother was too chubby, and I wanted to name him Bheem instead of my original suggestion, Vikram.
After a few days, my dad and I took a very important journey of delivering the good news to all my relatives. Most of my mother’s relatives were on the other side of the Godavari river, and my grandfather probably informed them by that time. My father’s relatives lived on the same side of the river within a radius of thirty kilometers. Since we had to visit so many villages, my father and I rode on a bicycle. I can remember visiting at least ten families spread over as many places: Poduru, Palakollu, Ravipadu, Rayalam, Bhimavaram, Mamuduru, and so on. Growing up, we visited most of these places during summer with my mother. Many of them did not even have a bus service, and it was not uncommon for us to walk two to three kilometers in the hot coastal Andhra summer.
The last of these stops was at my paternal grandmother’s maternal home on the outskirts of the village of Mamuduru. The village did not have a bus service till this century, and we usually had to walk three kilometers. The three-kilometer walk along the irrigation canal with coconut trees and seeing ducks in the canal was a refreshing experience, even in the hot summer. Needless to say, the bicycle journey was much more comfortable, especially when my father was the one who had to expend all his energy.
My great-grandfather built the place for himself and his four brothers. The house was used for over a hundred years and was demolished only a year ago. When my grandparents relocated to Karnataka, my father lived in this house with his maternal grandmother and uncle for a few years. I spent a few days every summer there, and I share many good memories of the serene life of a remote village. The house was next to the irrigation canal, always full of water and life. The irrigation canal network built by Sir Arthur Cotton was a lifeline for these areas for cultivation and transportation. Consistent power supply was still a thing of the future, and most of these villages would go to sleep early.
As a five-year-old, my routine was eating dinner around sunset and going to bed by seven. That evening, my father woke me up with great difficulty at what seemed like midnight to see some celebration. He told me there would be a procession for the Dasara, and he would wake me up. What I definitely remember was that it was a procession of idols of Lord Rama and Sita. And I remember that the idols were on an elephant, though I cannot remember if it was a real elephant or not. That is probably my first memory of a Uregimpu, the telugu word for a procession.
Over the years, I have come to regard Dasara as a ten-day-long celebration primarily showcasing different talents of people. In the (g)olden days, I would imagine the events probably included folk arts such as Burra katha or yaksha gana and classical arts such as classical music and harikatha. When I was growing up, villages used to screen old movies on a screen erected on the street. Whereas in the city, people danced to the latest telugu film tunes. Unfortunately, the entertainment was becoming monochromatic, connecting everything to telugu films. The trend that started during my childhood killed all other art forms, and the current generation considers film as the only art form of the telugu people.
There have been many other traditions connected to the Dasara. I recall watching women dance around a bouquet of flowers during the Batukamma festival, probably an age-old name for Dasara in Telangana. Thanks to the recent Telangana movement, the Batukamma festival is treated as a cultural identity, and Telangana people continue to celebrate it in its original form. There are other traditions, like Bommala Koluvu, also associated with women. Bommala Koluvu displays dolls and figurines primarily of deities but can include themes such as weddings, dancing, and other everyday events. I have also read about traditions such as school children entertaining families through their songs and poems.
I have written earlier about other major festivals of the telugu people, namely, Sankranti, Ugadi, Vinayaka Chaviti, and Deepavali. Sankranti has its harvest and rangoli; Ugadi has the Ugadi Pachadi; Vinayaka chaviti has Ganapati and his favorite water-based foods; and finally, Deepavali has its crackers and oil-based foods. Dasara has remained an enigma for me. With so much variety of traditions and no obvious food, Dasara has been the most confusing festival for me.
I like to classify telugu festivals into two categories: minor and major. The minor category contains festivals where the observance of the festival is typically a religious ritual and restricted to just that day. This category includes some monthly festivals and festivals, such as the birth anniversary of deities such as Krishna, Siva, and others. There is a rumor that all days, such as Mother’s and Father’s Days, were invented to ensure business for greeting card vendors. Similarly, all the festivals in this category are probably invented and popularized by those who largely benefit from these religious festivals.
The second category includes the five major festivals mentioned above. I believe these festivals have been celebrated long before there was any calendar or, for that matter, any organized religion. They are strongly connected to the seasonal changes, and the calendaring of these festivals must be much more recent than the actual traditions. Reunion of families has always been the primary reason for festivals in all cultures. Sharing food in the name of personal deities and ancestors is also common across all cultures. The old festivals are also known to be spanning over several days. All the five major festivals satisfy all these criteria. The traditions associated with each one of these are seasonal. Sankranti is a harvest festival in the winter, and food items with the latest harvest and village campfire become its main tradition. Ugadi-Sreerama Navami is now the start of the new calendar year for the telugu people. But it must have been the spring festival with food items connected to flowers and fruits. Vinayaka chaviti is clearly a monsoon festival celebrated in the name of an animal god. Deepavali celebrates the end of the wet season with deep-fried food items, lighting lamps, and firecrackers. Though beautiful mythological stories are associated with the lamp-lighting tradition, the reasons seem more mundane. The post-monsoon season attracts numerous insects and pests, and lighting lamps would keep the insects close to the lamps and away from the fields.
Dasara is associated with a variety of mythological stories. One of the first stories that I remember was from the Mahabharata. Without getting into details, the Pandavas had to fight the Kauravas at the end of their thirteen-year exile, and the victory is associated with Vijaya Dasami, the ninth day of Dasara that falls on the tenth day of that month. It is also believed that Rama kills Ravana on the Vijay Dasami day. Dasara is celebrated most by the Bengali people, and the mother goddess is the center of their festival. She, too, is believed to have killed a demon on the Vijaya Dasami day. As in the Vinaya Chaviti celebration, Bengalis make the idol of the goddess and immerse the idol in water at the end of the festival. During the nine-day festival, Bengalis and Telugu families worship the mother goddess each day in a different form. Considering the other traditions, such as Batukamma flowers and Bommala Koluvu, I believe Dasara has always been one of the five major festivals of India exclusively dedicated to the mother goddess. Other stories connected to Dasara are probably a kind of ancient cultural appropriation.
I want to close this discussion with the food habits during any of these festivals. Food plays an important role in any social gathering, and festivals are no exception. Before vegetarianism came to be associated with Indian culture (Jainism, Buddhism, and Brahminism), I imagine meat was always an important part of the menu at all these festivals. Sacrificing animals such as goats and feasting on them is still a common tradition among many Indians during Dasara. As I indicated, other items on the menu are seasonally dependent. The modern lifestyle may never understand the constraints and habits of our ancestors, but the festival traditions provide insight into their lifestyle. I only hope we do not overdo anything in the name of tradition.