Women take a central stage in this festival and it is a celebration of feminine qualities such as dance, music and decoration. It is also a reminder of historic status of women in India and how they held lot more power in ancient India.
In Tamil Nadu, it is called Golu. These idols & dolls are arranged in wood/steel stair specially built for this purpose. In Mysore, the legendary palace and large number of elephants are decorated and brought in. In Western India, the festival is celebrated as the dance festival - Garba. The north celebrates it as a victory of King Rama over the demon Ravana in the festival Ramlila. At the end of the 10 day battle, huge effigies of demon Ravana are burned in each neighborhood.
Nepali Hindus also celebrate this festival with the emphasis on family ties. During this period, Nepalese will put the red colored kumkum on each other's forehead. Elsewhere, the Chinese related people of Asia call it: the ‘Nine Emperor Gods Festival.’
What is Navarathri? ‘Nava’ is nine, and ‘Rathri’ is night; hence ‘Navarathri’ literally means nine nights. The festival of the feminine force dedicates three days each to the worshiping the Divine in the forms of Durga, Lakshmi and Saraswati.
Traditionally Navarathri is celebrated in autumn, when nature starts to undergo transformation. Fall sees the planets’ axis directly in line with the Sun. The Sun is directly over the Equator during the autumnal equinox and heating the northern and southern hemispheres equally. As at night we sleep to awake refreshed, in the same way it is the best time to turn inwards to that space of quiet; to renew ourselves in order to emerge refreshed and creative.
Why fast, chant and meditate? The ancients have shown us, as we are always engaged in the mind, it is time to give our real-selves a break from constant noise and identifying with our senses. In silence, we turn gradually to the observer in us. I feel it is literally pressing the pause button on the reacting-replying mind. When one does this for a little while, the mind becomes sharper and we start to identify with intuition.
In Sanatana Dharma/Hinduism, pure consciousness-matter, when given a form is Male – Shiva. However, we know even in basic science, energy is needed to move matter. Energy is represented as Female – Shakti. In Hindu culture, we venerate this Shakti as Devi – the Goddess.
In order to realise this formless absolute, Navarathi is a journey through the three realms personified in the Devi. During the first three days we worship Durga to destroy our negative tendencies, personified as Asuras- demons in the puranas-legends. The demons of inertia, lethargy, sloth and lack of courage are depicted in the form of a buffalo, which can be removed by just chanting or remembering the image of the dynamic Durga in red.
The fourth to the sixth days are devoted to Lakshmi, Goddess of all wealth and prosperity. Lakshmi Devi is portrayed in vermillion red, orange or resplendent in gold and fine colours. Popularly worshipped for abundance of wealth as gold coins pour from her hands, she offers plenty in knowledge, courage and talent too, contributing to one’s well-being. Lakshmi is the Light in one’s life.
A person will invariably require all eight facets of Lakshmi Devi as support in the passage of life. As Ashta-Lakshmi, i.e. eight aspects: Adi-Lakshmi connects us to our source; Dhana-Lakshmi is the facet of material wealth; Vidhya-Lakshmi is the essence of all knowledge and skills; Dhanya-Lakshmi gives us abundance in food; Santana-Lakshmi is the aspect of progeny and creativity; Dhairya-Lakshmi is courage; Vijaya-Lakshmi is victory and Bhagya-Lakshmi for good luck and prosperity.
Having worshipped Durga to remove the darkness in our being, we welcome the light of Lakshmi, to pave the illumination of knowledge in Saraswati, in the final three days. Often shown sitting on a rock, as we need knowledge to be as steadfast in our voyage through life.
Also symbolically depicted sitting on a lotus, as it is well-known that the white water lily pushes through the surrounding mire, reaching towards the light in its full beauty. In her hands, Saraswati Devi holds a Veena, for she is Goddess of music, knowledge and all creativity. In her other hands, she has a japa-mala/rosary, blessing us in meditation, and scrolls of olai/papyrus, representing learning.
Her vehicle is a swan, which is known for discrimination. It is said if a mixture of milk and water is given to the swan, it will drink only the milk. She wears white, the colour of sattvic guna – purity. We pray to her for all forms of knowledge.
On the tenth day we emerge victorious with the Grace of the Devi, to go forward in our lives. In North India, the tenth day is also celebrated as Dusserah, when Lord Rama defeated the powerful demon king Ravana; and when Devi Durga defeated Mahisa, the buffalo-demon.
It is also on this day, when children write ‘Om’ or ‘Aum’ in their familiar script to begin their studies. It is customary for children to write on sand or rice; or just on paper. The Vidyarambham literally means to begin the acquisition of knowledge, and for the very young, it is just that: an initiation into learning. For those who have already begun to acquire knowledge, it is a reminder that only one who can maintain a beginner’s mind will be able to learn. As Amma says, “We should always have the attitude of a beginner.”
From earliest memory, we were encouraged to choose one aspect to relate to, from the many myriad manifestations of the one whole divinity. Even before I could say anything, my mother admonished me, “Not that one. - You pray to Saraswati, the serene Goddess of Knowledge!” She must have sensed my attraction to Kali-Durga! As children, my brother and I started the day by placing flowers from the garden, at the feet of Lord Ganesh, Saraswati Devi, our Guru and our personal choice of the Divine. We then sat cross-legged to meditate. We joked about how we had mastered the art of falling asleep in this posture!
It was when I came into my teens, and found the real meaning of Navarathri, I could not resist taking a taxi, over the back hill of a bidarari-cemetery, to the early morning services at six in the Ramakrishna Mission in Singapore. When the boys of the Home had finished their early-morning chorus of chanting in the temple, I felt it compelling to sit at the back of the hall with a few devotees as the monk performed a silent vedic-puja to the different aspects of Shakti during Navarathri. It is only now I am beginning to understand the effect of the pujas; they awaken the sleeping divinity within. It became more important to observe my own personal rituals at home, later on in the night. Perhaps I loved the fact that Navarathri, like Nature, encompasses all the different facets of Shakti.
I have tried to observe Navarathri throughout my life, for it has become that time of the year to renew myself. Even now my mother continues to inspire me in her devotions, despite being older and limited by her physical health. Along this path, I always remember and miss a dear friend during this festival, who observed fasting and silence and pujas in her own home.
May the Shakti-Energy- Force be with you, this Navarathri! Om Shanti.