The highlights of the festival are the extremely colorful dances of Garba and Dandiya-Rasa during which, both men and women dressed in the traditional attires of dhoti-kurta (traditional Indian attire worn by menfolk, comprising a long shirt and a long flowing garment worn over the lower part of the body), and chania-choli (mirror-work skirts and blouses), put up stunning performances to the vibrant rhythm of music.
The festival which is devoted to the Mother Goddess known variously as Durga, Kali, Bhavani, Amba, and Chandika, has been celebrated in its most unique and different nature in various parts of India and abroad with devotional songs, bhajans and cultural programs and with the world renowned Garba or Dandiya Raas in the state of Gujarat.
Western India: Here this Festival is celebrated in a most unique and unusual way. The Garba or Dandiya Raas is the most significant feature during the festival of Navratri. This is the traditional and folk dance of the state of Gujarat, but today people throughout the country perform this dance with great fervor and enthusiasm. During the dance, a decorated pot is ceremoniously placed with a light inside and the women folk dance in a circle, singing “traditional songs” or Garbas. Then there is a pooja on each day of this holy period where Goddess Durga, known in this state as Ambe Maa is worshiped for prosperity and happiness. The word Garba by which the pot as well as the dance is known is etymologically close to the word Garbha meaning womb. In this context the lamp in the pot, symbolically represent life within a womb. The Dandiya Raas or the dance as this is called is played with dandiyas or wooden sticks. Apart from Gujarat, Dandiya Raas and Garba is a common feature in all over India and especially in cities like Mumbai, Ahmedabad, Vadodra and Surat. The women wear their vibrant, mirror-work ghaghras and cholis in different styles and the men in their traditional attire; play Garba to traditional and rhythmic songs.
Northern India: In Northern India especially in Punjab and Delhi, even the name of the festival is changed, this becomes Navratras, here this is a period of fasting for seven days, and the people are said to keep their Navratras or fasts. On the eighth day or Ashtami, devotees break their fasts by calling young girls home and these girls are treated as the goddess herself. They are called Kanjak Devis. People ceremonially wash their feet, worship them and then offer food to the “girl-goddesses” giving them the traditional puri, halwa and chana to eat, along with bangles and the red chunnis to wear with a token amount of money as shagun. The ninth day is then called Navami which means literally the ninth day of this holy and pious period. Another prevalent practice is of sowing pulses, cereals and other seeds on the first day of this festival in a pot which is watered for nine days at the end of which the seeds sprout. This pot is worshiped throughout the nine days. This custom is also indicative of fertility worship and is known as Khetri. It is significant of prosperity and abundance. On the first day of the Navaratras, grains of barley are planted in the pooja room of the house. Every day some water is sprinkled on it. On the tenth day, the shoots are about 3-5 inches in length. After the pooja, these seedlings or the Khetri as this is referred to is submerged in water. This custom suggests a link to harvesting. The sowing and reaping of barley is symbolic of the “first fruit.”
West Bengal and Eastern India: In West Bengal, Navratri is celebrated as Durga Pooja, where beautiful idols of the Goddess are decorated and adorned, and worshiped for a period of nine days and immersed on the tenth day. Different manifestations of Durga are worshiped every night and this is one of the biggest and most important festivals for the people of W. Bengal. For these ceremonies Pundals (temporary public booths) are erected. The ceremonies are conducted amidst grand prayers and mass feeding.
South India: In southern India celebrations constitute a display of images of God and toys at home for nine days amidst much pomp and gaiety with poojas and archanas conducted for Goddess Durga.
In different states of India especially around the North, the Ram Leela is performed during Navratri. It is the stage presentation of the Ramayana. This is the day, according to the Ramayana, when Lord Ram killed the demon Ravana and hence this day marks the victory of good over evil. The day after Navratri (i.e. the 10th day) is known as Dassera. In many parts of India this is also referred to Vijaya Dashmi and is celebrated with equal pomp and glory associated with Divali.
In northern India, on the 10th day (Dassera) giant effigies of Ravana. Kumbhakarna and Meghnad (Lord Rama’s enemies), are publicly burnt. But despite the various ways in which this festival is celebrated the feature that is common is that of the worship of the mother goddess.
The highlights of the festival are the extremely colorful dances of Garba and Dandiya-Rasa during which, both men and women dressed in the traditional attires of dhoti-kurta (traditional Indian attire worn by menfolk, comprising a long shirt and a long flowing garment worn over the lower part of the body), and chania-choli (mirror-work skirts and blouses), put up stunning performances to the vibrant rhythm of music. These dances are performed around the traditionally decorated terracotta pot called the garbi that has a small diya (lamp) burning inside signifying knowledge, or light meant to dissipate the ignorance, or darkness, within. Dholak players (drummers) accompany the dancers, and groups of singers sing songs handed down generations.
Today the commercialization of these dances seems evident, with the traditional and delicate rhythms being replaced by alternate forms that are quite far-removed from the original versions.
As a dance form, the Garba is mainly performed by women. The leader starts with the first line of the song. Other dancers who sway gracefully, with their arms describing movements in perfect synchrony to the rhythmic clapping, or beating of sticks then pick this up.
Yet another variation of the Garba is the Goph Guntan, or the string dance. As the dancers execute the movements, they hold on to one end of a rope in strands, while the other end of the rope is tied either to the ceiling or a wooden pole. Gradually, as the dancers weave in and around each other, a braid is formed. It is quite an interesting sight as it takes a certain degree of skill and accuracy to intertwine and untangle the braid without falling out of pace.
Another dance form that is popular during the Navratri celebrations is the Dandiya-Raas, performed mostly by men folk forming complex circular patterns to represent the lotus and other floral designs. These dancers hold the Dandiyas (small wooden sticks with tiny bells attached at the ends) and dance in complex concentric circles. The dancers rhythmically beat the sticks even during a series of complicated moves that they must execute while sitting, standing or lying down.
Different communities have different variations of these dances and the heady mix of jubilation and enthusiasm is all-pervasive.
The different Navaratris
Shaarada Navaratri (or, Sharad Navaratri, the most celebrated Navaratri) is the most important of the Navratris, and is simply called Maha Navratri. It celebrates the slaying of Mahishasura by the Goddess Durga.
Vasanta Navaratri is the second most famous Navratri, and is celebrated in the lunar month of Chaitra (March-April) and ends with Ram Navami.
Most devotees fast during the period of Navratri and on the Ashtami day little girls are worshiped as incarnation of Goddess Shakti.
Ashada Navaratri also referred as Gayatri or Guhya Navratri, is celebrated also for nine days, dedicated to the nine
forms of Shakti (Mother Goddess) in the Hindi month of Ashada (June – July). Ashada Navratri begins on June 23 and ends on June 30.
Varahi: Ashada Navratri rituals are followed mainly in the Hindi speaking states in India. It is largely observed by women in Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh.
Magh Navratri (Maagha Navaratri) is observed Shukla Paksha (waxing phase of moon) of Magh or Magha month (January – February) as per the traditional Hindu calendar followed in North India.
Magh Navratra is also known as Gupt Navratri. The rituals and forms of Shakti worshiped during Magh Navratri vary from region to region.