I fall at the feet of the ten-armed divine
And carve out the muted dolls speaking volumes.
I sway to the effulgence of the earthly lamp,
And burn to ashes the spirit of evil.
Surrounding the resplendence of the festivals defining the cultural and spiritual life of India, there are core images and symbolism that possess the power to unify and strengthen the nation. Navratri, meaning ‘nine-nights’ is a popular festival serving as the unifying force of Hinduism across a diverse India. In essence, it is a celebration of Shakti- an embodiment of all positive forces that can vanquish the unholy.
1) The chosen seasons
Popularly, Navratri is celebrated twice a year- first at the onset of summer and then again in winter. There are deep reasons behind these two seasons, displaying a marked contrast of solar radiance being chosen for worship.
The Supreme Being must be thanked for the climatic cycles that sustain the earth and all other phenomenon maintaining cosmic stability. Also, it is believed that the earth’s revolution triggers physical and mental transformations in humans; hence the divine power’s blessings must be sought to maintain an inner harmonious equilibrium.
2) The Nine Nights
In sync with the idea of harmony, Navratri assigns three days each to the worship of the avatars of the divine Mother. The first of the three days calls for the worshipping of the Mother as Shakti- a nemesis of the darkness residing in our souls in the form of greed, jealousy, etc. The next three days calls for the invocation of Lakshmi, the giver of potent material and spiritual wealth. The last three days are devoted to Saraswati- the magnanimous benefactor of infinite knowledge and wisdom.
Navaratri thus, stands for a pure completeness of the self.
South India: Dolls that speak volumes
In South India, a unique aspect of the Navratri celebrations is the dolls exhibition. Each state in the Southern mainland has a different term forit- Bombe Habba (Kannada), bomma gullu (Malayalam), Bommai Kolu (Tamil), Bommala Koluvu (Telugu). This is mainly a preserve of the females who display a lot of enthusiasm and a competitive spirit. The doll exhibition awakens us to the reality that while our forms and nature may vary, our flesh and blood have originated from the same source.
As a social event, the festival witnesses the exchange of coconuts, clothes, sweets and of course bonding.
East India: The Ten- Armed Divine
In East India, particularly Bengal, Navratri takes the popular form of Durga Puja that draw large crowds of devotees. Massive clay idols of the ten-armed Devi are installed at pandals across cities, towns and villages. Prayers, bhajans and fire rituals all serve to engulf the pious space with the radiant prowess of Maa Durga. Her fight with, and the eventual defeat of Mahishasura is meant to symbolize the eternal victory of good over evil.
Durga Puja is also an occasion for myriad cultural programmes, fairs, bright lights, sweets and new clothes. The immersion of the idols in the rivers marks the drawing of the curtain on this grand festival.
West India: The earthly lamps
West India, especially Gujarat has its unique, beautiful way of celebrating the nine nights. The outward beauty lies in the Garba and Dandiya-Raas dance. The core beauty lies in the symbolism associated with a lamp inside an earthen pot. The pot is called ‘Garbo’ signifying the womb and the lamp signifies a newborn baby.
The Garba dance is a series of graceful movements in circles bearing a semblance to the Sufi culture. It is a dance that worships and tries to draw on one’s inherent divinity.
The festivities in Maharashtra bear semblance to that of Gujarat, with the added aspect of ‘Saumangalyam’– the smearing of haldi and kumkum on the foreheads of married women. Each day of the Navaratri celebrations in Rajasthan, begins with aarti, meant to invoke the different manifestations of the Supreme Goddess. The Amer Fort and Mehrangarh Fort known for their prayers attract large number of tourists.
North India: Decimating the evil
North India brings to life the spirituality of the nine nights through Ramlila literally translating to Ram’s play. Ramlilas are the enactments of episodes from the revered ‘Ramcharitmanas’ involving catchy songs, dances dialogues and recitals. These are generally performed during the Dussehra festival around the months of October-November. Among the most popular Ramlilas, are those of Ayodhya, Ramnagar, Vrindavan, etc. The twilight of this ten day saga of plays is marked by the burning of the effigy of Ravana- symbolizing the inevitable decimation of the evil.
In much of the northern states including J&K, Uttarakhand, Punjab, etc. a popular custom is the planting of barley seeds in an earthen pot on the first day, which in then watered for the rest of the nine days and worshiped. Fasting for the first few days is also an important component of the observance.
Thus, though varying in forms and symbolism across the length and breadth of the country, Navratri’s all-encompassing essence is the celebration of a harmonious individual through rooting out of the dark forces. However, celebration in the true sense requires striving for a perspective of the likes of Padma Laxmi, as can be gauged from her words-
From the simple stringing together of lemon garlands for the goddess Durga, to dividing the prasadam or blessed foods for the children first, I came to associate food not only with feminity, but also with purity and divinity.