Kullu (Himachal Pradesh), Oct 24 (IANS) Coronavirus pandemic has affected not only mere mortals, but also the divine: Over 240 deities will face the lockdown restrictions this year -- the first time in nearly 400 years -- as the weeklong world-famous Kullu Dussehra festivities begin here on Sunday in the presence of just seven prominent deities.Also restricted would be the movement of devotees during the chariot processions -- a maximum of 200 persons who test negative for Covid-19 would be allowed to join in with adherence to strict health protocols, organisers said on Saturday.Going by the tradition that is 383-year-old, the chariot of Kullu Valley's chief deity Lord Raghunath is wheeled out by tens of thousands of devotees from the historical temple in Sultanpur here on the first day of Dussehra or Vijay Dashami, the day when the festivities end in the rest of the country.The assembled deities, which in the past normally range up to 250, accompany the chief deity during the procession. They all stay in Dhalpur ground till the conclusion of the festival."Keeping in mind social distancing at all times, we have invited, or in fact allowed, only seven prominent deities to participate in the Dussehra festivities this year," Deputy Commissioner Richa Verma, who is the chief organiser of the festival, told IANS.Prominent deities, Bijli Mahadev and Mata Hadimba of Manali, along with five other deities have been invited.Authorities said that to maintain the continuity of festivities over the centuries, they had decided to make the religious processions a symbolic one by following all health protocols.The decision to conduct the 'rath yatra' in a limited way was taken after consulting Devi Devta Kardar Sangh, which comprises representatives of the deities, Education Minister Govind Singh Thakur, who heads the festival committee, told IANS.He said that no cultural shows or commercial activity would be allowed during the weeklong festival to ensure the safety of the public.With an aim to allow bare minimum number of people to participate, Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code has been enforced in Dhalpur area till October 31, the day the festivities ends.However, the rituals and the 'rath yatra' would be freely covered by the visual media.People above 65, those with comorbidities, expectant women, and children below 10 are advised not to attend the festival.However, members of the public wearing masks would be allowed to enter the Dhalpur ground to pay obeisance to the assembled deities.The festival concludes with the 'Lanka Dahan' ritual on the banks of the Beas river. All the assembled deities will participate, before they are carried back to their own temples in a beautifully decorated palanquin amid the sounding of trumpets and beating of drums.The festival traces its origin to 1637 when Raja Jagat Singh ruled Kullu.He had invited all local deities in Kullu to perform a ritual in honour of Lord Raghunath during Dussehra. Since then, the annual assembly of deities from hundreds of village temples has become a tradition.After the abolition of the Indian princely states, district administration has been inviting the deities.According to a reference book compiled by the Kullu administration, there are 534 'living' gods and goddesses in the Kullu Valley, which is popularly known also as Devbhoomi or the land of gods."Here, 'devtas' or gods command and the people obey. The gods here are not idols and enshrined in the temples; they are alive," says the 583-page book compiled after a year-long research and field work.The gods "live" among the people and "speak" to their followers and tell them what to do. They have families and relatives who join them in celebrations.Going down the memory lane, six-time Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh, in his foreword in the book, said he fondly recalled that as a member of Parliament from Mandi in the 1970s he used to dance the whole night in front of the tents of the assembled 'devtas' during the Kullu Dussehra."The dance continued from dawn to dusk with hundreds of people swaying to the divine music. Such is the spirit of Dussehra," he wrote in the book compiled in 2014.The book says the affairs of the Kullu gods are managed by the 'devta' committees that comprise a 'kardar' or manager of the temple, the 'gur' or oracle, musicians and a priest. It says every year over 250 gods and goddesses assembled for the Kullu Dussehra.The gods accept invites of their followers and move to various locations as per their wish, says the book. Sometimes they decide to undertake a pilgrimage. Some do so after one-two years, others do so after 30 to 40 years and some embark on special pilgrimage after hundreds of years.The 'devta' summons the 'gur' and speaks through him. The oracle goes into a trance and connects with the deity. The deity's wish spreads and its followers are ready to obey the sacred command.One member of each family has to join the deity's procession. No one can lift the 'rath' or palanquin of the deity if he/she is not willing.The book says the long and tough journeys are to be performed on foot. It takes days, even months. Strict rules and rituals have to be followed. The deity sets the time and pace of the journey.
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