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Dedicated to the worship of the Mother Goddess, the nine nights of Navratri are celebrated in a rapturous combination of solemnity and joy.

Rub your eyes. It is mid-night, but here, down the lane comes a stream of gaily dressed, bright eyed women, singing, clapping and dancing, the lights glinting on their black, flower bedecked hair. Up a side street they go, reveling in the beautiful, devotional songs the spring from the ancient Vedas (Hindu scriptures), rejoicing in the gentle, graceful movements of the dance that spans countless centuries.

All over Gujarat state, cities towns and villages, streets and chowks crossing and temple squares will continue to ripple and vibrate with festivities for nine nights, for it is Navratri- the annual Festival of Nine Nights dedicated to the powerful Mother Goddess. A rapturous combination of solemnity and joy and hope, the Navratri celebrations coincide with nature at her happiest and most abundant. It is the end of the cooling, life giving monsoon and if the rains have been plentiful, the countryside is green, full of the promise of a beautiful harvest.

The tempo of life changes perceptibly in every family, in shops, in Mataji’s (Mother Goddess) temples, long before the festival commences. In homes, the corner or room reserved for prayers becomes the scene of intense preparations. A coconut, saffron or sandalwood paste, a garba (perforated earthen pot), a kumbh (earthen pot), grains of wheat or barley, ghee (clarified butter) or mustard oil for a lamp that will burn incessantly all through the nine special nights must be placed in readiness for the ceremonial ritualistic initiation of the festival.

The nimble, bejeweled fingers of many a housewife glide over the puja floor, perfecting with effortless ease designs and emblems in rice flour, turmeric powder-and vermilion. Each of the motifs symbolizes abundance and represents hope for the future. New curtains are draped before the striking image of the Mother Goddess-more resplendent than ever in festive finery.

The image of the Mother Goddess varies. In some families and temples, she is worshipped as Ambaji. In others, she takes the form of Chamunda. Instill others, she commands devotion as Bahuchara or Chandi or Kalika of Jagdamba. There are indications that the cult of Mother Goddess has flourished since distant ancient times, not only in Indian but in countries such as Mesopotamia, Egypt and Syria as well.

A Mesopotamian inscription that dates to a misty period long before Christ, describes the Mother Goddess as “the remover of the calamities of the people”. The Egyptian Goddess Isis, Ishtar of Babylon and Ijani of Sumer bear a close resemblance to Amba, Kali and other goddesses of India. While nine successive days of festivities and worship are devoted exclusively to the Mother Goddess in most parts of India, Gujarat is the only state with a colourful tradition of nightly folk dances and songs in honour of the Goddess.

The eagerly awaited first day of the festival witnesses a flurry of ritualistic activity. A small platform, a couple of inches high, is prepared near the Mother Goddess with earth brought from the fields by starry eyed children. As joss sticks are lit and suffuse the surroundings with their fragrance, grains of wheat of barley are shown in the miniature platform of war, moist fresh earth. Prayers and mantras are chanted as water from a kumbh or earthen pot is poured on platform. A betelnut and a silver coin are kept inside the pot while a coconut is placed on top. A profusion of flowers and Ashok leaves are placed before the Mother Goddess. A lamp is lit and kept in the garba (perforated earthen pot).

As evening falls, people gather beside the garba with its sacred flame that is constantly fed with ghee or oil, and must remain alight for nine whole nights. Soon, mellow voices singing bhajans and garbas-devotional songs in praise of the Mother Goddess and the bounties of nature are carried in all directions by the evening breeze. In street after street the soothing refrains of a chorus of singers from home after home wafts out and melts and merges into an effect that verges on the mystical. Noisy cities and towns are transformed into lilting centers of song and joy.

Men, women and children who have fasted during the day have a light repast of fruit or other non-cereals before traipsing out into the streets and lanes and public squares. There, to the beat and rhythm of drums, the harmonium, and cymbals, they dance and sing the age old dandiya ras garbas and garbis.

In some parts of the state, “groups” and “associations” that have been formed long before the festival, wind their way towards pre-selected temples or other public places. A pandal is erected wherever possible and decorated with arches of mango leaves, sweet smelling flowers, and sometimes by bead curtains and pieces of patchwork embroidery.

The dancers move around in a circle, sometimes with different steps, in pairs or in groups around a lamp lighted to represent the Eternal Light of the Mother Goddess. In public squares, a garbi or mandvi (an ornate wooden, brass, silver of stainless steel frame), further decorated with shining tinsel and illuminated with dozens of little twinkling oil lamps is placed in the center. The dancers move round this garbi. The materials, size, design and splendour of the garbi depend on the amount of money donated by the people in the locality.

Oblivious of the passage of time, the dancers and singers continue late into the night. Now, that slim lady in the red, silver edged saree is singing the lead. She nods to a portly lady clad in cobalt blue who takes over the lead role, with the rest of the dancers singing in chorus. Time is kept by the clapping of hands, the movement of steps, and is sometimes accompanied by the snapping of fingers. In the ras, the clacking of dandiyas or sticks produces a distinctive, appealing sound effect. The garba and ras are performed by both men and women, collectively, alternatively, or separately, according to the prevailing local traditions. In some areas of Gujarat, interludes of bhavai (folk drama) from part of the celebrations.

As the days and nights pass, the singing and dancing built up towards a glorious climax. Tomorrow will be the last and final night. The grain that was sown in the earthen platform on the first day of festival and faithfully watered throughout has now sprouted to a height of some six inches or so ready to be immersed in the water of some holy tank of stream. All day, the women of the house have been busy preparing the nine traditional delicacies of food that are to be offered to the Mother Goddess on the ninth night after an elaborate puja-both a thanksgiving and a prayer for continual blessings. But long before nightfall, when temples of the Mother Goddess shimmer with the lights of countless diyas (oil lamps), nine or more little maidens must be worshipped, fed, and given a small present by each family

The rituals over, men, women and children partake of the nine special preparations-after keeping a portion aside to feed a Brahmin or the poor. And then, its on the streets, lanes and public squares and crossings once again. This is the ninth night-the climax of the festival. Everywhere, there is colour, and light and ecstatic movement and sound. Women in their most colourful best, their bangles jingling, their jewellery gleaming in the softness of the night sing and dance their way to the allotted sites, or where fancy may lead them.

Men and children join the pageantry. The steps and movements of the garbas and garbis remain blissfully gentle, but the dandiya ras picks up in pace, as the night advances. It is past midnight, yet nothing but the occasion and the movement matters. But as the action packed hours whirl on, the dancers’ steps begin to slacken, the musicians begin to miss their beats, the singing becomes a little muted. Smiling faces, happy faces, begin to be tinged with sadness. Rub your eyes, for just a new lingering movements longer and Gujarat’s unique festival of the nine nights, with its unalloyed joy and fervour, will be over.

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