About This Festival
Based on dates in the lunar calendar, Navratri is a nine-night, ten-day festival that takes place in the fall celebrating the Hindu goddess Durga. Navratri (“nava ratri” literally means “nine nights” in Sanskrit) is one of the most popular and important festivals in India, and is celebrated with great gusto, especially in Western India, in the state of Gujarat, and in Mumbai.
Each night is devoted to a different manifestation of Durga, the female embodiment of the divine or godhead according to the beliefs of the Shakti sect of Hinduism. Durga is all-powerful, beautiful and fierce, the Great Divine Mother in the pantheon of deities, who spends her time inspiring followers through acts of contrition and by battling demons. Celebrations are held across India, which each region adding its own distinct flavor and rituals to the multi-day event. Processions, dancing, and temple offerings are common to each, all with the end goal of celebrating the divine within each of us and achieving a greater happiness in life by following the cycle of change Durga endures. (“Durga” after all means “the remover of life’s miseries” in Sanskrit.)
The Forms of Durga Over the Nine Days
Shailaputri: Celebrated on the first day of Navratri, this manifestation translates as “daughter of the mountain” and represents the full power of the Brahma. The goddess is pictured as a Himalayan princess carrying a trident and lotus while riding a white bull.
Bhamracharini: On the second day of celebration, this form of the goddess represents attainment of happiness and peace by observing penance. My demonstrating complete control and self-sacrifice, Bhamracharini was able to catch the attention of Shiva and marry him. Her image shows her carrying a rosary and water pitcher.
Chandra Ghanta: Literally “half moon bell,” which floats over her three-eyed head, Chandar Ghanta stands for strength and bravery in her battle over demons. She appears on the third day riding a lioness, carrying various weapons (swords, maces, spears, arrows, and lotus flowers) in her ten hands.
Kushmanda: The name means “the cosmic egg” and this fourth day manifestation is related to the sun and Durga’s ability to send her all-powerful energy to the sun, creating the universe. Again she is riding a lioness (reinforcing the feminine) and multi-armed, her hands carrying chakras, glitter, weapons, and the lotus. Celebrants focus on Kushmanda’s creative and curative abilities on this day.
Skanda Mata: Day five sees the goddess as the mother of Skanda, the commander of the gods’ army in the war on demons. She appears riding a lion carrying the six-headed infant Skanda in one of her four arms; two hands hold lotus flowers, while the fourth is open offering blessings to her devotees.
Katyayani: Born of the simultaneous anger of all the gods as energy shot from their eyes, Katyayani represents vengeance against and victory over all the demons. She is depicted with various numbers of arms (from three up to 18) wielding the weapons given her by Vishnu, Brahma, and other gods. This day is celebrated with lots of red and a concentration on the chakra representing the third eye.
Kaal Ratri: This form of Durga is crazed and disheveled in appearance, with wild black hair, blue skin like Kali, fire for breath, and a necklace made of lightning. She rides a donkey and strikes a pose of fearlessness as she battles demons. With four arms, she carries a scimitar and a sword and offers boons to devotees. As a protector and warrior, her fearsome nature is intended to instill calm in her followers.
Maha Gauri: Day eight is a celebration of purification. Durga appears as transcended in all white atop a white bull. After her trials battling demons and her penance buried in black mud, Shiva has offered her a rejuvenating bath in the Ganges. In her four arms, she carries a small drum and a trident.
Siddhidatri: On the ninth day of Navratri, the goddess is resplendent with four arms offering boons and supernatural powers to both gods and devoted followers as she rests on a giant lotus. Images show her at peace, surrounded by people (yogis, saints, gods, and others) who are ready to receive her blessings.
A Myriad Ways to Celebrate
As mentioned, festivities take place across India and vary in each city. In fact, Navratri is celebrated a total of five times throughout the year, but it’s this fall celebration, formally known as Maha Navratri, that garners the greatest participation. It’s all very Bollywood in large urban centers, with lots of dancing in the streets and in clubs. But it’s in more rural areas where you’ll find authentic regional expressions of devotion.
Women in Andrha Pradesh build Batukamma, seven-layered stacks of colorful flowers to celebrate the Mother Goddess. At the end of the festival, women gather to sing and dance and close the festivities by floating their Batukamma down the river.
Two of the more famous rituals take place in Gujarat and Maharashtra, where women (and sometimes men) perform the folk dances known as Garbha and Dandiya Raas. In the former, dancers wear intensely deep and rich colors and swirl around a clay pot topped with a coconut. In the latter, long sticks (dandiya) are struck together to maintain swelling rhythms for the dancing crowds.
For really elaborate and spectacular rituals, head to Bangalore in Karnataka (previously known as Mysore), where Durga’s victory over the demon is the main cause for celebration. People here have held elephant processions for over 400 years during Navratri, and Mysore Palace decked out in thousands of lights can safely be included on your do-not-miss list.
It’s much more serious and solemn in Punjab, where seven days of fasting is required while spending the better part of a week singing devotional song. It all ends with a huge feast honoring nine local young girls.
In Tamil Nadu, women invite married women into their homes to present them with gifts of bangles, jewelry, money, or betel nuts. Decorative altars built like staircases called golu are set up in homes to display statues of various pantheon members.
The West Bengalese build large complex pandals (temporary religious temples) that house larger than life handmade idols of Durga, Ganesha, Shiva and other gods.
The whole thing typically culminates on the tenth day, called Dussehra, when effigies of the demon Ravan are burnt in the streets (similar to Lewes Bonfire Night, but much much older). It’s the end of the cycle of Durga receiving her powers to conquer demons after a period of sacrifice, reiterating her power to remove all strife in life.