Fascinating festival of Navaratri - Why is it widely celebrated across India?

Happy Navaratri 2021 .freepik.com

Navratri or Navaratri (''Sanskrit'';  a synchrony of two words: ''nava'' meaning nine and “ratri” meaning night)  is an important  annual Hindu festival  celebrated with religious fervor across India.  This festival celebrated to honor feminine divinity is a long-drawn one - 9 days during the Tamil month of Puratasi  (month of  Asvin; Sept.  to  October). The festival comes to an end on the 10 day called Vijayadashami (Dussehra).  Sharad Navratri or just Navaratri that comes in the early autumn (fall) season assumes much importance among other  four kinds of Navaratris – Chaitra Navratri, Paush Navratri, Magha Navratri, and Sharad Navratri celebrated in India throughout the year.  It is observed in the bright half of the Hindu Lunar month Ashwin.

Durga Puja, Kolkata, WB. makemytrip.com

In West Bengal  and in other NE Indian states this festival goes by the name of ''Durga Puja.''   Goddess Durga  fought ferociously with  demon Mahishasura (half human and half buffalo with enormous mystical power) and defeated him.  The day is marked to worship and honor the Goddess. The first day of the festival, Mahalaya, begins with remembering Goddess Durga and the final day  marks the end of the period of Shradhh or Pitri-Paksha.   In the northern and western Indian states this festival marks the Victory of Sri Rama (an avatar of Sri Vishnu) over the demon king of Lanka (Sri Lanka) Ravana. 

During the navaratri celebrations the nine nights are dedicated to different aspects of  feminine divinity, the main goddess being  shakti.  The worship of  Goddess Durga or Shakti  represents the energy of the universe  in her nine different forms (Shaktism). In the state of Tamil Nadu, the first three days are dedicated to Goddess Lakshmi, next three days to Goddess Durga or Parashakti and the final thee days to Goddess Saraswati - Goddess of knowledge. So, the mode of celebration and tradition may vary among various regions, but the moral is this festival symbolizes victory of the good over the evil or dark forces.

Navaratri Golu, south India.artofliving.org

Devout Hindus during the festivities go on a fast, they may skip  the dinner (fasting is good  for the health during early  Winter months). Others engage in bhajan activities, watch  devotional music or dance recitals. Invariably,  in the south at most Hindu homes there will be a display of dolls  mostly gods and goddesses for nine days called Golu. They are on display on specially made Golu Padi consisting of nine cascading steps,  mostly made of wood. In many families they display dolls that have been kept for generations. The size of golu padi may vary from a large one to small one depending on the space available. Hindus normally in the Tamil month of Puratasi partake only of strict vegetarian food and avoid alcoholic beverages.

In the last couple of years the Navaratri festival  was celebrated in a simple manner across India, no pomp and show on account of COVID -19 pandemic risks. This year also it will be a simple one as people are afraid to take risk mixing with large crowds. 

As part of  festivities in the NE states, on  the sixth day, the goddess is welcomed into homes of people and pandals put up by them in public places; 8th day  is known as Ashtami  and on the ninth day called Navami, devotees of Maa Durga invite young girls for Devi Prasadam and Kanya Puja. The celebrations continue for the next few days and on the 10th day (Vijayadashami) the idol of  goddess is  taken reverentially to the nearest water body for immersion. During these days, devotees spend lots  of money and put up a richly decorated make-shift pandal / shed with illumination at certain public places in the cities and towns.  They offer free food/ Bhojanam to the needy.  Throughout these nine days, people  worship different avatars of goddess Durga. Here are the nine incarnations of goddess Durga. Goddess Shailputri, Goddess Shailputri is the first manifestation of Goddess Durga, Goddess Brahmacharini, Goddess Chandraghanta, Goddess Kushmanda, Goddess Skandmata, Goddess, Goddess Katyayani Goddess Kaalratri and Goddess Mahagauri. 

It is to be borne in mind, not withstanding the fact the concept of Durga Puja and Navaratri is same, there exists an overlap between  timing of both festivals. As for rituals and observances of these festivals, they differ  significantly.

Burning the effigy of Ravana, Ramlila,alamy.com

Above image: On the 10th day of Navaratri, as part of Ramlila the effigy of demon Ravana is burnt to ashes, symbolizing  victory of the good over evil forces. Due to air pollution many northern towns and cities follow strict regulation about burning effigies or firing crackers during festivities................................

In the northern states in places like Delhi etc.,  the mythological tale of Lord Rama ''Ramlila''  a nine-day celebration  is observed by enacting  on stage various episodes from the Ramayana.  On the last day -10th  when Rama ‘kills’ Ravana with his bow, the festival comes to an end by burning effigies of Ravana and his brothers Meghnad and Kumbhakaran.  During the festival, people dress up in traditional clothing offer regular prayer and  observe fasts.

The navaratri festival that falls  in either September or October is held to honor the nine forms of Goddess Shakti / Devi. (The final three days of Navarathri – Durgashtami, Mahanavami and Vijayadashami are set apart for the worship of Goddess Saraswati – the Goddess of wisdom and learning.  Students  keep their books and other study materials in the pooja room and workers worship their  vocational tools and won't work on that day.  This type of worship called  Ayudha Pooja is widespread across the southern states

Mysuru Dasara, KA thehindu.com

In the city of Mysore (Mysuru), Karnataka the Navaratri festival/ Dasara is a ten day gala event  which  brings out  the grandeur of Karnataka  in its full glory. The historical significance of this festival in Mysuru  dates back to 16th century.  The  royal members of former Mysore ruling  class -Wodeyar  family  actively participate in this festival. On the ten day  -Vijayadashami day  there will be a procession of caparisoned elephants (Jambu Savari)  accompanied by traditional dances, musicals, display of special skills, etc. Through out the festivities there will be illumination of lights covering vast areas including the main palace. Goddess Chamundeswari (goddess Durga) is worshipped by the royal members and others.  This year the pride of Mysore, Dasara festival events will be very much restricted to the minimum  and people can enjoy the events only virtually due to COVID -19 restriction by the state government.

vidhyarambham, Kerala mesofindia.indiatimes.com

On the Vijayadashami day, in the state of Kerala, people follow  their own tradition. The festivities are held here as in other states. However, traditionally  on the Vijayadasami day, parents introduce their young kids  aged between two and three to   Vidyarambham - introducing the children for the first time to the world of   knowledge and letters -   initiation into the characters of the syllabary.  It is done in the form of a ceremony at selected temples such as  Attukal Bhagavathy Temple in Thiruvananthapuram, Guruvayur Sree Krishna Temple in Thrissur,   Panachikkadu Saraswati Temple in Kottayam and Thunchan Parambu in Mallapuram,  and  Chottanikkara Devi Temple in Ernakulam. The kid is taken to the temple after taking a head bath and wearing  new dress. On the temple premises  he is made to write the alphabet in mother tongue and the number on a plate of turmeric powder mixed rice under the guidance of a priest and elders in the family.  Sometime the word ''OM'' (symbolic of God) is written on the tongue of the child with a gold ring  by the parent or an elder in the family when a mantra is being chanted invoking the blessings from God Ganapati, God Vishnu and Goddess Saraswati.   This tradition of Vidhyarambham on Vijayadasami day is also being followed by certain communities  across the southern states. 

Koothanoor Maha Saraswat temple, near  Thruvarur, TN.tripadvisor.in

In the state of Tamil Nadu  Koothanur Maha Saraswathi Temple (built by Rajaraja Chola II;associated with Tamil poet Ottakoothanar) in the town of Koothanur (Tiruvarur district)  Vijayadasami is the most popular festival and many people come here for Vidhyarambham.  Before taking tough exams  students visit this temple to seek the blessings from the deity for success . It is the only temple in Tamil Nadu dedicated to Goddess Saraswati.