By September, the fury of southwest Monsoon rains subsides, 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 Hindu festivals. This vibrant festival is held in celebration of the three aspects of the mother Goddess – Durga the divine protector, Lakshmi who bestows peace and prosperity, and Saraswathi 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 southern India, the tradition is to set up kolu – beautiful and elaborate displays of colorful dolls in the shapes of the many Gods and Goddesses of the Hindu pantheon- at homes.
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, 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.
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 every day 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 homework. Navarathri is not just about kolu or sharing sundal with friends or wearing pretty new clothes. Each day of the festival my sisters, cousins and I would dress up in festive clothes and go as a group to the temple in the evening. 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.
On Durgashtami the ritual offering Poojavaipu is performed in the evening. Both prayer books and schoolbooks 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 schoolbooks. 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.
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.