Navratri: Nine nights celebrating the feminine divinity

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Yes, its Navratri time! Which means its officially the start of festive season in India. (well Ganpati festivals marks the beginning really, but that’s why I used the term ‘officially’). Which in turn means, its time for a lot of dancing, shopping for new and colourful clothes, eating a lot of good food (or not if you are fasting) and in general just embracing the Indian-ness in you.

Navratri is the biggest and the longest festival celebrated across the country. Its a Hindu festivals associated with the mother divine, goddess Durga. Durga is yet another form of the supreme deity, the female divinity-Devi/Shakti. She is considered to be the energy which is the womb of the entire creation and has given birth to all that is.

Navratri is a very ritualistic festival, which over the years has transformed into an yearly carnival. Its the ultimate time of the year wherein faith is combined with merriment and hence the perfect time to visit any part of the country.

Navratri is celebrated two times a year, but the most festive one (the one I am talking about here) is the autumn Navratri (Sharad Navratri) that falls during September-October. It is not only religious and spiritual but also represents season change. Its a post monsoon festival, the best season with moderate and pleasant climate throughout the country.

Why is it celebrated?

Like most religious festivals in India, Navratri is also associated with the victory of good over evil. Navratri the word itself is a conjuction of two words ‘Nav’ and ‘Ratri’ which translates to ‘9 nights’. Its a 9 night celebration of the feminine divine form.

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The Indian culture pays highest reverence to one relation i.e. ‘the mother’ hence, worshiping the female deity has been prevalent in India since eternity and Navratri is all about it.

Mythology

There are two stories associated with Navratri

  1. Killing of Mahishasura by Goddess Durga: Mahishasura, the demon who got a boon of not to be killed by a man, started creating havoc on earth. Hence, the demure goddess took the fierce form of Durga and killed the demon in a battle that lasted 9 days.
  2. Killing of Ravan by Lord Ram: The epic ‘Ramayana’ protagonist ‘Ram’ has said to have fasted and prayed to goddess Durga for 9 days before embarking on a battle against Raavan and eventually killing him on the 10th day.

Although there are many stories (sit with an Indian grandmother and you’ll get to know 100 variations of the same story) but the overall theme is victory of good over evil and paying reverence to the mother goddess.

How is it celebrated?

Every part of the country celebrates it in a very peculiar way. Here it goes:

North

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Navratri is mostly about fasting for the said 9 days as a tribute to the 9 forms of the goddess. Fasting is observed for the whole day and broken at the end of the day with a special navratri meal. Although it is meant only for the one’s fasting, people like me often prefer indulging in it than the normal non-fasting meal, cause its yummy! Duh! On the first day barley seeds are sown in a clay pot, which sprouts by the 8th day and is flown into the river. On the 9th day little girls are treated with homemade delicacies as they are deemed to be representing the goddess in human form.

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10th day is the day you can witness the grandest affair in the north on ‘dusherra’. For 9 days along with the fasting another activity that takes the cake is Ramlila. Ramlila is a dramatic enactment of the story of Ram, his wife Sita, brother Laxman and demon Ravana. For 9 days Ramlila is staged at various organised and unorganised places. The best ones to be visited happen in and around Old Delhi, hence a must visit if you are around. On the 10th day the story comes to an end and Ram killing Ravana is staged hence, marking the big day. On this day, big idols of Ravana, his son Meghanad and his brother Kumbhkaran are set ablaze. Setting fire to an idol doesn’t sound too happy, but it actually is an act of celebration. Its not that people hate Ravana and his family (or maybe they do) but setting these effigies on fire represents the victory of good over evil, which has been the theme of Navratri all along.

East

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This is the ultimate celebration of the goddess. ‘Durga Puja’ is widely celebrated in the states of West Bengal, Assam, Bihar, Jharkhand, Orissa and a little in the 7 sisters as well.  These days Durga Puja is celebrated in various metro cities of the country including Delhi and Mumbai. But nothing even comes closer to the way it is celebrated in Kolkata.

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Decorated, Life like idols of Goddess Durga and Mahishasura are created by potters out of clay and installed in elaborate temporary/permanent structures called ‘Pandals’. Many people even keep the idols at home and/or temples. The idols are worshipped for five days and then carried in a magnificent procession to a local river for immersion. The true Durga Puja experience starts right from where these grand idols are made ending only after devotees say their farewell to the goddess for the year.The celebration is one of a kind, the whole city (Kolkata) comes alive. The lights, the decorations, the food trails, the whole hustle bustle around the festival goes on for 24 hours during these 6 days.

West

The most fun celebration ever is the Gujarati way of celebrating Navaratri. People dressed in vibrant costumes dance around a decorated pot symbolising ‘Garbha’-womb of a mother. This dance form of dancing around in circles is also called ‘Garbha’. On a normal Navratri evening (if that’s a thing) every housing society, community complexe, clubs etc. can be seen hosting a Garba/Dandiya (similar to Garba but with sticks) function, wherein you can see ladies, men and children alike whirling to the sounds of Gujarati folk songs (these days Bollywood songs remixed to suit the need). Womb of a mother, Garbha is the source of life on earth and hence Navaratri in Gujarat is celebrating life through celebrating motherhood. 

_dsc0614In Mumbai, its a mix of the whole country. While the local Marathi people mostly associate the festival with traditional practices and rituals, worshipping the goddess, the metropolitan culture of the city has given way to it becoming the melting pot for the tradition and practices of the whole country. Ramlila, Raavan effigy burning, Durga Puja, Garba, Dandiya all of this constitutes the part of Navratri celebration in Mumbai.

South

Everybody knows how it is celebrated in the rest of the country but not about the south. Its not as pompous and grand as in other parts of the country (especially west and east), but more traditional and ritualistic.

Each southern Indian state has its own cultural and traditional way of celebrating Navratri. In Kerala the celebration is mostly associated with worshipping goddess Saraswati, the goddess of skill and wisdom. The general theme around the celebration and rituals is ‘initiation in the world of knowledge’.

It is celebrated under the name Mysore Dasara in Karnataka. Mysore is the historic city in Karnataka, which was the seat of the former ruler. It has said to have got its name from the demon Mahishasura, who apparently was a ruler of this land, once upon a time. Mysore Dasara is a 10 day festival, with Vijayadashmi marking the end of it. The 10th day procession in the city of Mysore, culminating the festival is a must see and so is the Mysore Palace during this time. 

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‘Kolu’ or ‘Golu’ is an important part of Navratri celebration in Tamil Nadu. This involves installing dolls of gods and goddesses in a special arrangement in the houses. I have never personally seen such an arrangement (maybe someday). The 10th day of the festival is celebrated similar to Kerala, worshipping the source of knowledge. Books and Musical instruments are a part of this practice. This is known as ‘Ayudh Puja’. Ayudh Puja is celebrated in Karnataka as well. 

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In Andhra Pradesh & Telangana the festival is celebrated with flowers and the practice is called Batukamma Panduga. Just like in Tamil Nadu, instead of the dolls, small Batukamms (stacks of flowers) are used as a part of the decoration. These flower arrangements are representation of the goddess and all rituals are concentrated around these Batukamms. Its a beautiful festival, especially in the rural areas. This is the time various flowers blossom, including various wildflowers, which in turn are used during this festival. 

All in all, Navratri is the ultimate festival celebrated in India second to Diwali and Holi that are just a day long festival, while this goes on for a whole week! You can create your own India travel wishlist for this festival.

  • Kolkata for Durga Puja
  • Delhi for Dusshera
  • Mysore for Mysore Dasara Procession
  • Telangana for the Flower festival
  • Ahmedabad (or anywhere in Gujarat) for the Garba

Last year I visited Gujarat to witness the fun part of Navaratri and how it is celebrated in that part of the country. This is year I’ll be in Kolkata, in eastern part of the country to witness the grandness of Durga Puja. Watch this space for pictures and more related to the same 🙂 

 

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