The ancient Hindu festival of Navratri celebrates the female form in all its avatars
When Antara Sharma* looks back at her childhood memories of growing up in India in the 80s and 90s, she wistfully recalls the simplicity of life. Unlike her own children, whose schedules are jammed with classes, play dates and visits to the mall, most of the entertainment for young Sharma came via books or playing with a handful of children in her building.
Her parents too would typically be busy with the daily grind—her father would leave for work at 8:45am sharp while her mother would be inundated with household chores. Life revolved around these simple routines, every day—except one.
That day was Ashtami—the 8th day of Navratri. On this day, Sharma was a goddess. Her father would ritually wash her feet in an act of reverence. She would be showered with gifts and shagun or gift money. This was also the day of her favourite meal of the year—piping hot halwa accompanied with chana and puris .Their otherwise simple standalone three-story building would be transformed into some kind of wonderland—lights would be strung across the compound and loudspeakers would be installed as residents got together to play dandia or garba every night. Most north Indian families celebrating Navratri have memories similar to Sharma’s.
Navratri literally translates into ‘nine nights’ in Sanskrit. It is the Hindu festival celebrating the Devi or Goddess. As per the Hindu calendar, there are four Navratris every year—Sharad Navratri, Chaitra Navratri, Magha Gupta Navratri and Ashadha Gupta Navratri—to coincide with the change of the seasons.
Of these, the Sharad Navratri that occurs at the cusp of winter is celebrated with much fervour in different parts of the country. Punjabi households are abuzz with daily prayers and hymns sung to Durga Mata as she’s known in the north and east. Most Punjabi mothers shun nonvegetarian food in the house during these nine days. Often, women of the house do jagratas wherein they stay up all night singing songs in praise of the Goddess. In the western state of Gujarat, the faithful pay obeisance to Ambe Mata as she’s known in those parts, by fasting and ritualistic prayers.
Of course, Navratri in Gujarat is a sight to behold as everyone—young and old—get together for garba or dandiya, the traditional dance performed to please the Goddess. No doubt, garba is highly commercialised today with youngsters scampering for tickets at much-sought after garba venues. But in essence, the practice is a dance in honour of the Goddess. In West Bengal, this festival translates into the beloved pujo that specifically marks the victory of Goddess Durga over the demon Mahishasur. For those five days, social life centres around the neighbourhood pandals as devotees visit to pay their annual respects to the God Mother.
Navratri means all of this and so much more. But what is it exactly in essence? And where does it originate from? If we were to trace back to ancient Hindu scriptures, the story of Goddess Durga goes back centuries to the Devi Mahatmya or Durga Saptashati that is a part of the Markandeya Puran (dated approximately 250 CE). Just like the Mahabharat and the Ramayan, the predominant theme of the Devi Mahatmya is the triumph of good over evil. This Puranic episode tells a story of a time when asuras or demons were wreaking havoc over the universe. The exasperated pantheon of Gods then decided to join forces with the holy trinity of Brahma-Vishnu-Mahesh. Their combined energies took the form of Shakti or Goddess Durga, the most ferocious avatar of the Goddess. Armed with her cosmic weapons, the enraged goddess riding atop her lion, slayed all the demons, restoring order back into the universe. This battle took all of nine dayslaying the foundation of the nine nights of Navratri as they’re celebrated today.
But what about our earliest settlers? What was the significance of Navratri for them? Utkarsh Patel, an Indian mythologist who’s also an author, lecturer and TedX speaker has been studying the subject for several years now. He points that at the crux of it, Navratri is a fertility ritual. “Our earliest ancestors were preoccupied with the idea of reproduction in abundance. This applied not just to humans, but to everything that regenerates, be it cattle or crops.”
In fact, this preoccupation with procreation is something that’s seen across ancient civilizations as the earliest settlers led an agrarian life. This would explain the various rituals of Navratri. For instance, the practice of khetri involves sowing barley seeds in an earthen pot. At the end of nine days, these sprout into wheatgrass symbolising abundance and fertility.
While the origins of the idea of female worship can be traced back to the ancient tale of Shakti as mentioned in the Devi Mahaatmya, it further evolved over the centuries through the importance given to fertility. “Fertility rituals came to be associated with women because to the early man, it was apparent that the woman gave birth. With that in mind most rituals revolved around women, be it puberty rites, post puberty rite or baby showers” notes Patel. He further points out that the earthen pot used for khetri is symbolic of the womb—while the nine days itself are symbolic of the gestation period of nine months. The ritual of Asthami—the 8th day of Navratri too acknowledges the nascent fertility powers of pre-pubescent girls. “According to Vedic tradition, every form of the woman needs to be worshipped and eulogized and Navratri is exactly that,” he summarises.
By dedicating each day of Navratri to a specific avatar of Goddess Durga—from the meditative form of Goddess Brahmacharini to the most ferocious form of Goddess Katyayani—the idea is to celebrate womanhood in all its avatars. Most of the temples dedicated to the Goddesses also acknowledge their menstrual cycles, the most famous being the Kamakhya Devi temple in Assam.
If we were to look at the cultural perspective, the festival in many ways translates into a celebration of womanhood; for women, and by women.
Back in the day, the getting together of women to celebrate meant escaping the drudgery of routine and forging connections with other women. For a girl in a small town in India, living in a typical patriarchal setup, it could mean getting a respite from a curfew to play dandia and expressing herself through dance, uninhibited. And for someone like Antara Sharma, it’s one of the fondest memories of childhood that she looks back on every Navratri—even as she dresses up her own two-year old daughter to visit the neighbour’s home on the occasion of Ashtami.
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