This year, the end of September marks the onset of Navaratri or “nine nights” in the Hindu calendar. With this begins one of the most festive phases in India, with Durga Puja in east India, Dussehra in north, central and west India, and Saraswati Puja in South India. It also sets the stage for Diwali in the near future.
Navaratri literally means ‘nine nights’. This nine-day period, sacred to Durga, is celebrated sometime in the months of October and November. It is considered the most auspicious time of the Hindu calendar.
Although it has different names in different parts of India, the festival celebrations centre on the conquest of good over evil. Every region has its own myths and reasons to explain this.
Nine aspects of Devi
The nine different aspects of Devi are worshipped over the nine days, says a report on indiancultureonline.com. As Durga, she is the goddess beyond reach; as Bhadrakali she is the power of time; as Amba or Jagdamba, she is mother of the world; as Annapurna, she is giver of food and plenty; as Sarvamangala, she is the auspicious goddess; as Bhairavi she represents the fearful power of death; as Chandika or Chandi she is violent, wrathful, furious; as Lalita she is playful; and as Bhavani, giver of existence.
The festivities culminate on the tenth day, called variously as Vijayadashmi, Dussehra or Dassain when people in most parts of India burn effigies of Ravana, his son Meghanatha and brother Kumbhakarna.
It is believed that in ancient times, this was a festival intended for the Kshatriyas or warrior-class of India. After the four-month long monsoon when military activity was not possible, this was considered a good time to start afresh on one’s conquests. For nine days before starting on the war journey, kings prayed to the nine different aspects of Devi or Adishakti. They also prayed for their arms and ammunition. The tenth day was when the journey for the conquest began.
The origin of this custom can also be traced to the Ramayana. According to it, Rama had to pray to the nine different aspects of Devi to be able to kill Ravana. He then accumulated enough power to kill Ravana on the tenth day, which was called Vijayadashmi or day of victory.
Since then, the tradition of praying to the Devi for nine days has continued. The Kshatriyas believed that by doing so, they too would be able to defeat their most powerful enemy.
On the eighth day, an animal is sacrificed by many communities, specially Gurkhas and other hill tribes who are believers in the Devi cult. This blood sacrifice is a way of thanking the goddess for a wish that has been granted. People often sacrifice a buffalo symbolic of the killing of Mahishasura by Durga.
Some people fast on all nine days, eating only fruit and milk dishes. Some fast only on the eighth or ninth day. As the festival is dear to the mother goddess, on the eighth or ninth day many people invite over nine young girls from the neighbourhood. These girls are treated as the goddess herself. People ceremonially wash their feet, worship them and then offer food to the “girl-goddesses.
On the first day of Navaratri, grains of barley are planted in the puja room of the house after a small puja. Every day some water is sprinkled on it. On the tenth day, the shoots are about 3 -5 inches in length. After the puja, these seedlings are pulled out and given to devotees as a blessing from god.
The devout place the seedlings on their caps, behind their ears, and inside books to bring good luck. This custom suggests that the festival’s link to harvesting is quite pronounced. For soon after this festival, the sugarcane crop is harvested and the winter crops sown.
It is an occasion for vibrant festivities throughout the country. In Bengal and Orissa, during Navaratri, devotees of Durga fast and pray for health and prosperity. Different manifestations of Durga or Shakti are worshipped every night.
In the Western part of the country, in Gujarat and Maharashtra, devotees and young people dance the Garba and Dandiya-Raas all through the night. While garba is slow, dandiya is an exuberant dance. Both dances have dancers striking their sticks in a rhythmic movement.
The Navaratri festival celebrations in Ahmedabad and Baroda in Gujarat are famous throughout India. Here, the evenings and nights are occasions for the fascinating Garba dance. The women dance around an earthen lamp while singing devotional songs accompanied by rhythmic clapping of the hands.
In Punjab, Navaratri is a period of fasting. In Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, a special platform is constructed in homes on which are placed icons, toys and other colourful objects. Friends and relatives are invited for the Bommai Kolu, as the arrangement is called.
On the ninth day, people in southern India celebrate Saraswati Puja. All objects of learning like books, stationary, musical instruments and other objects associated with them are placed on a pedestal and worshipped. Since the next day coincides with Vijayadashmi, the books are taken out and read. It is believed that Aksharabhyas is an auspicious day for children to be initiated into learning.