Karaga is one of the oldest and widely celebrated festivals of Karnataka. Karaga festival depicts the rich cultural and religious heritage of Karnataka. It is celebrated in honour of the Goddess Shakti. The festival is held at the famous Dharmarayaswamy temple in Bangalore.
The festival starts on the full moon day of Chaitra that falls in March/April. The festival derives its name from an earthen pot in which the Goddess Shakti is invoked. The celebrations last for 9 days, starting from the full moon day.
The highlight of the festival is a grand procession that is held in honour of Goddess Shakti on the full moon night.
The History of Karaga Festival
The celebration of Karaga festival in Karnataka can be traced back to over five centuries. It is believed that the festival originated in the Tigala community, a Tamil-speaking community of gardeners in Southern Karnataka. The Tigala community has been carrying forward the tradition of the festival for several centuries.
The origin of the Tigala community is not clear. Members of this community call themselves Vanihikula Kshatriyas. Some members claim that they are descendents of Veerakumars, the members of a mythological army who had helped Draupadi in her fight against a demon. Some believe that the origin of the community can be traced back to the lions of Angirasa, the sage whose offsprings founded most of the dynasties that had ruled over South India. Some others believe that the Tigalas are descendents of Agani, the Goddess of fire as per the Hindu mythology.
According to Puranas (the sacred scriptures of Hinduism), Draupadi is considered to be the embodiment of an ideal woman. The Tigalas worship Adishakti Draupadi as their community deity. The festival is celebrated in honour of Draupadi
Legend associated with Karaga festival
Legend has it that in the last part of Mahabharat, a glimpse of hell was revealed to the Pandavas. At that time one demon called Tripurasura was still alive. Draupadi, the wife of the Pandavas, decided to kill the demon. She took the form of Shakti devi and gathered a large army of soldiers called the Veerakumaras.
After a huge fight the demon was defeated. The soldiers asked Draupadi to stay back with them. Draupadi could not keep their request, but she promised them that she would visit them every year during the first full moon of the first month of the Hindu calendar.
The Tigalas believe that they are the descendants of the Veerakumaras and they welcome Draupadi on this date every year by observing the festival.
Preparation and rituals of the Karaga Festival
The preparations for the Karaga festival begin a fortnight before the full moon night of Chaitra with the hoisting of the temple flag on the banks of the Sampangi tank, amidst the chanting of mantras. Draupadi is invoked on the sixth day through a special puja. On the seventh day the non-sanctified Karaga or hasi Karaga is brought from a salt water pond nearby, as per the tradition.
The Veerakumaras are selected from the Tigala community three days prior to the festival. The chosen few are given deeksha at the temple and they remain pure and chaste till the festival gets over.
The ninth day is reserved for a fire-walking ritual. On this day the temple Veerakumaras wear dhotis and carry swords in their hands. They dance over live charcoals and in that frenzy they hit their bare chests with the blades of the swords. They then start running over the charcoals.
As per belief, this is the moment when the Karaga places itself automatically on the head on the carrier, who remains in seclusion. The area surrounding the temple is occupied by 500 beautifully decorated chariots that arrive from temples from all over the city for the celebration of the festival.
The Karaga bearer undergoes rigorous ritual before he carries the pot symbolizing the goddess of power. He leaves home and arrives at the temple to lead a life of seclusion before the festival. His wife at home assumes the role of a widow and does not see him or the procession. She hands over her mangal-sutra and bangles to her husband. Once the festival is over, the couple is remarried. The Karaga bearer remains confined to the temple premises and undertakes several preparatory rituals. He goes on a diet of milk and fruits and observes penance till the festival is over.
Celebration of the Karaga Festival
The Karaga festival is celebrated with some spectacular rituals and an amazing procession. The Karaga is an earthen pot that supports a floral pyramid and a small figure of the goddess with a small silver umbrella on top of that. The Karaga is carried on their head without touching it.
The exact contents of the pot are a mystery till date, but it is believed that the pot contains items such as lemon, vermillion, tamarind, etc. The Karaga carrier wears a woman’s attire in saffron hues and puts vermillion on his forehead. He wears bangles and mangal-sutra too. He then places the Karaga on his head and the procession starts from the Dharmarayaswamy temple around midnight.
The carrier of Karaga is surrounded by hundreds of turbaned, bare-chested and dhoti-clad Veerakumaras carrying uncovered swords. The swords are significant for the carrier of the Karaga because if he loses his balances and allows the Karaga to fall, the Veerakumaras accompanying him are supposed stab him with the swords. However, till date such a misfortune has never befallen anyone.
The procession passes through many lanes and bylanes of the city and reaches the temple in the early hours of the next day. It is a wonder to see the Karaga carrier passing through the crowd of people with the Karaga remaining undisturbed on his head.
Before the procession returns to the temple, it halts at the Dargah-e-Sharif of Hazrat Tawkal Mastan, a Muslim saint of the 18th century. As per legend, the saint was a good friend of a Hindu priest. The saint had wished on his death bed that the Karaga halt at his dargah or mausoleum after leaving the temple.
This tradition has been kept alive by the Tigala community even after 300 years of the saint’s death. The spectacular procession is accompanied by the sound of drum beats and display of sword plays. Several devotees carry pots decorated with flowers on their heads in order to test the strength of their character.
After the procession returns to the temple, devotees end the festivities by splashing turmeric water on each other. On the next day the Karaga is immersed in the salt water pond from which it was brought. The Karaga carrier ends his fast then.
Different forms of Karaga Festival
The Karaga festival is celebrated throughout Karnataka, but with small variations in rituals and traditions. For example, in Madikeri four Karagas, known as shakti devtas, from four prominent Mariyamma temples take part in the festival. The festival is celebrated for 10 days and concludes on the Vijayadashami day. In Mysore the celebration of the festival first began in 1924 and is celebrated for 4 days.