Navratri literally translates as ‘nine nights’. The prefix nava also suggests ‘new’ beginning. Navratri, as a matter of fact, includes Dasehra (Vijayadashmi) and stretches to full 10 days. In Kulu and Mysore, Dasehra is the climax.
It marks the end of pitripaksha (period of shradh), the fortnight reserved in the Hindu calendar to remember and honour departed ancestors. Having done our duty and bid farewell to past, it is now time to celebrate the present moment and look to happy tidings in future. The weather is just right for festivities and feasting.
Navratri is celebrated in different parts of India welcoming the joyous reinvigorating autumn as the monsoon recedes and the chill of winter is yet far away. In Gujarat, it’s a non-stop frenzy of song and dance when dandiya raas performances are organised everywhere. Traditional garba tunes are fast yielding to disco beats but the spirit of gay abandon remains the same. Gujaratis are predominantly vegetarians so culinary shifting of gears in Navratri isn’t difficult for them. In Bengal, this is the period of Durga Puja the season to feast on mouth-watering delicacies like fried khichuri, alu dam-luchi, chholar daal, maach-bhaja, jhol and jhaal — and of course, mishti, at home and on the street-side and walk around from morn till night from one fantastic pandal (pavilion) to another that strive to recreate the wonders of the world and more. South of the Vindhyas, on the banks of Narmada, Navratri is called and celebrated differently as Golu or Kolu. Colourful dolls and figurines representing Hindu gods and goddesses are ceremonially arranged on steps covered with white cloth and special dishes like varieties of sundal prepared with lentils and peanuts and enjoyed with family and friends. Modak and Kesari are popular sweets.
And we can’t escape Bhagwati jagarans (all-night bhajan singing sessions with devotional words set to the tune of popular Bolloywood film songs. But who are we to quarrel with neighbourhood ‘faithful’ with bristling muscles?
This is the time to worship primal energy that gives life to inert matter as Mother Goddess. The nine forms of Durga that are worshipped on nine days of Navratri are Shailputri: Daughter of the mountains — Parvati, Shiva’s consort, most benign manifestation of mother goddess as caring wife and nourishing mother. Brahmacharini: Young devi in the form of an ascetic, a virtuous seeker of supreme spiritual knowledge that alone can liberate. Chandraghanta: Adorned with half moon. Kushmanda: Symbolising the cosmic egg, the source of creation. Skandmata: Mother of Skanda, Kartikeya, the exterminator of oppressive daemons. Katyayani : Heroic protector and valiant fighter. Kal Ratri: The fathomless darkness from which all creation emerges and shall dissolve into. Maha Gauri: The binary opposite of fierce Kali, personification of dazzling white energy, creative not destructive. Siddhidatri: One who grants boons and generously fulfils all wishes.
Colours of apparel of different goddesses and their symbolically significant mounts are carefully matched in the images to reinforce the fierce or benign aura of a particular deity.
Durga is also worshipped as Bhadrakali (fierce one in benign mood), Amba (loving mother), Annapurna (bountiful provider of everlasting nourishment), Bhairavi (the wrathful destroyer of evil enemies), Chandika (invincible strength), Lalita (the pleasant and gentle one), Bhawani (Mother of the universe) and Mookambika (the silent selfless mother). What shouldn’t be lost sight of is that whatever be the name or form used for worship, the focus is on the ‘fusion’ or confluence if you like, of three principal female Hindu deities — Parvati (also her other incarnations Kali, Durga and Chandika), Lakshmi and Saraswati wedded to the Trinity of Mahesh, Vishnu and Brahma, respectively, personifying virtue, valour, riches and knowledge. These three are encountered in mindboggling multi-layered subdivisions (more often than not in threes!) according to their specialised attributes and powers.
It is believed that different names and forms are utilised to unveil the narrative of ‘the story of the life’ of Durga/Parvati from childhood to maturity and recount in unforgettable package her heroic exploits. In short, medium is the message or symbol is the substance.
The esoteric tantric cults — both Hindu-Shaivaite or Shakta — and Buddhist (Tibetan Vajrayana) have elaborate variations of forms and rites prescribed for worship of Shakti based on these prototypes. Breathtakingly beautiful metal idols, dating back to Pala times, and intriguing tankhas provide an illuminating though tantalizingly brief illusive glimpse into this hidden realm.
In North India, there are many who treat the nine days and nights as a period for ritual fasting and eschew non-vegetarian fare. Popular eateries and even high-end restaurants in five-star hotels are constrained to change their menus and introduce Navratri thali and other kosher delicacies. The most important thing to note is that those who observe the fast and even those who don’t consume only vegetarian repast during Navratri.
The satvik platter includes sabudana in the form of khichhadi vada or tikki as well as kheer. Banana, the unripe one, is used as a staple for subzi. Makhana (puffed lotus seeds) are rediscovered to prepare main course and desserts. Alu/pindalu(potatoes and colacasia) is served in myriad forms-dry, in sauce like gravy or in thin watery soup. Sweet potatoes and a variety of yams, banda kachalu, raktalu all that were popular in this land much before the Portuguese imported batata from Peru make a dramatic comeback. Mungphali aka seengdana (peanuts) are added to various sweet or savoury preparations. Singhada (water chestnuts) make a welcome appearance and add a joyous refreshing crunch to the mral. Some grind it to obtain flour and prefer it to kuttu. Raamdana (amaranths) suddenly is in short supply. For us Navratri is the time to renew our acquaintance with forgotten super foods and lost traditional recipes.
It is spiced up with hing, jeera, sonth, saunf, rai, kali mirch, anardana or amchur and black rock salt. Dried fruits and nuts enrich the not-so frugal fare. Dairy products, ghee, doodh and dahi are never in short supply. Fruits add colour and flavour. Sweetness of honey lingers long on the palate after the last trace has disappeared.
The illumination of the pandals shouldn’t blind us nor the jagaran music blaring from the loudspeakers make us deaf to the true message of Navratri. The individual must constantly strive to find and maintain a delicate balance in life between primordial urges, surges of animal energy and all-encompassing compassion and wisdom that transcend narrow self-interest.
The stories of the miraculous deeds of nine forms of the mother goddess retold in more than nine variants serve one great purpose of reminding us that all these epithets emphasise that all energy in nature manifests two — complementary not contradictory — facets: creative and destructive. The destructive potential should only be unleashed to annihilate evil, injustice and oppression while one must strive to harness the creative force for constructive purposes and common good.