I know I mentioned in my last blog that I’d be talking about my recent field course in Sudbury in the next one but this topic seems more time-appropriate as we are in the middle of India’s festival season and just last week celebrated one of my favourite festival, ‘Navratri’! On the thanksgiving weekend, one of my lab-mates hosted a ‘Friendsgiving’ gathering (which was so much fun!) and we talked a bit about different festivals of different cultures and their significance 😀 That gave me the idea for today’s blog haha! Other than the traditional dance (which we’ll get into in a bit), what I love about this festival is how it’s a great example of people of my country celebrating their diversity.
What is Navratri?
So to put it simply, the word Navratri means ‘nine nights‘. It’s a mix of two Sanskrit words- Nava meaning ‘nine’ and Ratri meaning ‘nights’. Technically, the festival lasts for nine nights and 10 days and at the center of the celebration is the concept of nine different forms of one of our goddesses being worshipped. So, in a way, Navratri is quite an important festival in my culture celebrating and honoring the divine feminine.
An interesting thing about Navratri is, depending on which part of India you’re located in, people celebrate this festival differently. So, let’s dive right into how it is celebrated across the country, starting with…
In Northern parts of India, Navratri is celebrated as the victory of Lord Rama over the demon king Ravana. It is still speculated how long this fierce battel actually lasted (older literature points at about 7 to 12 days). However, everyone does seem to agree on the part that on the day of ‘dussera‘, (the 10th and the last day of this festival), Ram defeated the demon king Ravana and that’s why it is celebrated. And so, this day is also called ‘Vijaya Dashami‘.
One of the two major highlights of how people in north India celebrate this festival is the ceremoniously enacted ‘RamLeela‘ play. Ramleela is a dramatic play that retells the epical story of the victory of good over evil. This play is performed by seasoned actors and actresses of Indian ‘banjara’ troupes, every night of the festival (total 9 nights) where they play certain scenes from our ancient story of ‘Ramayana’ and hundreds of people from all over India come out to watch it. Some of the famous cities where you can watch this play (if you ever visit India during this time) are Ayodhya (birthplace of Lord Rama), Varanasi, Lucknow, Delhi etc. I’ve unfortunately only ever had a chance to watch the play broadcasted on TV but it was still amazing, I can only imagine how fascinating it’d be to watch it in person.
The second main event of this festival in North India is ‘RavanDahan‘ on the last day of the festival, which is technically the climax of the 9-days long RamLeela play. On this day, people gather around in a big empty plot or ground and burn effigies of the demon king Ravana and his evil giant brother ‘Kumbhkarna‘ to celebrate the victory of good over evil.
In south India, Navratri is celebrated quite differently and is more of an intimate affair. People invite their friends, relatives and neighbors over to look at the Kolu/Golu, which is basically an exhibition of various dolls and figurines made out of clay and wood by the rural artisan. They are usually arranged in odd numbers of steps or tiers (like 5 or 7) to tell a story. While goddess-related theme is common for the dolls, some also include life developments such as anticipated wedding within the family or friends. Your loved ones come over everyday bearing gifts to look at the display, chit-chat, to eat delicious food and sometimes to dance haha!
On the ninth day of the festival, everyone conducts the ‘Ayudha Puja‘ where they decorate and worship their agricultural tools, books, musical instruments, machinery, automobiles etc. My personal favourite part of this festival is the last day (10th), as it is the day of ‘vidyaarambham‘, where young children are initiated into learning and together everyone worship our goddess of education, ‘Saraswati‘.
In the eastern and north-east India, the highlight of this festival is the ‘Durga Puja‘ which is celebrated on the last five days of Navratri. In India, the city of Kolkata is probably the best location to visit during this festival. People start planning for the ‘Puja’ months in advance. The actual five days of the puja are meant for resting, visiting various ‘pandals’ (a temporary shelter, mostly made of erected poles supporting a roof made out of mats and bamboo) with your friends and family and just enjoying the vibe of the festival. Some of these pandals are super fancy and each of them have a different theme. But the most common component of any of the pandals is a gorgeously decorated, life-size idol of the goddess Durga . Usually, goddess Durga is shown with various weapons in her hand, riding on a lion. Lion signifies the will power, while the weapons are symbols the focus and severity needed to destroy the negativity in our minds.
Eighth day for people in this part of India is traditionally Durgashtami and is of the most importance. Most of the pandals on this day are themed around exquisitely crafted and decorated life-size clay idols of the goddess Durga slaying the demon Mahishasura A demon king with a buffalo head. These idols are then worshipped for five days and immersed in the river on the fifth day. While the North and South parts of India don’t really have any specific outfits for this festival, East and West do. In east India, women wear their gorgeous red and white bengali sarees for this puja and men dress up in the traditional kurta-pyjama outfit.
Now, I’ve been saving the best for last haha..
In Western India, particularly in my state Gujarat, Navratri is celebrated with the famous Garba and Dandiya-Raas dance for nine nights in a row. Garba is a graceful (well… mostly lol) form of dance, wherein people dance in circles (sometimes multiple circles) around a small temple of our goddess. We start the celebration every night with a prayer (more like a song) appreciating our goddess and then get right into the dancing. While usually, the dance itself is not very complicated and almost everyone can learn it pretty quickly, there are some intricate steps in the advanced level of the dance. Also, depending on which part of Gujarat you’re in, you’ll see different styles of Garba. Some of the famous cities you could visit to see the best of Gujarati Navratri are Ahmedabad, Baroda and Surat…
Usually the celebration starts at around 9 PM at night and can last well into midnight (even longer if you know people who know people ahem). On the last night, we dance all night, till the sunrise. More than the religious side of the festival, the youngsters are fond of the dance itself. It’s organized by every society, on every street and clubs in Gujarat. In bigger places like clubs and party plots, we invite famous singers to sing our ‘garba’ songs live while people dance. We all try to wear the traditional clothing for at least few days out of all nine and shopping for those outfits and traditional jewelry start well in advance. No I’m not kidding… I remember visiting best places in my city you can buy these traditional clothes from with my friends right after the Navratri festival is over so that we can get new clothes for the next year’s Navratri celebration for cheap haha!
Luckily, I managed to get some tickets to a garba night event here in London on last Friday and went there with my housemates. I didn’t realize how badly I was missing home until I got there and saw people in familiar attire, dancing to our traditional music. I’m glad I got the chance to be a part of it, even for a day.
And before I sign off, here are a few pictures of me with my housemate (and my brother) in the traditional ‘garba’ attire from last Friday as well as a couple of years ago when I was still back in India!
Until next time!