Navrathri - The Nine Nights of Faith
Navratri is one of the most glorious Indian festivals and is celebrated all over the country with great zeal. It is during these nine days that devotees worship Shakti, the epitome of might and justice in Hindu mythology. It is said that Goddess Shakti was created with the powers of all the Gods combined to destroy the most devious forces. Although Navratri is commonly associated with the nine days during the month of October, it is interesting to note that there are five different types of Navratri that are celebrated across a year.
The first one is Vasanta Navratri. As the name suggests, this is a nine day celebration during spring, from March to April. The next one is celebrated in the month of Ashada, between June and July. This is known as Ashada Navratri or Gupta Navaratri. After that comes the Navratri that we all know, the most important one, the Maha Navratri or the Sharada Navratri. These nine days are observed during the onset of winter in October. The fourth type of Navratri is celebrated between the months of December and January and is known as the Paush Navratri. The last one is the Magha Navratri that is celebrated during the waxing phase of the moon from January to February. During all these days, Hindus worship Shakti and praise her strength.
Why do we celebrate it?
Navratri is one phase when the whole country resonates with the spirit of goodness. Not just that, all the rituals and ceremonies are so overwhelming that you can actually feel the presence of an all powerful energy watching over you. So, why do we celebrate this festival in the first place? Let us take a look at what mythology has to say.
Hundreds of years ago, a demon named Mahishasura wreaked havoc over heaven which was ruled by the demigods. Mahishasura was all powerful because of a boon from Brahma that no male could ever defeat him. He was also one of Goddess Durga’s greatest devotees. He was reborn as a demon on her command when she wanted to teach corrupt demigods or Devas a lesson. So this all powerful demon now threatened the King of the Devas, Indra. That is when the Devas combined all their powers and summoned Shakti to defeat Mahishasura. After nine long days of war, Mahishasura, the buffalo king was finally put to rest. However, because he was her greatest devotee, Shakti granted Mahishasura a boon. He would always be worshipped with her. That is why; you will never find a picture of Shakti without Mahishasura at her feet.
Navarathri or Dussehra in particular is also celebrated to commemorate the killing of Ravana, the evil king who abducts Sita, the holy consort of Lord Rama.
Summing it up, Navratri is celebrated to commemorate the victory of good over evil. Vijayadashami or the tenth day of victory represents this sentiment. During these nine days, nine different forms of Shakti are celebrated.
Different regions, different rituals
Like any Indian festival, Navratri, too is celebrated amidst energetic singing, dancing and of, course, socializing. With a country as diverse and large as India, it is no surprise that each region has created its own set of traditions and rituals. Not just rituals, even the origin of Navaratri takes different twists as we meander through the different states of India
In Kashmir, Navratri is mostly celebrated by the Pundits. For these nine days, they observe a fast which only allows them to consume water, fruits and specifically created dishes, that too in the evening. People worship their guardian, Goddess Kheer Bhawani. On the ninth day, an Aarti is performed after which the fast is broken. Devotees also go up to Vaishno Devi to seek blessings.
In most Northern States of India, Navratri symbolizes the victory of Rama over Ravana. It is believed that the war to rescue Rama’s beloved Sita went on for nine long days! During this time Lord Rama, worshipped nine forms of Shakti to gain strength to defeat Ravana. These nine days are called Navratri and the tenth day, Dussehra or Vijayadashami celebrates Rama’s victory over the demon King. As a symbol of this, on the tenth day, large effigies of the ten headed Ravana are burnt amidst celebrations.
The Gujarati Folk dance forms, ‘Dandiya Raas’ and ‘Garba Raas’ are almost synonymous with Navratri. While it has become a great social gathering and a religiously diverse event, it is believed to have been performed to please the Goddess and calm her down after the war. It originated from the scenes of Lord’s Krishna life and his revelry with the Gopikas. Men and women dance around decorated pots that symbolize the goddess. They wear their colorful traditional outfits and even take part in local competitions that are held each year.
Bengal, Orissa, Assam and other Eastern States
In these states, the six day long Durga Puja that marks the victory of Shakti over Mahishasura is perhaps the most important celebration of the year. Beautifully handcrafted idols of the mighty goddess are created, decorated and worshipped during these days. The idol is immersed in water on the tenth day. Other important rituals are the Kanya Puja wherein young girls are worshipped as incarnations of Durga herself. Ayudha Puja is performed to worship tools that assist our livelihood. Saraswati Puja is performed by students to seek the Goddess’ blessings for their studies. Books and writing instruments are placed before the Goddess for her blessing.
In Maharashtra, the Goddess’ nine forms are worshipped over the nine days. On the tenth day, the tantric symbol of Goddess Saraswati is worshipped by students to seek her blessings for their education. This day also marks a new beginning and is considered auspicious for new ventures and investments. In Maharashtra, a Puja is performed on every one of those nine days in honour of the Goddess.
Goa sees the beginning of Zatra during Navratri. This is the time when temples of the Brahmins in Goa are beautifully decorated. The idols are adorned with sandalwood paste, turmeric, kumkum and of course, flowers. A special offering known as the Kaul Prasad is sought after as people believe that this Prasad comes directly from the gods and goddesses. The adorned deities are worshiped continuously for nine days with so much devotion and focus that even the flowers are not changed. These flowers are later distributed as Prasad. The Dasha Maitrikas or the ten sisters of Goa are worshipped during this time.
The traditional Dussehra celebrations of Mysore that have been around for the last four centuries are the highlight of the Navratri season in Karnataka. These celebrations were started by the Vijayanagara Kings to worship Goddess Chamundeshwari who defeated Mahishasura. This tradition was then carried on by the Wodeyar Kings. Although rituals and ceremonies are the norm, the Dussehra procession is the most awaited event in this state. This spectacular procession of beautifully decorated elephants walking against the regal backdrop of the Mysore palace is quite a sight and is witnessed by hundreds of travelers form across the country and world. At homes throughout the state, dolls or little statues of mythological characters and gods are placed in different arrangements and worshipped. Dolls representing king and queen, which are made of red sandal wood are placed at the top of the arrangement. The festival is also called Gombe Habba.
Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu
In Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, many rows of tiny dolls are arranged and worshipped. This is known as Bommai Kolu, Bommala Kolavu. These dolls represent various forms of Hindu deities. During this time people visit each others’ house, sing song and even exchange savories as part of the tradition.
Another ritual known as the Bathukamma is celebrated in Telangana region of Andhra Pradesh. A stack of flowers, arranged in concentric circles are worshipped by women to honour Goddess Gauri. This stack of flowers is called Bathukamma. Women gather in courtyards or near water bodies, place bathukammas in a group and dance around them in circles singing traditional folk songs. This festival is celebrated so that young girls can get good husbands and also for the prosperity of the families of those who are married. On the eighth day, these colorful flower arrangements are floated in water.
In Kerala, Navratri symbolizes education and knowledge. On the day of the Durga Puja, many children aged between 3 and 5 years actually begin their formal education. On the eighth day, tools are worshipped as they provide a means of livelihood and then support it. During Navratri people visit Saraswati temples in large crowds to seek the blessings of the Goddess of Knowledge.
Mouth watering savories and sweets
Although there are so many traditions across the country, the common factor in the Navratri celebrations in delicious food! Many people observe a fast during these nine days. Naturally, the most popular dishes of this season are vegetarian and are also very light and easy on the stomach. Also, all the recipes have specific ingredients that are allowed by the fast. The most commonly prepared dishes are sabudana(sago) vada, sabudana kheer, potato kichdi, pudina flavoured potatoes, Sighara Burfi, pakodas and koftas. People in Andhra Pradesh sacrifice animals to please the goddess and prepare non vegetarian delicacies.
Navratri, without a doubt, unifies this country in all of its glorious diversity. This is when Indian culture, beautiful Indian colours and the rich Indian heritage are at its peak in almost all the states of the great subcontinent. Whether it is just a cultural obligation or a heartfelt celebration, it is without any doubt that this one of the most spectacular festivals listed in the Indian calendar.