Dussehra or Vijayadashmi is the most popular of all the Indian festivals and takes place over 10 days, beginning on the first day of the Hindu Month of Ashwin (September-October). It celebrates Durga’s victory over the buffaloheaded demon Mahishasura, and in some places it was once customary to sacrifice a buffalo on the day. The vibrant festivities last for ten days, of which nine nights are spent in worship, ‘Navaratri’. The tenth day is devoted to the worship of goddess Durga, who occupies a special position in the Hindu pantheon of gods and goddesses. She is ‘Shakti’, the cosmic energy which animates all beings.
According to a Puranic legend attached to this day, the mighty demon Mahisasura, vanquished the gods and their king, Indra, who subsequently fled, leaving behind their kingdoms. They then approached the Holy Trinity, Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, who decided to destroy the megalomaniac demon, and thus prayed to the divine mother Durga to do the needful. Equipped with lethal weapons, riding a ferocious lion, the Goddess in all her awesome majesty, vanquished the evil one without much ado. This day, thus, also celebrates the magnificence and omnipotence of Goddess Durga.
On the same day, Lord Rama, an avatar of Sri Vishnu fought Ravana, a ten headed demon and restored dharma (righteousness) on earth. In many places it culminates with the burning of huge images of the demon King Ravana of Lanka (Ceylon) and his accomplice, symbolic of the triumph of good over evil. The festival is celebrated in varied manner all over the country. In Delhi it is known as Ram Lila (Life Story of Rama) with fireworks and re-enchantments of the Ramayana.
In northern India, the festival wears the colourful garb of Ramlila wherein various incidents from Rama’s life are enacted, as is the destruction of Ravana and Bharat Milap, that is the reunion of Ram and his estranged brother Bharat, on the former’s return to Ayodhya after 14 years of exile.
The Dasara of Mysore, is also quite famous where caparisoned elephants lead a colourful procession through the gaily dressed streets of the city.
In West Bengal the festival is known as Durga Puja and is a major festival. The whole state comes alive during this festival. The City of Joy proves its name during the festival. As Diwali is the most gaily celebrated festival in Maharashtra, it is Durga-Puja in Bengal. Huge pandals are erected to worship the big idols of the goddess Durga. Beautiful idols of the Mother Goddess are worshipped in elaborate pandals for nine days, and on the ninth day, these are carried out in procession for immersion (visarjan) in a river or pond.
In Kulu valley in Himachal Pradesh, the festival takes place a little later than elsewhere. The hill- folk celebrate Dasara with a grand mass ceremony wherein village deities are taken out in elaborate processions. It is a delightful time when the Kullu Valley shows why it is known as the Valley of the Gods.
In Gujarat the ‘Navaratri’ (Festival of Nine Nights), is perhaps the most celebrated festival. The Navaratri, is famous for the dance form ‘raas-garba’ and ‘dandiya’ which is performed at night for the nine-nights festival, before Dussehra. The women dance around an earthen lamp while singing devotional songs accompanied by rhythmic clapping of hands.
In Tamil Nadu, the first three days are dedicated to the worship of Lakshmi, Goddess of wealth and prosperity, the next three days to Saraswati, Goddess of learning and arts and the last three days to Shakti (Durga).
In Punjab, Navaratri is taken as a period of fasting.
In rural India, children returned to school on Vijayadashmi which is also dedicated to Saraswati. On this day their teachers would draw the symbol of Saraswati, the Goddess of Learning on their slates.
On Vijayadashmi, people worship weapons, tools and implements of their trade. They have sumptuous meals at noon and towards evening they don holiday attire and gather together to worship sami (presenpis specigara) or in its absence the Apta (Bauhima racemosa ) tree. On this day the leaves of Apta are supposed to symbolise gold and are exchanged while greeting one another. The Dasara day is considered highly auspicious for the undertaking of any new work or business.