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Photo Essay : Grand Indian Epic Goes Up in Flames


NEW DELHI — Anyone who thinks gunpowder, vigorous swordplay and religious piety don't mix should consider the Dussehra festival.

This singular Hindu holiday, which carries a dramatized moral as easy to comprehend as a Hollywood oater where the bad guys all wear black Stetsons, is a re-enactment of one of the most famous of India's epics.

Like the Christian Easter or the Jewish Passover, the holiday symbolizes the triumph of good and hope over evil. What's more, to the delight of children and adults alike, it makes its point with roaring flames and a crescendo of bangs.

One evening each October, as dusk falls across northern India, a large part of the population gathers in clearings or city parks. There, giant effigies of Ravana, the legendary 10-faced demon king of present-day Sri Lanka, have been erected. In many cases, the evil monarch is flanked by likenesses of his brother, Kumbhakarna, and son, Meghanada.

Ravana is the heavy in the Ramayana, the Hindu epic that legend says was composed about 500 B.C. In the story, which has parallels to Homer's Iliad, Ravana abducts Sita, virtuous wife of the brave and noble god-king Rama, and carries her off to his island.

Rama's servant Hanuman tracks down Ravana and his captive. The forces of Rama assemble and defeat the evildoers in a long and furious battle. When Ravana's heart is cleaved by Rama's magic, fiery arrow, the entire living world shudders, and the Earth quakes.

The Ramayana is the stuff of collective Indian memory and remains so vividly contemporary that in December, 1992, a mob of Hindu activists razed a Muslim mosque in the town of Ayodhya that they believed had been built on the site of Rama's birth. For Hindu militants, the god-king's rule has come to symbolize a blissful time before Muslims and other foreigners arrived in India.

At a typical Dussehra festival, costumed warriors act out the great battle that pitted Rama against Ravana as Indians of all walks of life and faiths keenly follow the action. Then, the big moment arrives. One by one, the effigies are put to the torch. Each is consumed by fire and torn apart by thunderous bangs as the flames reach the gunpowder charges. The onlookers cheer wildly.

Order, peace and justice have been restored to the world. Until next October, and the next Dussehra festival.

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