The ascendancy of Haidar Ali and Tipu Sultan over the Mysorean stage did not in any way dampen the Dasara celebrations as is often misconstrued. The Islamic faith of Haidar and Tipu did not hold them from celebrating the 10 days of Dasara with as much, if not more pomp and show, as had been done for two centuries before them in Mysore.
First described as a royal ritual by visitors to Vijaynagara, Dasara takes place over a 10 day period during the period between September and October. Adopted widely by later South Indian rulers, it had and still has great importance in Mysore, where it was instituted in the year 1610 with the Wodeyars honouring their family deity, Chamundi. The 10th day of Dasara is commonly referred to as Vijayadashami. According to a legend, Vijayadashami denotes the victory of truth over evil and was the day when the Hindu Goddess Chamundeshwari killed the demon Mahishasura. Mahishasura is the demon from whose name, the name Mysore has been derived.
A splendid display of wealth and magnificence, the festival has been described as a combination of a great Darbar (royal gathering), Darshan (viewing) and Puja (worship). In addition, there were athletic contests, dancing, and singing processions, at the focus of which were the King’s women along with temple dancers from all corners of India. An important part of the festival was the darbar aspect, where homage was paid to the king, gifts were exchanged and the sacrificial reconsecration of the royal arms, soldiers, horses and elephants took place. As an essential element of the incorporative nature of the whole of the Dasara ritual, at this time all subordinate chiefs were required to be present.
Thus, the Dasara festival was when the ruler would assert his supremacy over his subjects and receive homage from them. He would also display to them the power and glamour of his Kingdom thus indicating to them that he was indeed capable of ruling over them and also of keeping his subjects safe. He represented the temporal power that would be worshipped along with the spiritual power represented by the temple deity through the 10 days of the festival. The performance of this public ritual beginning from 1610 by the successive Wodeyar Kings renewed and reinforced their right of kingship.
Kirmani, a contemporary of both Haidar and Tipu writes that during the Dasara, Haidar held ‘a banquet of 10 days and invited all the dignitaries of state including the sons of his old master Dalavai Nanjarajaiya, whose position he had usurped. On occasions of this kind, he also amused himself by witnessing fireworks, the fighting of stags, the fierce attack of buffalos and the charges of elephants, like mountains in size on each other, and the boxing and wrestling of strong prize fighters who belonged to the ‘Jetti’ caste. He even joined the show and took a personal pleasure in exhibiting in the true nature of a sportsman, his remarkable skill in marksmanship at one of the day’s performances. A circular enclosure called ‘Ghirbul’ was formed in front of the ‘Jetti Mahal’ as the wrestling arena was called, a chained tiger placed therein. Asses to which strong spirits were given instead of water were let loose on the tiger. On seeing the bounds and leaps of the tiger, and kicking and braying of the asses, Haidar joined in the general laughter, being himself evidently much amused. Abyssinians dressed in woollen armour and armed with staves, were set to fight with bears. Some of the bravest of Haidar’s servants, at their own request were also selected and placed in the circle against a lion or tiger. In the midst of this circle was fixed a plantain tree, and the man who was fighting with the tiger was ordered to attack it round or under the cover of the tree. If in the event, the brave man conquered and slew the lion or tiger, he, with presents of gold, dresses and increase of pay, was, we are told rendered independent of any worldly want, but on the contrary, if the tiger proved the conqueror and had cast the man on the ground, Haidar took up his matchlock, and fired with such unerring precision that the ball passed through the animal’s head and the man rose up uninjured.
James Scurry, British Seaman and Prisoner of War in Mysore from 1781-93 was a witness to two of Tipu’s Dasara celebrations, one before 1784 and another later. He records that these celebrations were held after the manner of the Pythian or Olympic games, and continued for 10 days without intermission. The games commenced with the rams(fighting sheep), perhaps thirty or forty each day who would fight each other ferociously and were seldom completely conquered. This being over the wrestlers would be sent for, who always approached with their masters at their head, and after prostration, and making the salaams, touching the ground each time, they would be paired, one wrestling school against another. They had on their right hands the ‘Vajramushti’, or four steel talons, which were fixed to each back joint of their fingers, and had a terrific appearance with fists closed. Their heads were close shaved, bodies oiled and they wore only a pair of short drawers. On being matched and the signal given from Tipu, they began the combat, always by throwing the flowers, which they wear around their necks, in each other’s faces. They were obliged to fight as long as Tipu pleased, unless crippled, and if they behaved well, they were generally rewarded with a turban and shawl, the quality being according to their merit.
Scurry mentions an interesting incident here. He recounts that during one Dasara fight, there were two men of prodigious size and strength. One of them was from Madagascar and was Tipu’s favourite wrestler. He challenged the other wrestler, named Venkatramana, from Tanjore, to a fight with punch daggers. This being made known to Tipu, he ordered Venkatramana into his presence and asked him if he would fight his wrestler with a dagger. Venkatramana immediately answered Yes and prostrated himself before Tipu. Asked to rise, he requested Tipu to take care of his family in the event of something happening to him. On Tipu assuring him of the welfare of his family, daggers were brought to both of the jetties and the match began watched by as Scurry says over twenty thousand spectators. They stood fronting each other for over 10 minutes. Tipu watched them narrowly, to ascertain if any symptoms of fear were shown, or if either of them would decline the combat; but finding them both staunch, he graciously ordered presents for both of them, and asked them to withdraw, and be friendly with each other.
Outside the arena, there would everyday appear a man on lofty stilts, with one of the East India Company’s uniforms on; at one time he would seem to take snuff, at another tobacco, then he would affect to be intoxicated; in short, it was intended as a burlesque on the English, and to make them appear as ridiculous as possible in the view of the numerous spectators. Tipu was always good at using the spectacle of drama as propaganda.
There would after this be matches between fierce tigers and even fiercer bulls. Then elephants would be brought in to trample upon any tiger lying injured in the arena to ensure that the fierce beasts were dead. And towards the close of the evening, there would be fireworks which Scurry says were ‘superlatively grand and curious, exciting at once our astonishment and admiration’.
But where was the real ruler all these days? Not to be forgotten is the fact that the titular head of Mysore was still the Wodeyar. Both Haidar and Tipu were akin to Commander-in-Chiefs alone notwithstanding the fact that the strings of state actually lay in their hands. The Dasara festival was the only occasion wherein Haidar and Tipu allowed the Wodeyar King to be seen by their subjects. For the rest of the year, he would be confined to his palace.
In ‘The journal of an Officer’ written by an army officer from Col. Baillie’s ill-fated detachment taken captive by Tipu at Kanchipuram, the officer writes – ‘September 27th – The annual Hindu feat commenced this evening, which was continued , according to custom, for nine days. The King of Mysore made his appearance in a veranda, in front of the palace, about seven o’clock. The young Prince in whose name the family of Hyder-Ally, who assume only the title of Regent, carry on the administration of government, is allowed, for himself and his family, an annual pension of one lakh of rupees.He is treated with all those marks of homage that are paid to crowned heads…..Yet such is the reverence that is paid by the people of Mysore to the blood of their ancient Kings….that it is thought expedient by the present government, not to cut off the hereditary prince of Mysore…but to adorn him with the pageantry of a crown…and at stated times to present him, a royal puppet, to the view and acclamations of his people. ‘ This tradition of the Wodeyar showing himself to his people continued till 1796 with the death of Khasa Chamaraja Wodeyar III after whom Tipu did not show any interest in crowning or nominating the next Wodeyar.
Two subtle but important messages were also being sent to the populace through the Dasara; one was the commitment of the Muslim usurpers to maintain Mysorean religious and cultural traditions just as they had been and the second was to show the Wodeyars and their subjects who the real rulers actually were. So we see Haidar Ali and Tipu continuing the traditions of Mysore inherited from the Vijaynagar court and also participating in the grandest spectacle that would enthral all of Southern India for 10 continuous days.
Tipu Sultan’s Search for Legitimacy; K. Brittlebank, 1995
Captives of Tipu; Edited by A.W. Lawrence, 1929