Incredible India — Walkabout
Navratri Festival— Part 1: Celebrating the Victory of Good Over Evil
The nine-day festival celebrated across India
There’s excitement in the air in anticipation of Navratri, a major festival in India, which begins tomorrow: 26 September and ends on 5 October this year. Children are happy about the 10-day break from school, and offices are closed for at least three days at the end of the festival as they forget work and focus on celebrating with their families and friends.
During my childhood, we looked forward to Navratri with great joy at home.
Fun fact: my birthday according to the Hindu calendar is on Day 9 of this festival, on Saraswati Puja and I was christened Vidya Saraswati; although, as per the Gregorian calendar my birthday is 27 September, when I’ll turn 24 for as long as I live. 🎂
We had a 12-step doll display at home. My aunts planned their wardrobes for the festival since a specific color has to be worn on each day to honor the goddess being worshipped. Deep cleaning at home, shopping plans, guest lists — all of it happened with great enthusiasm.
But it is not just at home that we celebrate this festival. It is auspicious for businesses too as this is the time to start new ventures.
Navratri is a Hindu festival celebrated across India with different rituals. Nava means nine and ratri means nights. The festival celebrates the nine forms of Shakti.
But first, let’s look at the main story behind this festival.
The story of Navratri
This is the story of the battle between Goddess Durga and the demon Mahishasura. Through his penance dedicated to Lord Brahma, Mahishasura received the boon of immortality, with the caveat that he could only be defeated by a woman. Arrogant and considering himself God, Mahishasura attacked all the worlds — heaven, hell, and earth. Even the Gods could not handle him.
Fed up with his atrocities, Lord Brahma, Lord Vishnu, and Lord Shiva together created Goddess Durga. Durga fought with Mahishasura, changing his form to confuse her. Finally, when he turned into a buffalo, she killed him with her trident.
Navratri honors the nine forms of Goddess Durga. Each of the nine days is dedicated to one of her nine forms — whose stories I’ll share in Part 2.
How Navratri is celebrated in different regions of India
In the East and parts of North India
Navratri is celebrated as Durga Puja — in honor of the goddess’s victory over the demon Mahishasura — good over evil. In the Northern and western parts of India, the festival is called Dussehra, celebrating the victory of Lord Rama over the demon Ravana. Ram Leela where effigies of Ravana are set on fire, is a major ritual. During the nine days, special poojas are conducted. People celebrate by fasting, maintaining silence, singing hymns, etc. On day 10, celebrated as Vijaya Dashami, people share gifts, and sweets and wear new clothes.
In West Bengal, Navratri is all about feminine power and the Goddess Durga. One will see her riding a ferocious lion, trident in hand. The lion is a symbol of justice and willpower. The trident signifies that it will destroy evil.
Preparations are underway months ahead as artists and sculptors work on the idols. Day 8 is important as Durgashtami when one can see massive idols of the goddess slaying the demon Mahishasura everywhere. They set up special structures called “pandals” that house the idols.
The community gets together to celebrate the festival with daily cultural programs and delicacies in food stalls set up for the occasion, dressed in their finest. Every evening, there is an “aarti” to the sound of dhols (drums).
On day 9, after the final aarti, the idol is immersed in a water body as devotees bid a tearful farewell to the mother goddess.
The story goes that when the goddess is immersed, it marks the end of her yearly visit to her dad’s home and she returns to her husband, Lord Shiva and his heavenly abode in Mount Kailash.
In the West
In Gujarat, Navratri is celebrated with great pomp, with the famous Dandiya dance and Garba. Communities organize Garba (meaning, womb), which is a pot with a lamp inside it, signifying life. They dance in circles around the pot.
The Dandiya dance is a foot-tapping rhythmic dance with bamboo sticks. People get together every evening for nine days and enjoy themselves, dancing, and eating. The rhythm starts slow and picks up the pace and gets energetic until people dance to the beat of the sticks in a frenzy.
Oh, the costumes and the finery in which people dress is a sight to behold too!
Rajasthan celebrates with fairs and Ram Leela.
In the South
In South India, Navratri is a grand celebration with special pujas, a variety of sweets and treats, and doll displays both at home and in the temples.
Andhra Pradesh and Telangana
In Andhra Pradesh and Telangana where I’ve lived for over two decades, the doll display is called the Bommala koluvu. The how and why of this doll display is a major story in itself.
Here, a beautiful festival called Bathukamma which means ‘Come Alive Mother Goddess’ is also celebrated by women during Navratri where the nine days are dedicated to Maha Gauri.
The women make flower stacks called Batukamma — with seasonal flowers, arranged in seven concentric layers and offer prayers and dance around them. These stacks are then set afloat in a water body to wrap up the festival on the last day.
In Kerala, the state with the highest literacy rate in India, Vijayadashami or Day 10 is when they celebrate vidyarambham or akhsara abhyasam, where a child is initiated into the world of knowledge and letters. 108 Durga temples are decorated. Domestic animals and vehicles are worshipped. On this day, they worship Goddess Saraswati by placing books in their puja with sweet offerings.
The vidyarambham ceremony involves a guru, who inscribed the invocation of Lord Ganesha on the child’s tongue with a golden ring. Then the child is made to write with the right index finger on a bed of raw rice.
In Karnataka, where I now live, the doll display is called the Bombe Habba. One can find this even at the airport entrance to enthrall travelers.
The 10-day Dussehra is a state festival, celebrated with grandeur at the Mysore Palace, which is decorated and lit up. It is a spectacular sight that takes one back to the days of yore when kings ruled. The general theme being the victory of good over evil, Mysore Dasara starts with Navratri. There are tiger dances and elephant parades called the Jumbo Savari.
On Day 9, the royal sword is set on a throne and worshipped and later taken on a procession with elephants and horses. On Day 10, devotees place the goddess Chamundeshwari, an avatar of Goddess Durga on a golden saddle on an elephant and take her on a procession through the city accompanied by dancers and musicians.
In Tamil Nadu, my home state, the goddesses Durga, Lakshmi and Saraswati are worshipped.
There is a doll display or the bommai kolu where dolls are exhibited in a step-like formation and themed in Hindu mythological stories. One can find scenes from Hindu mythological Puranas, court life, royal processions, weddings, everyday scenes, miniature kitchen utensils and much more.
It is a traditional practice to have wooden figurines of the bride and groom together, called Marapacchi Bommai made of sandalwood, teak, or rosewood. These are decorated with new clothes each year before being displayed in the Kolu.
Friends are invited over, every day during the nine days to see the doll display. Those who can sing, sing. Before they leave, they are presented with thamboolam consisting of betel leaves, betelnut, turmeric, a coin and a gift, along with the prasad or offering of the day which is called sundal, made with steamed beans/peas tempered with mustard seeds, curry leaves, coconut, coriander and masala to taste. Healthy and delicious. Each day has a special sundal recipe to follow.
On day 9, Ayudha puja for Goddess Saraswati is celebrated when all agricultural tools, books, instruments, and vehicles are decorated and worshipped.
On Day 10, Vijayadashami, after a pooja, it is auspicious to read the books and use all the other things from the puja. Many children are enrolled in school for the first time on this day — and it is called vidyarambham — vidya (knowledge) arambham (beginning) where the child is initiated into the world of knowledge by writing their first alphabet.
Most kids are excited that their school books are placed in the puja on Saraswati puja day — and they don’t have to study. Except, you should see their faces when they are told the same applies to storybooks and every other device, haha.
I could write a book about Navratri. But this will have to do for now.
Do stay tuned for Part 2, for stories about the nine goddesses worshipped on the nine days of Navratri.
Happy Navratri! If you see a celebration close to you — do participate!
P.S. I am so very excited to publish my first post at The Daily Cuppa Grande
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