Karaga is one of the oldest as well as most popular traditional festivals celebrated in Bangalore city. Karaga is celebrated on the full moon day of the first month of the Lunar Hindu calendar (Chaitra masa). Karaga is the festival of Tigalas who are Tamil speaking community. It is the worship of the Tigalas primary deity, Draupadi, whom they see as an incarnation of goddess Adi Shakti. The men of this community consider themselves as warriors (veerakumaras) of her army. The Karaga, after which the festival gets its name, is a symbolic pyramidal floral structure, which is carried on the head of a person selected to be the Karaga carrier.
Myth has it that the festival has its roots in the Mahabharata. The Tigalas, who hold Draupadi as their principal deity, believe that Draupadi Shakti (power) brims over during the Karaga festival. The Karaga is an annual celebration of her as the “ideal woman” and of “woman-power”. It is believed that one of central characters of Mahabharata Draupadi took the incarnation of Adi Shakti meaning the source of energy in female form to kill a demon by name Tripurasura. She created a small army called Veerakumara for her aid. The army requested her not to return after the task was completed. But as this was the last leg of the Pandava’s journey to heaven, she could not stay back with the Veerakumars. Draupadi is said to have promised to return during the first full moon of the first month (chaitra maasa) of the Hindu calendar. Thigalas are believed to be the descendants of the Veerakumaras.
The Karaga festival is a grand fiesta of rituals and processions. The festival starts a fortnight before Chitra Pournami with the chanting of mantras and the hoisting of the temple flag on the banks of the Sampangi tank with rituals being performed each day thereafter. Special poojas are held on the sixth day, invoking Draupadi. On the seventh day the hasi karaga is formally brought from a salt water pond nearby. It is then carried and installed in the Dharmaraya Swamy temple, and becomes the ‘karaga . On the ninth day the colourful procession starts around midnight from Dharmarayaswami Temple and wends its way through the length of the city covering most main streets before returning to the temple. The chosen carrier dresses up in feminine clothing as Draupadi and precariously balances the karaga on his head. He wears his wife’s mangal sutra and thick black bangles while his forehead is liberally smeared with kumkum.The contents of the pot carried on the head have remained a secret down the centuries. Veerakumaras guard the bearer of the karaga. They are bare-chested, dhoti-clad men who carry swords and display their valour by striking the swords against their bare chests. They accompany the Karaga and guard it through its route. Tradition has it that this frenzied procession of Veerakumaras accompanying the karaga carrier can execute him if he stumbles and lets the karaga fall. The Veerakumaras are recruited from the Tigala community three days before the festival. The karaga carrier goes to the houses of the Veerakumaras where their families perform pooja to the karaga. Before the procession returns to the main temple, it halts at the Dargah-e-Sharif of Hazrat Tawkal Mastan, the 18th century Muslim saint. This represents the secular nature of the festival. By the time the procession returns to the temple it is dawn. During the 11 day festival cooked rice mixed with various spices are offered to people free of cost. The festival concludes after the Vasantotsava.