National Geographic : 1958 May
Mysore Celebrates the Death of a Demon BY Luc BOUCHAGE " T all began here, on Chamundi Hill," said Sour palace escort. Then he told the strange story of Dasara, one of India's oldest, most colorful festivals. For years, he related, the people had suf fered under Mahishasura, a monstrous king with the head of a buffalo. No one was strong enough to challenge him. Then came the god dess Durga wielding weapons with all her ten arms. For nine days she fought the wicked demon, and on the morning of the tenth day she finally slew him. Ever since, this triumph of Good over Evil has been celebrated throughout India. At our feet as we listened lay the beautiful white and sand-colored city of Mysore. The waning sun cast a faint copper glow. Temple bells, shrill and incessantly tinkling, seemed to announce that tomorrow would bring Dasara, Festival of Ten Days. Our official car bearing the Maharaja's double-headed eagle wound its way back down to the city. At his invitation we had come the photographer Ylla and I-to record the pomp and grandeur of this glittering festival.* Opening of Festival Set by the Stars The 10-day celebration began next morning precisely at 10:02, a time chosen as the auspi cious moment according to the stars. At that instant the Maharaja, barefoot for religious reasons but resplendent in gold-embroidered tunic, diamonds, and rubies, ascended his throne for a durbar, or princely reception. Guns boomed, ancient silver trumpets sounded, and a military band blared in the courtyard below. Dasara was officially under way. Earlier we had witnessed the emergence of the state elephant from its abode next to the palace. Preceded by a group of mounted lancers, palace guards, and a pipe-and-drum band, flanked by a retinue of standard-bearers, the magnificently caparisoned beast came out at a stately but springy gait. Then came the state horse with its own ret inue. A splendid albino stallion with rainbow decorated tail and flaming-red eyes, it seemed inhabited by some genie. More elephants and more guards joined the procession as it marched across the vast court yard to the Somesvara Temple, where the animals were blessed. 706 Though we saw this procession each morn ing and evening, it never lost its impact. As the evening procession returned to the palace, the guards lighted multicolored flares. Amid the resulting sparks and smoke the state elephant and in turn the state horse stopped directly under the throne to pay honor to the Maharaja. From a silver platter the elephant scooped up a mass of flower petals with its trunk to shower them high into the air. The horse bent his thin forelegs on a green cushion and pressed his brow to the ground (page 711). Trumpets blared anew and the throng packing the enormous courtyard cheered loudly. Royal Ladies Peep Through Curtains I looked at the upper gallery, where the royal ladies in seclusion can watch and not be seen. Here and there a curtain would part and a shy face appear, seeking a better view than that afforded by the slits in the screens. "What must they be thinking of you up there?" I asked my neighbor in the visitors' gallery, a charming lady from northern India in a sari of light blue and gold. "That I am depraved or very lucky-or both, perhaps!" she answered. Every night a different entertainment in the palace courtyard delighted the people-a dis play of horsemanship and lancing technique to the strains of Viennese waltzes; a ritualistic bout with long sticks, to the rhythm of a drum; a traditional drama by actors on stilts. Outside the palace walls the city teemed with India's version of carnival pitchmen fakirs, snake charmers, and one jewel peddler who advertised "Original Cultured Diamonds!" Sometimes, towering above the motley pat tern of the populace and scattering it as they came, four or five elephants would appear, their huge legs, trunks, and flapping ears still covered with brilliant decorations. A troop of delighted children would skip excitedly be hind and accompany them to the city pump to see the paint washed off. (Continued on page 711) * This series of color photographs by the Vienna born American photographer Camilla Koffler, pro fessionally known as Ylla, was one of her last. Shortly after completing it, she fell from a jeep while photographing a bullock-cart race south of New Delhi and died within a few hours.