Sunday, May 19, 2013

On the Bengaluru Karaga: Written for The New Indian Express

I was at Bengaluru Karaga recently. And wrote about it for The New Indian Express. An edited version of the story was published here today. Read it here below.

With a population of ten million and some more, Bangalore, not yet officially Bengaluru, is a sprawling metropolis with glass façade high rise buildings, many symbols of new money and the chaos that comes with the job description of being a city. Yet, if you peer behind the sanitized campuses of MNCs, there are plenty of vestiges of the small town Bangalore used to be, before it suddenly found itself to be a city and didn’t know what to do with that novel idea. There are plenty of lanes too narrow for a man pushing a bicycle to pass through, labyrinths of roads and precariously placed old houses above shops which require you leave your footwear outside.

It is in these lanes that Bangalore continues to exist as if somehow time has never moved on. It is in these lanes every year at the famous Bengaluru karaga that a village fair wakes up with a yawn for a few days before and after the first full moon of the first month of the Hindu calendar. There are cheap toys and joy rides, snacks served with dirty hands and fake jewelry, plenty of noisy children, harassed mothers and entourages of extended families. There are bright lights, some neon signs sneak in here and there as well, it is still the city, after all. There are fortune telling robots and shiny paper swords. There are chants that rent the still balmy evening air. Taking this opportune distraction, the street hawker demands an extra rupee for the balloon that the little girl has set her heart on. There is haggling but the parents have other things to see and do before the crowds bulge some more, so they grudgingly give the hawker that extra rupee.

There will be, over the all night procession, some lakhs of people overflowing into the narrow lanes of Thigalarapet, Sunkalpet and the other old ‘petes’ (towns) of Bangalore. Yet the famous Bengaluru karaga never shakes off its small town look and smell and feel. This is a side of Bangalore that is comfortable with itself.

The Bengaluru karaga is famously amongst the oldest community festivals in the city, pretty much up there with the famed Mysore Dasara, though not perhaps as international as the latter. It is lead by the Thigala community; descendents as per legend from an army of Veerakumaras that Mahabharata’s Draupadi is said to have created to destroy a demon. The community has historically been known to be gardeners from Tamil Nadu who were invited during Hyder Ali’s time to help lay out the gardens at Lal Bagh in Bangalore.

In a retelling of the feminine narrative, a man, in a role that has come to him hereditarily, dresses up like a woman, complete with an overflowing jasmine headgear and a mangal-sutra and walks the night in procession; for that night, after weeks of penitence and rituals, he embodies Goddess Draupadi. “The procession first goes to Mastan saab dargah and then to the temples in the area, following the route of the original precincts of Kempegowda’s Fort. While the karaga carrier is always from the Thigala community, the other duties of the festival belong to other castes,” says Chalakari Narayana Swamy, spokesperson at the Dharmarayaswamy Temple, where the festival is held.

Forty-three year old C M Lokesh carried the karaga for the fourth time running this year. His turn comes every alternative year. “During the year, I go and do many rituals at the Dharmarayaswamy Temple every day. For six months of the year before the karaga, I live in a purified room within the temple and can go home only to see my two young children,” he says. On the night of the karaga, he dresses up in a saree, embodying Draupadi. After that night, his wife gets her husband back. “We are chosen by the community for our abilities,” he adds, refusing to elaborate further. The rest of his time is spent in running a printing press in neighbouring Nagarathpet.

 “The temple is unique too, for there aren’t many other places of worship in the country dedicated to one of the Pandavas,” Swamy continues. The festival and its origins are, like most things in the country, shrouded in the unwritten years of history. But banking on archaeological records and oral history, he estimates that the festival goes back over 500 years. “It is the oldest festival in the region and is instrumental in bringing together people from all castes, classes and communities,” he insists.

Buddhist antecedents?

Dr Taltaje Vasantakumara, a Buddhist scholar has proposed, rather controversially, that the festival might have Buddhist origins. “Dharma is a word that is at the base of Buddhism. The rituals and the act of karaga itself may have originated from the idea of dharma. Over time, thanks to the act of myth making, it got associated with Hinduism and attached to the epics to form a new history,” he says.

As with all community activities, the politics of religion isn’t too distant here either. But for a week or so, Bangalore slips back to how it started out once upon a time, a smallish town that used to be dazzled by the city lights.

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