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Navratri traditions differ all across India. But the best part about all these is that they all preach the same lesson, that of women empowerment.
India is a nation of multiple cultures, traditions and festivals. One such festival that runs in the veins of our country is Navratri. From Garba in Gujarat to Durga Puja in Bengal, there are a number of ways in which devotees worship Goddess Durga. All over the country, Navratri traditions honour and celebrate women empowerment.
In general terms, it is said that Navratri is the celebration of the victory of Maa Durga. The nine days that we fast and celebrate enthusiastically signifies the war that lasted for nine days between Durga and a demon.
During Navratri, a form of the Mother Goddess Shakti incarnates as goddess Durga. This inculcates the purest power of all the gods to kill the asura (demon) named Mahishasur. Durga is the amalgamation of powers given to her by devatas (gods). These powers are in the form of 10 different weapons in her 10-handed physical self.
Many argue that all of this is a mythological tale. But we can’t neglect the fact that the story of Navratri does teach us the basic values of women empowerment. As I mentioned earlier, we are all aware of Garba and Durga Puja but during a recent conversation with my friends, I found out certain other Navratri traditions in India. One thing that was common in each and every tradition, was the subliminal hint of women empowerment.
I remember how as a child, my favourite festival was Navratri. Firstly because it ended with the grand festival of Dussehra. Secondly due to the Kanya Bhoj on ‘Ashtami and Navami’ (8th and 9th day of Navratri).
I remember how during Kanya Bhoj all the little girls were treated as goddesses and were loaded with food and gifts.
My Marwari friend Prachi, also shares the same experience “One of the Marwari Navratri traditions is worshipping goddess Durga all nine days of the festival as she is the creator.
“On the last day, we feed 9-18 little girls. Touch their feet even though they’re younger because it’s believed that there is a fierce goddess inside each girl that has the power to make or break you.
“A lot of us know this as part of a custom. But what we overlook is the idea that when we do the ‘Kanya Bhoj’ and treat girls as goddess, it gives the world a lesson that the girl child has to be protected, educated and nurtured into an independent, strong woman with an identity of her own.”
In the Bhojpuri areas of UP and Bihar (the place where I am from) one more integral part of Navratri is reading the Durga Saptashati or the Devi Mahatamya. The Saptashati is probably the oldest extant living text in the world devoted entirely to a fiercely independent goddess.
The singular achievement of the composition is that it visualises the Supreme Being in a feminine form. It is more than worth a read even as a secular text. The narrative weaves together all forms of the divine, coalesces them into a whole and crystallises them as the Mahadevi (the Great Goddess). She is the one who creates the Universe, pervades all creation (omnipresent), sustains all creation, and then destroys it. In the text, she is visualised as the one who possesses the power or Shakti of all the male gods combined (omnipotent).
In the North, another big custom is ‘Ravan Dehan’ or Dussehra which happens on the 10th day. Now one might think that how is this women empowerment? My mother answered this question years ago when I asked her.
Though the Purans suggest that Lord Ram killed Ravan, he had to worship the Goddess with full devotion to make this Akāl Bodhan, the untimely invocation successful.
The Puranas also state that, as Durga is considered the victory Ram worshiped Durga to get her blessings so that he could kill Ravan. It can be said that this entire incident is the true example of how women come to the rescue of a man in distress.
One of the Navratri traditions in Telangana is the Bommala Koluvu this particular tradition gave me the important teaching that women can play with dolls and even kick some serious ass!
My friend Soundarya said, “So during the Navratri, we arrange dolls/toys/showpieces. Near this, we place goddess Lakshmi’s photo and do the pooja. We do this because we believe that after the goddess fights evil during the day and at night, we welcome to play with the dolls to calm herself down. So during Puja, we invite other ladies as well and together, all of us pray.”
Similar to Bommala, Kolu is practised in Tamil Nadu. A part of the celebration is the decoration of the “Kolu” which is actually a staircase with nine stairs, representing the nine nights. Each stair is decorated with beautiful dolls and idols of gods and goddesses. It is said that the dolls used, are handed over from generation to generation.
The Navaratri tradition in Kerala is related to education. Keralites place books and musical instruments in front of Ma Saraswati’s idol on Ashtami, and worship the books and Ma Saraswati till Dashami. On Dashami, the books are taken out for reading.
The Gujarati culture is famous for celebrating Navratri by dancing around doing and playing Dandiya. Apart from Garba and Dandiya they also have an interesting way of doing pooja.
My friend Simran mentioned this one to me, “So basically, the Navratri traditions in Gujarat are slightly different. In our culture, we have a Matka called Garba where we light a Diya for 9 days in support of Devi Maa as she fights the devil. And for 9 days we grow Jawera (a grass species). Once it’s fully grown on the 9th day we put it in tijori.
“It is said that all the energy and good positive vibes after the devil’s death is locked in those Jawera’s which will bring happiness and enrich our tijori (locker) and best thing we play Garba and Dandiya for 9 days”
This custom gives us the subtle hint of how the mother is the one who with her endless efforts ends up bringing peace, prosperity and happiness in the house.
Garba and Dandiya also bring out women from the confines of their home and hearth and lets them have a well-deserved break, sanctioned by religion, in an otherwise male-dominated society.
Navratri traditions in Maharashtra are quite similar to Navratri traditions in Gujarat. It’s full of Garba and Dandiya and is also often termed as new beginnings.
One thing peculiar about pooja in Maharashtra I got to know from my friend Suchi, “In my household, married women invite their female friends, put haldi and kumkum on their foreheads and gift them a coconut, beetle leaves and beetle nuts. The gesture is referred to as Saumangalyam. This basically means that a wife will stay with her husband till her death. Women also give gifts to each other.” Suchi said that the distribution of goodies to fellow sisters asserts that ‘a woman is a woman’s best friend.’
West Bengal and Assam are known for celebrating Durga Puja in the grandest way. Elaborately designed pandals (marquees) and life-size statues of the goddess Durga in every neighbourhood, sounds of Dhol, Dhak, Dhunuchi Nach, the fragrance of agarbattis fill the air with freshness and purity and thus make the Navratri celebration in Bengal a must-watch.
Apart from the grand celebration, if one looks closely then we can sense the symbol of empowerment in this celebration. Idols and images of the Durga assert the fact that we have known all along: the woman is the creator, the sustainer and the destroyer and that she deserves to be worshiped. When goddess Durga stands out majestically alone, in the pandals fearless conveys how a woman is capable of having her own identity.
One more prominent thing about the Navratri traditions in Bengal is the ‘Shondhi Puja’. My friend Eesha who is an Assamese Bengali mentioned this tradition to me. “The eighth day or Ashtami, is when the worship of ‘Chamunda’ or goddess Kali commences. The ceremony is known as Shondhi Puja and begins in the last 24 minutes of Ashtami. It continues till the first 24 minutes of Nobomi, or the ninth day. During this ritual, a total of 108 lamps are lit. With the same number of lotus flowers, we rejoice in the victory of the goddess. It is on this day, that she triumphs over Mahishasur”
Shondi Pooja is the most auspicious part of Durga Pooja. Eesha further added, “During ‘Shoondi Pooja’ everyone is praying to Durga ma and encouraging her to fight evil. They’re telling her she needs to fight back and end the evil. But when women actually fight back, in reality, they’re called a little too outspoken or mannerless. Or at times, rebellious and said to be more feminine and not manly. So imbibing the teachings of encouraging women to fight for themselves in real life is very important.”
According to the scriptures, when all Gods failed to defeat the demon Mahishasur they approached Goddess Durga to help them out. Durga took her Kali form and turned black with rage to kill Mahishasur. Indeed in our country, every culture has its own unique way of celebrating Navratri.
What we need to do is to not just restrict it to customs and traditions. Rather take teachings of women empowerment from this auspicious festival.
Navratri is not just a bunch of traditions instead it’s a way to temper down patriarchy. It symbolically teaches us the mannerism to respect females in all forms of life.
Image credits- Youtube
I read, I write, I dream and search for the silver lining in my life.
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