Notes from Baijnath

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And to this day, in honour of Ravana’s dedication, neither is Ravana’s effigy burnt by the residents, nor do they buy sweets or light fireworks

For a handful of places across India, the celebration of good versus evil that today’s Dussehra festival espouses is not as definitively black or white as most would like it to be. But then, nor is the mythology that birthed it and thousands of other festivals — both religious and otherwise — not just in India, but around the world as well.

There are a myriad interpretations. Just ask the inhabitants of the sleepy little town of Baijnath in Himachal Pradesh. This year’s Dussehra might be muted across the country due to the pandemic, but in Baijnath, Dussehra has always been an annual no-show.

Unsung hero or wrathful foe?

Perched at an altitude of 4,311 feet on the Himalayan Dhauladhar mountain range, Baijnath is one of those rare places in India where Dussehra has never been celebrated, nor has the ensuing drama of the Ram Leela ever played out. All of this, thanks to an unlikeliest protagonist at the very vortex of it all — Ravana.

Legend has it that the ‘demon king of Lanka’ was an ardent devotee of Lord Shiva and prayed to him deep in the Himalayas seeking immortality. In return for which, Ravana chopped off his own ten heads at the altar.

So impressed was Shiva with this act of devotion that he is said to have restored the heads — only this time, six of the heads for the six most significant Puranas and four for the four Vedas. The 12th century Baijnath rock temple constructed in the Nagara style of architecture and the surrounding town of the same name were built upon this myth.

And to this day, in honour of Ravana’s dedication, neither is Ravana’s effigy burnt by the residents, nor do they buy sweets or light fireworks. Interestingly, the town is also totally devoid of jewellery shops. This is apparently to mourn Hanuman’s torching of Ravana’s Lanka which was said to be made of gold.

However, according to some, it is not entirely respect for Ravana but also an all-consuming emotion of fear that prevents any Dussehra celebrations from taking place in Baijnath. As in most small towns across India, myths of destructive wrath and punishment abound here too.

Everything from decades of bad luck to more ominous omens in the form of unnatural deaths to those who take part in any Dussehra festivities keep the Baijnath townsfolk away from celebrating on Dussehra night.

Dussehra dodgers

Baijnath, however, is not alone in its shunning of Dussehra. There are other Ravana-sympatico places in India where the shine of Dussehra is a tad diminished, if not fully taken off.

While the people of Mandsaur in Madhya Pradesh refer to Ravana as their ‘son-in-law’, as they believe that their town is the paternal home of his wife, Mandodari, Bisrakh in Uttar Pradesh claims him as its own.

According to local belief, Ravana, the son of a sage named Vishrava and Kaikeshi, a Daitya princess, was born in Bisrakh.

As it is believed that Mandore in Rajasthan is where Ravana married Mandodari, on the day of Dussehra, priests of the local Ravan Ki Chanwari temple here perform the shraadh ceremony for his soul.

In Maharashtra’s Gadchiroli district, the village of Paraswadi is nothing but a glorified hamlet, home to a handful of people from the Gond tribe. They call themselves Ravanwashis or descendants of Ravana, resolutely refusing to be identified as Hindus.

But perhaps there is no better place than one actually named after Ravana to seek an answer to the million dollar “was he good or evil?” question.

Ravangram in Madhya Pradesh is a village that has a legion of devotees who actually worship a 10-feet-long reclining statue of Ravana in an ancient temple constructed by a sect called the Kanyakubja Brahmins that Ravana was said to be a member of. Putting it all into perspective, one cannot help but ponder over a rather controversial quote often attributed to Winston Churchill. Is history truly written by the victors?

The Mumbai-based writer and restaurant reviewer is passionate about food, travel and luxury, not necessarily in that order.

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