10/15/2012 11:02 am ET Updated Dec 15, 2012

Navratri: Creation and Re-creation in the Nine Nights of the Goddess (PHOTOS)

Formal, printed invitations in previous years, and now e-vites start coming in September to announce the coming of the festival of Navratri (literally, "nine nights"). The invitations, issued by those whose original home is or was in parts of south India, are printed in women's names, and announce gatherings at one's home -- in a manner of "open houses" -- to celebrate Lakshmi, the Goddess of grace and good fortune; Durga, the goddess of valor and strength; and Saraswati, the patron goddess of learning and the performing arts. (Hindus, all over the world, tend to associate Durga, more than any other deity, with the Fall festival of Navratri.) "We cordially invite you for Navratri-Kolu," say the e-vites. Some add, "Join us for an evening of classical South Indian music." Women and young girls from south Indian families -- and now, extended to people from many parts of India in the diaspora -- visit friends' houses on the appointed days to view and admire the display of dolls (kolu or "sitting in state") set up on tiered platforms which are draped with a white cloth or, sometimes, silk sarees. They are in the process of what many wryly call "kolu hopping." They sing and hear classical songs (most of them in honor of the goddesses), play musical instruments, eat snacks, collect party favors and move on to the next house on the e-vite list. In the suburbs of larger cities like Chicago or Houston, it would not be unusual for people to visit more than 20 or 30 homes over a Navratri weekend.

Since the Hindu calendar is lunar -- it is adjusted periodically to the solar calendar -- Navratri (which is commonly spelled "Navaratri" following the Sanskrit) generally begins with the new moon that comes between mid-September and mid-October, coinciding quite often with the Jewish observances of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. In some years, such as this one, Navratri begins one lunar cycle later.

While Hindus all over the world celebrate this festival, they do so in different ways and, sometimes, for different reasons. People of many castes celebrate the festival with regional differences being more important than caste differences. The festival is celebrated for goddesses in south Indian temples also (announcements for special ritual prayers in specific temples are mailed out to devotees in many parts of India, temple websites in the Americas and Australia announce the observance of special celebrations), but it is largely and popularly connected with domestic and public spaces rather than temples.


Navratri -- sometimes also known as Dasara or "10th day" -- was also connected with royalty, and until India got independence from the British in 1947, rulers of smaller kingdoms would celebrate the last two days of this festival as a show of their military prowess. Although frequently connected to the same stories, regional celebrations are quite different from each other.

Growing up in India, I had known only about the south Indian way of celebrating the festival with a grand display of traditional clay dolls. In America, we participate in other Indian ways, dancing with Gujarati friends or worshiping in community halls with the Bengali group. Certainly, to put it in very broad strokes, one could say that many of us are different kinds of Hindus in the diaspora than we were growing up in India. We certainly participate in a larger repertoire of Hindu rituals and celebrations in America than our mothers and grandmothers did in India. There, it was our own ethnic background and the local surroundings which helped formulate our celebrations; and while that holds true in our homes in America, our "local" Indian population is quite diverse, and not having too many people who hail from our own neck of the woods in Gainesville, Fla., has encouraged us to borrow freely and participate widely in other kinds of celebrations.

And so, here, in the United States, Hindu women have learned to celebrate festivals in different ways. On Friday or Saturday night, we go to the local community hall where several hundred people from the state of Gujarat will dance in circles in honor of the creative powers of the Mother Goddess. On the eighth day of Navratri, our friends from New Delhi and Punjab invite seven young girls to their homes, wash their feet, put forehead marks on them, revere them as one would a goddess, and give them both traditional gifts of chick peas and grain (symbolizing fertility and prosperity), as well as more appropriate gifts of computer games, books and bracelets. Friends from Bengal get together on the last two days of the festival, install breathtakingly beautiful images of Durga and other deities that they have imported from India. These are quite stunning -- about four to five feet tall, with every detail of decoration. In Kolkota and other parts of Bengal, these icons are submerged in a river or water after the 10th day; in the United States, they are carefully packed away for the next year. Women from the state of Maharashtra observe a strict fast for all nine days of Navratri, eating only fruits and a few vegetables and drinking some beverages, abstaining from all grain and a variety of other foodstuffs.

Many Hindus believe that it was during this time, the goddess Durga conquered Mahisha, a buffalo-demon, and victorious songs are sung in her honor. She is worshiped for military success by royal families and warriors. The origins of this festival and the worship of Durga are not clear. Although Durga is praised in the epic Mahabharata, the full story of Durga as the slayer of the buffalo-demon is found in later literature of the first millennium C.E. However, first century terra cotta representations of a four-armed goddess riding a lion and slaying a buffalo found in Nagar, Rajasthan, may indicate the prevalence of this story and Durga worship in the centuries prior to the Common Era. In some versions of the story, the demon Mahisha was undefeated, and the (male) deities Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva combined their energies to create Durga. In other versions, Durga is the progenitor of the entire universe. She manifested herself as a beautiful warrior, took a different form for nine days, and ultimately killed the demon. Some theological discourses internalize the story and speak of it as an allegory, identifying the demon Mahisha with the potent power of ignorance and lust in human beings.

While Navratri is associated with the Goddess for Hindus who are from most parts of India, those from some parts of northern India associate the festival with the male deity, Rama, the hero of the epic Ramayana, and hold that during these nine nights and 10 days, Rama fought the demon Ravana. And so, in northern India, in Ramnagar (a city near Benares, on the river Ganga), people act out the story of Ramayana, and celebrate the victory of Rama. This "play" -- the drama as well as the "play of the gods" -- is called Ram lila. Little boys act as Rama and his brothers in what is considered to be the largest "environmental theater," a theater that spans several acres. The enactment, which lasts 31 days, is patronized by the Maharaja of Kashi (Varanasi). A few permanent structures are built on designated areas, and the audience moves from one location to another as the actors move through the various scenes. Many versions of the Ram lila are found all over the world and it is performed at different times. In 2005, UNESCO proclaimed this tradition as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.

But for most of us, it is Goddesses, in all their splendor, who are the light of Navratri. Women from the state of Gujarat dance the nights away in circular dances called garbha ("womb"), celebrating the creative energies of the goddess. A lamp is kept in a clay jar (garbhi, "womb") that has several holes, and girls and women dance around it through the nine nights. The fertility theme is reinforced in other rituals. In Gujarat and other parts of India, nine plants kept in a pot of water are placed over a bed of mixed grain, and the pot is worshiped as representing the creative energies of the goddess. The sprouted grain is immersed in a local river or lake. The garbha dance is followed by the Dandiya, a dance with sticks, reminiscent of the dance that Krishna is said to have done with the cowherd girls. Celebrations of the Navratri garbha in the diaspora attract anywhere between a few hundred to more than 10,000 dancers. The garbha dances, which were traditionally family oriented or done within a small locality reminiscent of block parties, have now been transformed into glitzy shows, some with expensive entrance tickets. The styles of music have also changed and are now more westernized in some areas; "disco" dandiya dances are also quite popular, attracting thousands of youngsters of Gujarati origin.

In West Bengal people from local communities consecrate and worship enormous images of Durga, take the goddess in a procession and on the 10th day submerge her in water. For these 10 days, they believe that the spirit of the goddess is in the image. Concerts, recitations and fairs mark the 10 days. Married daughters return to their natal homes for the celebrations. Each neighborhood creates its own temporary structure, a pandal, which encloses a large icon of Duraga in a creative and sometimes socially relevant setting. The icon is made with papier mache, wood, clay or other materials, and decorated in a sumptuous manner. Over the last several decades, in the typically dynamic processes we see in the Hindu traditions, pop culture dictates the context in which Durga appears. Scenes of Durga against the Titanic or in Jurassic Park, or accompanied by Rambo were popular; more recently, in 2007, attorneys representing J.K. Rowling sued a local neighborhood in Kolkota for infringement of copyright when they re-created scenes from Harry Potter, complete with a replica of the Hogwarts school for wizards. The Delhi High Court ruled in favor of the local neighborhood and Harry Potter got to spend Navratri with the goddess.

For Hindus who hail from south India, Navratri is a domestic festival primarily directed by women and marked with a festival of dolls. A room is set apart and filled with exquisite dolls for the play of the goddesses Lakshmi, Sarasvati and Durga. Women take leadership roles in worshiping the goddesses on these days. Elaborate tableaux are set up depicting scenes from Hindu stories and are similar to the nativity scenes that one sees around Christmas. The focal point is a set of seven or nine tiers or steps of dolls with prominence given to dolls representing the goddesses. Parks, schools, stores and scenes from everyday life may also be arranged on the floor. The Navratri steps may possibly simulate courtly darbar of King Krishna Deva Raya (reigned 1509-1529) of the Vijayanagar empire. Yet others would say that the steps denote the various parts of the universe, with animals, human beings and celestial beings on the lower tiers and representations of the Supreme Being on the highest step, creating a pyramid of devotion. Thus, it is a microcosm of the universe with the deity presiding on top. Others say that this is the time sacred for the Goddess and that by arranging the dolls, the whole area becomes the play, the lila, of the goddess.

The entire kolu display is considered to be sacred even though "secular" dolls may be set up on the tiers. For the nine days, the area is treated as the family shrine, and the dolls are considered to be consecrated. The lines between the western concepts of "sacred" and the "secular" are elastic and fluid in this as in many other Hindu festivals. As in Kolkota, in recent years, the displays in the cities of Chennai (Madras) and Bangalore in India portray events of social importance, or even serve to be educational. Social themes have gained in prominence in post-colonial India and serve to raise people's consciousness on issues such as India's independence movement, organ donation and family planning. The displays are put up by the entire family, with women deciding the main themes. Newspapers in Chennai now sponsor prizes for the best displays.

Every evening, women and children dressed in bright silks visit friends, admire the display of dolls, play musical instruments and sing songs from the repertoire of classical music, usually in praise of one or another of the goddesses. Garbanzo beans and various kinds of peas and beans are said to be sacred to the Goddesses, and snacks made with these ingredients are frequently given in little packets to the visitors. It is a joyous time of festivity, music, elegance and beauty, and the festival is a glorious celebration of the embodiment of the divine in a "female" form. The last two days of the festival are countrywide holidays in India and for people of south Indian origin, dedicated to the goddesses Sarasvati and Lakshmi. Large pictures of Lakshmi and Sarasvati, draped with garlands of fresh flowers, are kept in front of the display of dolls and worshiped.

Over and above these domestic and community celebrations, there is also a martial flavor to this festival. Some people believe that on the ninth day, Arjuna, one of the heroes of the epic Mahabharata, found his weapons that he had hidden a year before. It is said that he paid respects to his weapons, acknowledging their importance, before he started battle with his cousins. Because of this story, the last two days dedicated to Lakshmi and Sarasvati are called Ayudha Puja ("veneration of weapons and machines.")

Historical narratives, including accounts by western travelers during the time of the Vijayanagara empire in south India (circa 15th to 16th centuries C.E.), give us details of the celebrations in the royal courts. Both these and Sanskrit texts speak about the importance of animal sacrifices, especially a goat or buffalo to Durga.

Foreign visitors report that during Navratri, the king, in his capital city of Hampi, watched a royal procession from the Navratri pavilion or mandapam. The king and courtiers sat on various levels watching the festivities. The festival culminated in a grand celebration, with the king holding court. It is possible that this act of a royal court or (koluvu or darbar) is what is recreated today in the domestic celebration of Navratri kolu, with the tiered tableau of dolls representing the king and his courtiers.

As a legacy of the Vijayanagara empire which covered parts of the modern state of Karnataka, we find some of the best-known and majestic Navratri/Dasara celebrations in this area. In the city of Mysore, the Maharaja would worship the goddess Chamundi (a form of Durga), ritually venerate the royal throne, weapons and other symbols of royal power, as well as the multiple forms of the goddess Lakshmi. On the 10th day, he would ride on a gold seat on top of the royal elephant in a long and colorful procession to the northeast boundary of the city. After ritually hunting animals and worshiping the sami tree, the torch-lit procession came back to town for a royal durbar. Indeed, in an opulent display of military prowess, many kings and warriors in pre-colonial India frequently led ceremonial forays to the borders of their kingdoms and ritually crossed boundaries to simulate attacks against enemies -- possibly a few miles away from the place where neighboring monarchs were making those very ritual crossings into their own land.

In post-independent India, the grandeur and pageantry of the royal tournaments and processions have been replaced with more pervasive community celebrations. Specifically, during Ayudha Puja in south India, the ninth day is called Sarasvati Puja, and the goddess Sarasvati, the patron of all learning and performing arts, is worshiped that day in domestic and public forums. In south India one keeps all the musical instruments in the house, writing devices, selected textbooks, computers and so on, in front of her, and the display of dolls to be blessed by her for the rest of the year. Weapons, tools, vehicles, modes of transportation, including public buses and trains, cars and bikes, and in recent years, even sporting gear, are shown respect. These are decorated with garlands and colored kumkum powder and dedicated to the goddesses with locally constructed neighborhood rituals, generally without the assistance of brahmin ritual specialists or other priestly personnel. It is a time when one recognizes with respect what one owes to the tools of trade, recreation and entertainment.

The last day, the "victorious 10th" day of Navratri (Vijaya Dasami or Dasara in south India, Bijoya in Bengal), when kings formerly did their symbolic conquests of other land, is dedicated to Lakshmi, the goddess of good fortune. People start new ventures, new account books and new learning on that day. Students in performing arts frequently meet and honor their traditional teachers -- a practice very much encouraged among Hindus in the diaspora -- and learn new pieces of music or the first steps of a new dance, and acquire new knowledge. On the last days of the Navratri festival, the fortune of learning, the wealth of wisdom and the joy of music are said to be given by the grace of the goddesses.

An understanding of this festival gives us an idea of the diversity and complexity of the many Hindu communities, and at the same time, the connecting threads between these traditions. This festival, as most others in India and other parts of the world, celebrates the victory of good over the forces of evil, be they outside or within oneself. This is a time for Devi, the goddess, a reflection on and valorizing of what is considered to be the "feminine" energy of the divine-- and its presence is acknowledged in girls, women and the Goddess. Hindu men and women -- as those from other traditions -- have complex and contextual practices on gender issues, but Navratri is largely a time of fun and celebration with active participation of girls, women and goddesses. Creation and re-creation on multiple registers are recognized and valorized -- from fertility of grains and the power to bring about new life to the creation and recreational power of music, dance, learning, scholarship, sports, courage and valor to fight a good battle, and good fortune in every form. And the 10th, victorious day, is a triumph of this power of creative knowledge, practice and work of all kinds over the demonic darkness of ignorance and the slothful tendencies to avoid truth. In a world where patriarchal norms and xenophobic platforms hold sway, one can celebrate even nine brief shining days of Navratri, when Durga holds her own with Rambo or cavorts with Harry Potter and Big Bird, when a Navratri kolu teaches the importance of safe, planned parenthood or global warming, when Lakshmi blesses books on the Big Bang Theory, and Saraswati encourages you to play one more tune and learn one more dance.