Dedicated to the worship of the Mother Goddess, the nine nights of
Navratri are celebrated in a rapturous combination of solemnity and
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
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 Matajis (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.
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
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
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
Gujarats unique festival of the nine nights, with its unalloyed
joy and fervour, will be over.