The air is fragrant with signs of festivity and fervor as India is witnessing one of its longest and grandest festival observed by Hindus- The Sharad (autumn) Navratri that usually falls in the months of September or October, also called the Ashwin month according to the Hindu calendar. This festival which spans nine nights and ten days assumes diverse colours and shape as it’s celebrated differently in different regions of India. There are four seasonal Navratris out of which two have greater celebratory significance-The Chaitra Navratri celebrated in March/ April and the Sharad Navratri. This year the latter began on 21st September and completes on 30th September.
There are two beliefs around Navratri. One says that a fast was advocated by the sage Narada to Lord Rama, so that he could eventually kill Ravana, the demon god. After the completion of the fast, Lord Rama attacked Ravana and killed him in Lanka. This is observed mostly in northern and western India. The second story says that Goddess Durga fought with the demon god Mahishasura for nine days from Pratipada till Navami and on Navami night killed him. She is thus, revered as the destroyer of evil. This is observed as Durga Puja in North eastern, Eastern and Southern states of India. In both the festivities there is a celebration of victory of Dharma (virtue) over Adharma (evil and vice).
In North India, the story of Rama’s victory over Ravana is enacted by performers in rural and urban centres, inside temples or temporary stages, over many episodes for nine days. This is called the Ramlila .On the final day, when Rama vanquishes Ravana with his bow, the festival is completed by burning effigies of Ravana and his brothers Meghnad and Kumbhakaran. People dress up in traditional attire, observe fasts, offer prayers to the lord and go around distributing sweets to relatives and friends. In Gujarat, people celebrate it through the colourful dance form of Garba.
Durga Puja synonymous with Navratri festival is the most important annual festival to many Hindus, and a major social and public event in other eastern and northeastern states of India, where it dominates the religious life and is like a carnival. The first day is Mahalaya which is spent honouring Durga and paying respect to all departed souls. It marks the end of the period called Shradh or Pitru Paksha. The occasion of Durga Puja is celebrated with thousands of temporary stages usually made of bamboo called pandals; built in community squares or parks, roadside shrines and large Durga temples in West Bengal, Odisha, Jharkhand, Bihar, eastern Nepal, Assam, Tripura and nearby regions. It is also celebrated by some Shakta Hindus as a private home-based autumn ritual.
However, it is on the sixth day that the goddess is welcomed into homes and pandals and the celebrations are formally inaugurated. On the seventh, eighth and ninth, the puja takes place. After the nine nights, on the tenth day called Vijayadashami, a grand procession is held with pomp and fanfare where the clay idols are ceremoniously walked to a river or ocean side for a joyous and emotional farewell to Durga. Many mark their faces with vermilion or dress in the colour red. It is an emotional day for some devotees, often characterized by emotional goodbye songs. After the immersion, Hindus distribute sweets and gifts, visit their friends and family members and pay respects.
Devotees fast and worship nine forms of the Goddess Durga also called Shakti. On day one (Pratipada), Shailaputri is worshipped.On Dwitiya goddess Brahmacharini is worshipped. Goddess Chandraghanta is worshipped on Tritiya. On Chaturthi, Devi Kushmanda is worshipped. Goddess Skandamata is worshipped on Panchami. Devi Katyayini is honoured on Shasti. On Saptami, Devi Kalaratri is worshipped. On Ashtami, Mahagauri is worshipped. The last day of the festival also known as Navami, devotees pray to Devi Siddhidaatri.
Some people observe fast strictly for all nine days, most people fast only on the first and the last days, while a few do not take alcohol, garlic, onions and non vegetarian items. During this festival only a few food items are considered appropriate while a few are to be avoided. Much importance is given to the consumption of dairy products, juices, whole fruits and light vegetables. The concept of fasting has many reasoning. Religion states that it brings us closer to the divine. Other cultures believe that abstinence arouses spiritual purification leading to a stronger willpower. It is also seen as a path to emulate and inculcate in oneself, virtues like self-discipline and self belief.
The significance of worshipping Shakti for nine days follows the belief that there resides an asura or demon in us who only loves and enjoys the materialistic things in life. Often, this asura overtakes the divinity in human beings. So, it becomes necessary to perform prayers to Shakti to liberate ourselves from the trappings of the qualities of asura. Thus, one has to do this for nine days to purify one self. Two other religions observe also worship the goddess in Navaratri-Sikhs revere Shakti worshipping as attributed by Guru Govind Singh. The second guru, Guru Angad, too was a Durga devotee. The Jain religion too observes this festival through social and cultural celebrations of Hindus. Wishing all a happy and peaceful Durga Puja and Navratri.
Featured Image: Durga Puja Kolkata, image from Shutterstock.