Navratri meaning ‘nine nights’ is a significant Hindu festival, which is celebrated twice a year – ‘Chaitra’ or ‘Vasant Navratri’ (March-April), and ‘Sharad Navratri’ (October-November). Both the celebrations center on the worship of Goddess Shakti. In Gujarat, Navratri festival celebrates the worship of Goddess Jagdamba, while in West Bengal, Durga Puja is the reason to rejoice. Though, every region in India celebrates this festival in its own way, Navratri Festival is dedicated to the 3 avatars of Goddess Shakti – Durga (the warrior Goddess), Lakshmi (the Goddess of wealth), and Saraswati (the Goddess of knowledge).
History of Navratri
The immemorial custom of goddess worship has been prevailing in India since ancient times. There are a number of beliefs and legends of Navratri festival which have been around for ages. Legend says that when Mahishasura, the spiteful demon, who was a devotee of Lord Shiva, acquired unbeatable powers of eternity, he started taking away innocent lives. In order to stop him from taking over all the three lokas, Lord Brahma, Lord Vishnu and Lord Mahesh of the Hindu Trinity united their supreme powers and created a warrior goddess Durga who entered a war with Mahishasura. This war extended for nine days and on the tenth day she beheaded him. These nine nights signify the festival of Navratri. As per Hindu mythology, Uma, daughter of King Daksha of Himalayas, married Lord Shiva against the will of her father. In order to take revenge, King Daksha arranged a yagna where he invited all the deities except Lord Shiva. The story goes that when Uma visited her parents to take part in the yagna, her father offended Lord Shiva. Unable to bear the insults meted on her husband, Uma jumped into the agnikund, which is why she is also known as Sati. In her rebirth, she married Lord Shiva and also made peace with her parents.
It is said that Sati comes to stay with them for nine days, which is celebrated as Navratri. It is also said that Lord Rama worshipped Goddess Durga in all her nine forms, for nine days, in order to gather all the powers required to vanquish Ravana the demon, and release his wife Sita from his clutches. Those nine days imply Navratri, and the tenth day when he killed Ravana, came to be known as Vijaydashmi and is celebrated as Dussehra. The history of Navratri also takes us to the assumption which states that in prehistoric times, the Kshatriyas used to drive themselves out from participating in any warlike activities all through monsoon season. As soon as monsoons got over they would worship Devi for nine days and set off with their war activities. These nine days are today celebrated as Navratri.
Fasting in Navratri
Fasting in Navratri follows a practice of cleansing, and purifying one’s body and soul, which is believed to result in blessing a person with virtue. During fasting in Navratri, only fruits, milk, potato and other root vegetables should be eaten. Grains are said to be avoided as it is assumed that grains absorb negative energies. Sendha namak (rock salt) is a significant ingredient used instead of common salt. Throughout the Navratri vrat (fasting), devotees evade non vegetarian food as Navratri is considered as a period of purity.
The festival of Navratri revolves around the three aspects of Goddess Shakti which are worshipped, with first three days devoted to Goddess Durga, followed by fourth, fifth and sixth days devoted to Goddess Lakshmi and last three days for Goddess Saraswati. On the first day of the Navratras, a small bed of mud is made and barley seeds are sowed on it, and on the tenth day, the little shoots are pulled out and given to the devotees. The devotees observe fasting for seven to eight days, and break their fast on the eighth day (Ashtami) or ninth day (Navami) of the festival, by carrying out ‘Kanya Pujan’ or ‘Kanchika Pujan’. This involves worshipping and seeking blessings of nine young girls, representing the nine forms of Goddess Durga. The feet of the girls are washed, to welcome and pay reverence to the goddess. Then, the girls are offered food and gifts from the devotees. Chanting of mantras, prayers and religious hymns (bhajans) related to the Goddess, form other religious practices and rituals of Navratri.
In a country with a myriad of religions, customs and beliefs, blended expertly in colours of democracy, there is one festival that stands out for other, perhaps in part due to the vibrancy of its celebrations, or perhaps due to the diversity of it.
The Navratri is in many ways a celebration of celebrations. Spread over a period of nine days, this festival of celebration is dedicated to the Goddess Durga. The festival is a riot of fasts, japas and vegetarianism, with the air in and around the hoisted mandals filled with chanting of texts, all epitomizing the power of the goddess. Celebrated twice a year; once in the month of Chaitra (April-May) and the other in the month of Ashwin (September- October), each of the nine days of the festival witness the worship of nine different forms of Goddess Durga. During the Ashwin month’s celebration, the onus is on placing the Goddess’s idol in homes and temples. Biding adieu to the goddess, the tenth day is marked by immersing her in water.
Navratri in Gujarat is a nine-day cultural extravaganza celebrated by the entire populace, punctuated with devotional songs and dances, made popular as ‘Dandiya Raas’ and ‘Garba Raas’. Also, jaagran is observed by many, with devotees waking through the night to appease the Goddess. Of distinguished significance is the Amba Mata Temple at Junagadh, Gujarat which witnesses a congregation of devotees during this time.
Colourful earthen pots (garbo) filled with water and with attractive designs, symbolise the Goddess, and women perform the traditional Garba dance around them. The dancers whirl around the earthen pot, accompanied with music. The dance usually starts off slowly though, it gets faster as the music too gets speedier. Another characteristic dance of navratri is the Dandia – Raas, in which men and women join the dance circle, holding small graceful sticks (dandias) together, adding to the merriment. The dances usually begin late in the evening and continue until early morning.
People of West Bengal commence their navratri celebrations by worshiping huge idols of the Goddess, replete with devotional songs and dances, until, till the tenth day when they take out a finally take out an opulent procession, that concludes with the immersion of the idols in water. Of prime importance in Bengal are the first four days of the puja, the distinction being the worship of pre-pubescent young girls, known as ‘kanyas’, which are believed to be the living embodiments of the Goddess Durga. The ninth day is the day of the ‘Ayudha Puja’, the items of worship being tools, placed at the altar of the goddess for her benedictions.
Dashmi or Dussehra, the ‘Saraswati Puja’ is consummated, the purpose being the desire for knowledge and inner peace. Also worth mention is the Dakshineswar Kali Temple in Kolkata, thronged by devotees during the navratras.
Maharashtra, true to the indomitable spirit of its people, celebrates Navratri with great fervour, Goddess Durga being worshipped for nine days at a stretch. The tenth day sees the worship of Goddess Saraswati, with the tantric symbol of the goddess revered by school children for her blessings for their studies.
This day is also considered auspicious to embark on any new task or for the purchase of jewellery.
Navratri being a nine-day long festival, a range of dishes are prepared during this occasion. Special navratri cuisine is a part of the multitude of culinary delights of the country. Since, most people observe fast during this occasion, the cuisines for navratri festival are strictly vegetarian and only fruits, milk, potato and other root vegetables should be eaten. Specific ingredients are used for preparing the navratri delicacies. Spices are limited to red chillies, turmeric and cumin seeds, and sendha namak (rock salt) is used instead of common salt.
Onion and garlic are not allowed, however, one can eat milk, curd, fruits and nuts. Some of the typical Navratri recipes are Vrat ke Chawal, Sabudana Vadaa and Puri, Aaloo Mewawale, Kacche Kele ki Chaat, Singhaade ke Pakode, Singhaade ka Halwa, Payash, Kuttu ki Puri, Arbi Fried, Coconut laddoos, Bundi sweets, and many more.