Contributed by Drs. Amit Dholakia and Smita Tripathi
Navratri (literally nine nights in Sanskrit) is a religious festival from the South Asian sub-continent celebrated variously by Hindus, Sikhs and Jains. The festival is celebrated in the bright half of the month of Ashvin, which typically falls in September and October. It is vividly rich in thematic and content variations imbued with many diverse flavours unique customs, rich traditions and accompanied by medley of dances, songs and bhajans. Different parts of the sub-continent celebrate it variously; as manifested through the range of languages, foods, cultures, performances, rituals, celebrations and even attire associated with it. It is celebrated in Mauritius and Bali, along with other countries where Hindus reside. The diverse traditions and customs is traced back to regions and varied heritage, syncretism and unique path dependency of how the festivals evolved in the numerous regions and cultures. A very rich cultural – religious mosaic of events and rituals marks the unique celebrations and events. It is truly a special joyous exuberant opportunity to rejoice as expressed through the Sanskrit word Utsav (meaning to grow upwards) which is often used in connection with it.
The worship of the divine Devi, Shakti or Goddess is another central theme of the celebration and acknowledges the significance and role of the feminine and the maternal in our cultures. The worship of Goddesses represented by mothers, sisters and daughters are an amazing feature of this festival.
The spiritual overtone of this festival includes a focus on relaxing, reflecting, turning inwards and recharging ourselves with new energy. It suggests how negativity within or outside can be conquered by the inherent goodness and positive qualities of an individual. Our minds are constantly inundated with all kinds of noises, emotions and externalities, bickering, arguing, and judging, and so on. The isolation and the economic – social ramifications during this pandemic has been huge; Navratri is a time to overcome these tendencies, emerge stronger and come together as human beings.
In Northern parts of the South Asian Sub-Continent
To celebrate a good harvest and to please the nine planets, women plant nine different kinds of food grain seeds in small containers at the start of the nine days and then offer the young saplings on the tenth day as a sacred offering. adoration
In the Northern tradition, another popular ritual is Kanya Puja, which takes place on the eighth or ninth day. On this occasion, nine young girls are dressed as the nine goddess aspects celebrated during Navratri and are adored with rituals and worshipped with offerings of food and clothing.
Dussherra is celebrated on the tenth day and is associated with the victory of the Lord Rama over the demon-king Ravana. Ram Lila is a theatrical representation of the epic Ramayana (the Story of Ram) in play, song, dance and music over the nine days. The final day witnesses the victory of Lord Rama over the evil king Ravana (‘Vijay Dashami‘ day). The effigies of Ravana, and his two generals Kumbhakarna, and Meghnath are burnt to celebrate the victory of good over evil.
Dussherra is considered an auspicious time to begin educational or artistic pursuits, especially for children. The day often begins with a worship of our writing instruments, educational and work tools and a documenting of familial achievements in a family register. Ravana is worshipped on the morning of Dussherra, primarily because of his intellect, skills and prowess.
In Western parts of the South Asian Sub-Continent
The festivities in the West focus on communally performed dances, most famously the Garba and Dandiya, especially in Gujarat. These dancers wear elaborate, colourful, embroidered dresses. The dances are very energetic, exuberant and involve a lot of rotations, twirling and circling. They truly express the soulful and intense vibrance of Gujarat. Since it is believed that the Goddess is fond of red flowers and yellow colour, women and young girls prefer wearing clothes in these colours.
In Garba, women dance gracefully in circles around a pot containing a lamp whereas in the Dandiya dance, men and women participate in pairs with small, decorated bamboo sticks, called dandiyas in their hands.
In Eastern parts of the South Asian Sub-Continent
In Eastern parts of the sub-continent including Nepal and Manipur, Dussherra has its own variant and flavour as Dashian and is celebrated over fifteen days. On the 10th day a ceremonial Tika of yogurt, vermilion, and rice is applied on the forehead. Another important aspect is the worship of God as Mother (Maa). Followers of the Goddess Durga/Shakti, celebrate the occasion as Durga Puja.
The central storyline of the victory of good over evil is staged in the clay statues produced for the annual festival of Durga puja. It begins with the shape-shifting buffalo-demon Mahisa, who tricks the Gods into granting him immortality with the proviso that he could only be slain by a woman, hence making him practically invincible. The Demon Mahisa then becomes a scourge, challenging and harassing the Earth and the Gods incessantly till they decide to fight back; they combine their energy, the light streaming out of their heads joined together to materialise as Durga, a woman of sublime beauty. Armed with divine weapons and riding a lion or tiger, Durga approaches Mahisa and using her wit, charm and brute force, eventually slays him in a dramatic showdown.
In the traditional puja representation, Durga is shown in the crucial moment of the fight, piercing the beheaded demon with a spear, while her two sons Karthikeya and Ganesa and her two daughters Lakshmi and Sarasvati stand supportively by her side. Lion/tiger signifies dharma, the will power, while the weapons denote the focus and severity needed to destroy the negativity in our minds and environment.
It is said that Shiva gave permission to Durga to see her mother for nine days at this time of the year and this festival also commemorates this visit. Therefore, this tradition enables married women to visit their childhood homes.
Dhunuchi Naach is an impromptu dance performed in front of Maa Durga by worshippers dancing with burning incense pots. They dance and execute tricks holding burning pots to the beat of the dhaaks which are perfect musical accompaniments to the frenzied movements.
Sindoor Khela is held on Mahadashami when it is time to bid adieu to Maa and is occasioned by ritual play with red or orange colour. In parts of the sub-continent, in sharp contrast to feasts, extravagant meals, and social get-togethers, the festival is a time for fasting and prayers.
In Southern parts of the South Asian Sub-Continent
The festival takes on regional colours and hues with a very wide range of celebrations and forms. In Kerala, Poojavaippu is celebrated as a festival of education and learning with a focus on children worshipping their pens and books – this marks the beginning if their educational journey.
In Andhra Pradesh the festivities take on a floral aspect with the nine days being dedicated to the Goddess Maha Gauri. In Bathukamma Padunga (literally meaning ‘Come Alive Mother Goddess’), women make floral stacks accompanied by fascinating floral dances and songs.
In parts of Tami Nadu and Karnataka, Golu is the festive display of dolls and figurines during this period. Its regional names /variations include Bommai Kolu in Tamil which means Divine Presence, Bommala Koluvu in Telugu or the Court of Toys and Bombe Habba in Kannada which means Doll Festival.
Golu is the festive display of dolls and figurines during this period in parts of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. Interestingly the dolls and figurines show every day scenes along with more religiously inspired divine scenes from the epics like Ramayana.
The spiritual significance of the festival is rooted in meditating on the antar dhayan – the inner source of all energy. Through fasting, prayer, silence and meditation, the individual seeks an improvement in themselves – purifying oneself from within. This symbolic dhayan and manan, it is claimed causes one to emerge stronger and purer, it brings relief at the three levels of our existence – physical, subtle and causal. While fasting detoxifies the body, silence purifies the speech and brings rest to the chattering mind, and meditation takes one deep into one’s own being. The essence of this knowledge is acknowledged by celebrating the tenth day as Vijay Dashmi.
The Hindu, Sikh, Jain, Buddhist or Islamic ways of life has since time immemorial advocated living in harmony with one another and with nature. The symbiotic relationship between an individual, their community and nature has come into sharp focus during this period of lockdown. The Hindu philosophy of interacting with humanity in a way that promotes universal prosperity to satisfy everyone’s needs rather than greed shines through in this religious celebration. Navratri is the time for you to realize that you are loved, and dwell and rest in this feeling of love. When you do this, you come out feeling stronger, wiser, rejuvenated, refreshed and harmonious.
The celebration of Navratri is in essence the worship of the one Divine existence who manifests in various forms and avatars. The supreme being is worshipped in various ways – all aspects of life and nature are worshipped during these days. Worship of this divine enables the victory of good, removes miseries, sorrows and pains; bestows peace, prosperity and joy on one and all. In the end, Navratri is really about praying for universal wisdom and a simple wish to reconnect with something much bigger than each one of us and the occasion is a tool that helps us do that.
With the blessings of the Divine, may each one of us be imbued with the blessings of the Adi Seer; May you have–
Ichcha Shakti – Willpower
Kriya Shakti – Power to perform right action
Jnana Shakti – Knowledge of right action