Your Guide to the Indian Festival of Navratri

Is culture very much on your mind? Are you looking to indulge in some vibrant festivity with a dash of spirituality? Then plan a visit to India this month. This is the best time to imbibe the soul of India – its festivals – and all the colour, vibrancy, piety and gaiety that goes along with. From glimpses into Indian culture to music and dance, you can surely look forward to a holiday packed with fun, partying and culture.

What’s Navratri all about?

Clay idols of gods and goddesses, at Durga Puja Festival

According to Indian mythology, Durga was created as a warrior goddess to fight the demons who created havoc on heaven and earth. Much like the Greek goddess Artemis who wielded the bow and arrow, goddess Durga took to many weapons to defeat the demon Mahishasura. It was only after nine days of fierce warring, that goddess Durga finally achieved victory. India celebrates the victory of goddess Durga as a triumph of the good over evil. This also coincides with another legend where Lord Rama returned to his kingdom after the defeat of evil king Ravana.

Myriad colours of the ten-day festival

The double celebrations commemorate the defeat of demons and evil forces – goddess Durga’s win over Mahishasur and Rama’s defeat of Ravana. These mark the spirit of Navratri (nine nights), as people celebrate the power of goodness with multiple festivals of Durga Puja, Ram Lila, Dussehra and Golu. Four festivities rolled into one ethos? Well, that’s what defines India, where every 100 kms you can expect a different culture, cuisine and dialect!

Discover the changing nuances of the Navratri festival as you travel across India, from the west to the east, south to north. Soak in the culture, dress up in traditional attire, go festival venue hopping and hit the food trail. Enjoy India at its traditional best!

Navratri – a curious mix of spirituality, dance and partying

Navratri dance of the Garba

Western India hosts a nine day event of religious revelry, the Navratri festival. Couples and singles, dance away the nights around the deity of goddess Durga doing the garba or the dandiya,. This famous dance of the Navratri has caught the fancy of movie-makers and Silicon Valley millennials for its dating connotations and party-like ambience! Make no mistake, the piety underpinning prevails. Most people you come across abstain from meat and become vegetarians during this period.

Once you have been to a dandiya night, you will be hooked. Every year, in September-October, during Navratri you can nevertheless continue your learning, at San Jose, Peterborough (U.K.), an Australian city, or any global city. Hire the traditional costume if you are feeling adventurous or go as you are. From backless cholis (blouses) to shorts, everything goes. Get clacking with bamboo sticks, and sway to the beats of Gujarati songs and Bollywood numbers. You will never dance the same way again!

The Durga Puja Carnival

Travel to eastern India, where Navratri takes on a whole new connotation with the Durga Puja carnival. Unlike western India, this is a ten day 24×7 event, when families travel across the world to be together.

Indians welcome the goddess Durga and her family with huge fanfare, drumbeats (dhaks) and lights. Months go into the creation of the godly images, using clay and hay. Yes, everything about the festival screeches sustainability, except perhaps the wastage of food and trappings left over from the ten-day revelry.  Idols of gods and goddesses are worshipped for ten days. The festival is celebrated as a community festival, with huge decorative clay idols housed in mammoth marquee-like structures called pandals.

The Durga Puja festival is not just about worshipping and solemnising the win over evil, but also an overt display of gaiety. You admire the intricately decorated idols, the innovative decor of the marquees and lighting, take fair rides and indulge yourself at the food stalls.

The carnival is incomplete without food and the whole pantheon of Bengali sweets. While the rest of India swears off from meat, Kolkata goes all out to embrace meat, fish and sea food in its open air food stalls.

From the idols of gods, marquees, decorative panels, to lighting; a lot of work and intricate designing goes into the decor. You don’t have to be an artist, designer or photographer to find inspiration within these works of love and craft.  You will be awestruck nevertheless.

Drummers, or Dhakis

The pulsating beats of the Dhaak (traditional drums) ring in your ears throughout the carnival. Do not miss the dance accompanying the drums, a zealous rendition with the Dhunuchi (a smoking earthen pot fire lit with coconut husks) clasped in hands and the mouth, as a dance of homage to the goddess. The smoke may sting your eyes and overwhelm you with its aroma, but is eco-friendly and safe.

Expect an immersive experience during this carnival that brings normal life and government to a standstill! Such is the size of the crowd that goes around pandal or marquee hopping, that in recent years drones have been deployed to keep an eye on the security. So it is advisable to move around in groups or with your tour guide. Expats attired in Indian traditional wear are as common a sight as travellers clicking away – capturing lights, drummer dances, and colourful marquees. The fashion quotient is high during this carnival, with the swish of silks and an explosion of colours wherever you go.

A mammoth marquee, or pandal

You will come across Durga Puja celebrations even at Copenhagen, Sydney, New York, London, Moscow or Toronto. If you are at any of these cities this time of the year, you should make it a point to check it out.

Golu – the Navratri Doll Festival

A Navratri Golu doll arrangement

Move on to southern India to experience another immersive experience, albeit a more subdued one.

If you have been to Japan, you may be familiar with the Japanese doll festival of Hina Matsuri. In southern India, Navratri is celebrated as a similar doll festival or the Golu. The Navratri Golu is a family occasion, where women get together to worship various goddesses. Marapachi dolls are displayed and sweets distributed. This Navratri festival of Golu is much more spiritual and private. So make sure to ask your tour guide to take you to a house hosting the Golu. As you enter, the aroma of sweets and incense sticks hit you. Spiritual chants intersperse with greetings, as hosts welcome visitors.

Ramlila and Dusshera

India celebrates Dussehra in various local accents. At some of the former princely states of India, Dussehra events are a throwback to the centuries-old traditions. Kullu, the apple valley of India, worships Lord Ram and local deity Hidimba with much fanfare. The Kullu Dussehra is also the venue of the International Folk Festival. Mysore illuminates the royal palace and takes out elephant pageants in true royal spirit. The Bastar Dussehra festival is another international attraction, popular for its unique events and indigenous tribal folklore.

Ramlila event – effigies of evil kings burned

As the festival comes to a close, the right place to be is northern India, where the tenth day or Dussehra finds more importance. Ramlila is the soul of the Dussehra celebrations, also known as Vijay Dashami or “victory on the tenth day”.

Ramlila refers to the popular enactment of the mythological epic ‘Ramayana’, with scenes from Ram’s life concluding with his killing the evil king Ravana. Every town and city across northern India celebrates Ram Navami with fireworks and huge effigies of the demon-king Ravana. Arrows tipped with fire burn down the effigy of evil symbolism. You cannot miss the endless allegory, the rout of evil and negativity.

Dussehra, the tenth day of Navratri, is also a family and social occasion. The revelry is over. It is back to the daily grind. But not before you savour some of the traditional sweets and do some partying of your own.

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Sangeeta is travel enthusiast and history buff who likes to explore the well-travelled as much as off-beat places. People, culture, cuisine and festivals fascinate her the most. At the same time, she can’t resist getting deeper into the geography and environmental nuances of the destination. For her, travelling is the ultimate way to live it up while drawing upon places and cultures for life’s valuable lessons. Sangeeta loves travelling as much as travel writing, and hopes to share her wanderlust experiences with you.

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