October 1, 2016 (Revised)
By mid-September the fury of southwest Monsoon rains subside in South India and golden sunshine warms the earth. Navarathri, the festival of nine nights, celebrated in September / October is one of India's biggest and most colorful and vibrant Hindu festivals held in celebration of the three aspects of the mother Goddess - Durga the divine protector, Lakshmi who bestows peace and prosperity, and Saraswati who blesses with knowledge. It is also a celebration of the triumph of good over evil.
Navarathri means different things to different communities, or even generations; it is a kaleidoscope of beliefs and traditions. It is a celebration of life, of our culture, popular customs and traditions. It is also a time for reunion and rejuvenation, and the season to share and to care. It is celebrated with intense fervor and zest as Durga Puja in West Bengal. In Punjab, Navaratri is a period of fasting. In Gujarat, the evenings and nights are occasions for the fascinating Garba dance. In northern India, the festival wears the colorful attire of Ramlila and various incidents from Lord Rama's life are enacted. The Dassera of Mysore is famous for its caparisoned elephants that lead a colorful procession through streets of the city.
In most parts of south India the tradition is to set up kolu at homes- beautiful and elaborate displays of colorful dolls in the shapes of the many Gods and Goddesses of the Hindu pantheon. At Navaratrhri in south India we also thank the mother Goddess for the bounty of pulse harvest. October is the beginning of our mild autumn and it is the harvest time for pulses - chickpeas, black eyed peas, urad beans, thuvar beans and mung beans the major source of protein in our vegetarian diet. Harvests are always celebrated with pageantry and ritual; pulse seeds are sown, sprouting is watched, and offerings are made with different pulses during the nine days of festivities. All across my home state Kerala the most auspicious days of the festival are the last three days and they are celebrated on a grand scale at temples dedicated to Devi, the mother Goddess. However, with its proximity to the neighboring state of Tamil Nadu, in Chittur, where I grew up, Navarathri is celebrated with pomp and vigor for the full nine days. Navarathri festival is the time to celebrate with friends and relatives. The women of the house invite their friends and neighbors to their homes to view their kolu display. They would also visit relatives' and friends' houses and everyone would return home with little packets of snacks and sweets, most importantly sundal, a delicious and spicy bean salad, prepared as prasadam (offering) for the day.
Navaratri is also an expression of creativity. The potter shows his skill in making images, the painter in drawing pictures, the musician in playing his instrument, and the priest in reciting the sacred books. Often the kolu doll collections are handed down from one generation to the other. These dolls, made of mud or carved in wood are painted and embellished with jewelry. The wooden dolls are made of reddish wood.
More than a religious festival, Kolu was so much fun in our joint family. The entire family would get involved in the festivities. A week before the holiday starts we would clean the kolu room, assemble tiers of steps from ceiling to floor and decorate with bright colored fabrics, gilded paper and colorful lights. The doll boxes would be brought down from the attic and we would sit around on the floor taking them out one by one from their packaging. One of us would climb up and place the large Ganapathi, the one who removes all obstacles, at the center of the top tier. To his right side we would line up Siva clad in tiger skin, Parvathi in her beautiful green sari and gold jewelry and Subrahmanya seated on a peacock. Then to the left we would place Lakshmi adorned in beautiful red silk and seated on a large pink lotus flower. Next would be the gorgeous image of Goddess Saraswathi in her gossamer thin white sari with gold borders holding her favorite musical instrument veena. The next tier would have images of the mother Goddess in her various incarnations.
Then there would be tiers dedicated to the great Hindu Epics Ramayana and Mahabharatha. Rama and Seetha, Hanuman, the monkey faced son of the god of Wind, and Rama with his wife Seetha and brothers Lakshmana, Bharatha and Sathrughna. Then representing Mahabharata there would be the large statue of Pandavas and Kauravas playing chess, another of Geethopadesa - Krishna advising Arjuna, and one of Paanchali crying out to Krishna as Dussasana rips off her sari. There would be a whole array of Krishna dolls below that - Krishna sneaking out butter from the earthenware pot, Krishna opening his baby mouth and showing the entire universe inside to his foster mother Yasoda, Krishna dancing on top of serpant Kaliya, Krishna dancing with Gopis, and Krishna with Radha. At the bottom tier we would make a little pond with a large shallow clear bowl filled with water and set in mud. And we would sow pulse seeds in the mud around the bowl. In a few days the pulses would sprout and make a miniature garden around the little pond.
Every day various sweets and snacks would be prepared as offerings. On the first day the snack and sweet array started with appam and Kadala sundal. The profusion sweets and snacks prepared for the Navarathri pooja would keep increasing as days went by. And everyday at least one new dish would be added to the menu. By the ninth day there would be nine dishes - spicy sundal, sweet sundal, appam, boondi laddu, mysorepak, jangiri, Murukku, cheeda and paayasam - would be prepared. It was a fun festival for children - nine days of exuberance and extravagance - a profusion of favorite sweets and snacks and a three-day holiday from school and home work.
On Durgashtami the ritual offering Poojavaipu is performed in the evening. Both prayer books and school books would be bundled up in a piece of cloth and then placed in front of the kolu display either at home or at the temple. Also on this day agricultural implements and artist's instruments are placed before the idol of the Goddess and worshiped. This is to invoke divine blessings of Goddess Saraswathi, the goddess of learning. For the next three days everyone refrains from reading, writing and any kind of work. Schools and offices would be closed and it is the time for praying and feasting.
On the eighth and ninth days the celebrations reach a feverish pitch. The grand finale on Vijayadasami is considered the most auspicious for all new ventures. The books are taken back from the sanctum sanctorum in a ceremony called Poojayeduppu and it is time for Vidyarambham, which literally translates to the propitious beginning of education - both writing and reading. After writing the auspicious words Hari Sri and the alphabets on sand spread in front of them, everyone would read a few paragraphs from the prayer books and then from the school books. In temples dedicated to the Divine Mother, on this day little children are initiated into the world of letters. They would be seated on the lap of their father and raw rice would be spread in front. Adults would hold their little fingers and help them write on the rice the auspicious words Hari Sri in Malayalam language. They would also write the same words on their little tongues with a gold ring, praying that may the divine mother bless them with the skills for reading and writing.
Navarathri is not just about kolu or sharing sundal with friends or wearing pretty new clothes. Each day of the festival in the evening dressed in festive clothes we would go as a group to the temple. Flower vendors would be selling fragrant jasmine and other colorful flowers and garlands at the temple gate. Classical music concerts and dance performances would be going on at the Navarathri mandapam. At dusk the many bronze oil lamps around the temple would be lit and idol of the Goddess would be decorated with fragrant flowers and sandalwood paste. Chenda drums accompanied by a heavy brass chimes would invite people for evening prayers. Chenda played during prayers, is one of the traditional temple instruments of Kerala. The priest would enter the sreekovil (sanctum sanctorum) with the nivedyam (food offering) and close the thick wooden door behind him. After several minutes he would pull open the wooden door, and the chimes of many bronze bells surrounding its spire would drift through the air and mix in gentle harmony with hushed and reverential whispers. The priest would conclude the formal offering with lighted oil lamps and burning of camphor cubes. Later we would line up with cupped right palms to receive a small serving of nivedyam offered at the temple.
Today changed lifestyles - nuclear families, working women, and homework-laden children - have naturally affected the way Navarathri is celebrated. In our own family the beautiful doll collection remains covered in clothes and stored in our attic. With our family scattered around the world, there are no youngsters to set up a kolu display at the ancestral home. Most religious rites are performed at our temple, but within prescribed parameters of time. As I stand with folded palms in front of the shrine doors at the Hindu temple in Plano my memories take me back to the fun-filled Navarathris of my childhood.