Thursday, October 6, 2016


First published in "On the Mat" 2013 

While traditions vary across India, the festival of Navaratri honours the Goddess in her different forms, mainly as Saraswati, Goddess of learning and culture, Lakshmi, Goddess of wealth and prosperity, and Durga, Goddess of strength, courage and encompassing the ferocity of a mother in protecting her young.
Maa Durga

The word navaratri literally means nine nights, and the festival of Navaratri lasts nine days and nine nights. It occurs during the first nine days of the bright half of the month of Aashwayyuja in the Indian calendar. In our western calendar it is a "moveable feast" like Easter is, because the western calendar is not linked to the phases of the moon.

West Bengal celebrates Navaratri as Durga Puja. Kolkata (Calcutta) probably derived its name form Kali, another name of Durga. The last three nights and days are given over to magnificent welcomings of Maa Durga to her earthly home. Huge displays of earthen sculptures of Durga with her sons Ganesha and  Kartika, and Saraswati and Lakshmi are erected as the focus of large communal prayer meetings followed by mass feedings and cultural celebrations. On the tenth day they are taken in a procession to a nearby river where they are ceremoniously immersed.

Dancing Dandiya in tradiational dress
In western India, especially in the state of Gugarat, people spend the nine nights in party mode, dancing the garba and dandiya dances all through the night, with a puja for the Goddess and food served for everyone present. Women dressed in beautiful brightly coloured clothes with a wide skirt, blouse and scarf draped gracefully, dance the garba, a graceful dance in circular patterns, moving in a big circle around a central pot containing a lamp. Men and women participate in the dandiya, which features bamboo sticks held in the hands that are brought together, either one's own or another's, as the intricate patterns of the dance proceed.  The dance commences slowly but as it progresses the tempo increases to a frenzy.

In Mysore in the southern state of Karnataka, the biggest day is Dusshera, the tenth day after Navaratri, when the city turns on a parade to celebrate Chamundi, a form of Durga, and her victory over the demon. Chamundi is the family deity of the Maharaja of Mysore and the parade features the palace elephants decked out in all their glory,hoses and courtiers, who wend their way throughout he city and all the way to Chamundi Hill which overlooks the city.

A typical golu display
Many places throughout India have a custom during Navaratri of erecting tiered displays of dolls called by various names such as golu, kolu, bombe habba, bommala koluvlu. The displays are erected in the house on an odd number of tiers (usually 7, 9 or 11). Just like we store our Christmas decorations and get them  out from some high shelf, or from under a bed where they have languished for a year, so too the golu dolls emerge at the beginning of the festival, the steps are arranged and the dolls displayed. Deities are displayed on the top tiers, and depictions of householders lower down as well as animals on the lower shelves. Women and children visit each other during this festival to view each other's displays, sing some bhajans for the goddess and take home packages of prasadam from that house (often the day's sundal, see the recipe section). Unlike Christmas trees which can tend to linger for ages, the golu display is promptly packed up at the end of the festival and put away for another year.

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