“Jaya adhya sakti Ma jaya adhya sakti,
Akhanda brahmanda dipavya padave parkatya Ma,
Om jayo jayo Ma Jagadambe!”
So starts the festival of Navratri or, rather, the more well-known festivities in Gujarat on the first day of the month (called padavo in Gujarati) of Aso. The Ambe Ma arti, composed by Sivanand Svami sometime in the sixteenth century is a beautiful tribute for every day of Navratri. After the arti is completed and prayers are offered to mataji, the dhols start in slow rhythm the opening tunes of some popular garba songs that waft through the night sky, and people, young and old, who had been eagerly waiting and preparing for this very moment for weeks, even months, get ready to lose themselves for the next few hours dancing to and singing their favourite garba.
The word garba, while commonly used for dance and song sequences that have become synonymous with Navratri in Gujarat, originally refers to an earthen pot in which a diya is lighted for Ma Durga. In fact, the word Navratri itself could mean one of the many nine-day festivals that are celebrated around the year, and by itself, it has rather become synonymous with Sarad Navratri or Maha Navratri. Even today, in many Gujarati homes, the garba is brought in (ghatsthapan) on the first day of the festival, symbolising the welcoming of mataji.
The garba, also called garbi, has a pattern of holes and is painted with beautiful, traditional designs. In front of a picture or a murti of mataji, the garbo is placed on a plank atop a small heap of wheat. Inside the garbo, grains such as wheat and moong are sprinkled, and a diya is placed. The diya is lighted for every puja during the nine days, and on the last day, visarjan is performed by offering the garbo to the flowing waters of a river or sea. The characteristic dance sequences came to be known with the same name, garba, possibly because they must have started out with devotees of Ma Durga dancing round the garba, the beams from the diyas inside piercing the night through the numerous holes.
My earliest memories of Navratri were from the little Gujarati Samaj in an obscure street in the unlikely city of Trichy, where our small community would celebrate the festival with the same fervour as elsewhere (except for the traditional costumes, I must say). My grandmother, along with her group of enthusiastic singers, would open her old diary full of garbas and sing them with an infectious energy, even as my father who, along with some of his passionate friends, would take turns to play the tabla with equal energy, matching the zeal with which the little crowd would dance around the hall. The night I reluctantly danced my first garba, a shy kid with two right feet pushed into the circle by my mother, I fell in love with Navratri, and have never looked back. Later, when I attended my first Navratri in Chennai, a city with a sizeable Gujarati population, I was awed, once more, at the fervour with which it was celebrated (in proper costumes this time).
Over the years, as I found out more about this remarkable festival, I have been fascinated by the confluence of various stories and customs. The best known story associated with Navratri, perhaps, is the nine-day battle between Mahisasura and Ma Durga, with the asura slain on the tenth day (celebrated, as we know, as Vijayadasami, but then there is another story behind this). Yet, Navratri itself is dedicated to the nine forms of Shakti, and each of them has an interesting story, a characteristic appearance, a chosen mount, a specific set of powers, a deeper significance, a divine symbolism, even a favourite colour or two, that takes us through an interconnected tapestry of the larger Hindu lore.
Sailaputri, for example, who is worshipped on the first day, is associated with Parvati, the consort of Shiva, and connected to the larger story of Sati as well as the various forms of Parvathi, herself. In the form of Shakti, however, she embodies Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. Skandamata, worshipped on the fifth day, is named so because she is the mother of the six-headed god, Skanda, also known as Kartikeya, who is worshipped more in the south. It is an intriguing exercise to connect the different threads, a story here, a tale there, and before you know it, there is just a feeling of wonder.
Another confluence is that of dandiya ras usually played with wooden sticks (dandiya) during Navratri. While the garba dances are ritually associated with mataji, the dandiya ras is associated more with Krishna, similar to ras lila that is common in various parts of the country. The songs played during Navratri, therefore, are about worship and praise of both mataji and Krishna. In the past few decades, with dandiya ras appearing in movies, mostly set in rural Gujarat, songs with themes such as love, longing, fun and even mischief have become quite popular. Of course, there is also the ubiquitous influence of Bollywood, and depending on where you are, you could observe Gujarati songs give way to Hindi and Punjabi “party songs” and remixes as the night progresses.
Just like the variations in songs, the dance form during garba has also evolved with many steps and styles, varying from region to region. While the common, and the simpler, ones such as be tali (two claps) and tran tali (three claps) are performed everywhere, other styles such as dodhiya (or dodhiyu), are quite popular too, from the fluid versions of Vadodara and Surat to the fast and flamboyant ones in Saurashtra and Kachchh, usually accompanied by intense folk songs. On atham, the eighth day, in many places women perform an interesting style, matla garbo, by balancing the garbi, the earthen pot, on their head, some even holding a diya each in the palm of their hand.
Behind the fun and frolic of garba and dandiya-ras, though, there is a lot of devotion too, through daily puja to mataji and offering of mithais or home-made lapsi (made with broken wheat, jaggery and ghee) and siro (made with ghee, milk and roasted wheat flour, rava, or other ingredients) as prasad. On the first day, besides the ghatsthapan of garba in homes, many families also place seeds of navadhanya (nine cereals), such as wheat, sesame, and moong, and allow them to sprout for nine days – these are called javara.
On the ninth day, the javara is offered to a river as part of the visarjan, along with the earthen pot, garbi. Some people place the sprouted plants inside their cupboards, jewel boxes, or the cashbox (gallo) in their shops, as they are believed to be blessed by mataji. The eighth day, atham is considered especially auspicious and a havan is performed in the morning for mataji. Also on this day, or sometimes on the ninth, naum, many devotees invite little girls (kumvarika, literally, unmarried girls) to their homes, welcoming them as forms of Durga Ma. Kumvarika are worshipped with the same devotion, and are offered articles of sringar such as bangles, usually red or green, and bindis. They are then offered puri and khir, or other sweet dishes such as lapsi, only after which the members of the household break their Navratri fast.
Many fast for the nine days in varying degrees: some eat only once a day (eektaṇu), some eat what is known as farali food, some only have fruits (falahar), while some avoid food altogether, just drinking water or fruit juice. Navratri is a great time to savour farali food though – food that is, paradoxically, allowed during a fast. While the idea of farali food was more applicable to old or convalescing people who cannot undertake a full fast, today it has become a specialized category of cuisine. While farali cuisine excludes everyday food items such as wheat, rice and most vegetables, it does include some delectable dishes such as khichdi and vada from sabudana (sago), puri and thepla from rajagara (amaranth) flour, dishes made from potatoes, sweet potatoes and yam, and, of course, fruits and dry fruits. It is undeniably a tempting cuisine.
Navratri in Gujarat, and for Gujaratis, is a festival that touches upon all aspects of life in an atmosphere of devotion and celebration all around. While some look upon the nine days as a way to be more spiritual with daily pujas and fasting, many eagerly wait for the evening – discussing with their families and friends on what to wear and how to dance the night away. When the music starts, the garba venues transform into a dynamic kaleidoscope of colours, vibrantly whirling this way and that with the beats, swaying and swinging and rolling and even weaving through each other.
On the last night of the festival, with sweat dripping down the face after the last garba, there is a feeling of jubilant satisfaction mixed with a feeling of pious thankfulness to Durga Ma. The next morning, if there is still a yearning to let loose the legs and the arms, there would be Sarad Purnima round the corner, and after that, the marriage season would start.
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