For nine nights very autumn, India lights up with color, sparkle, and music as millions twirl in garba dances in celebration of the Navratri festival. Navratri (नवरात्री) means “nine nights” in Sanskrit, and over these nine nights and ten days, the nine forms of the Hindu goddess Durga are worshipped. In true Indian fashion, this festival is the perfect mix of spirituality and fun.
Navratri celebrates Durga, which means that this festival is all about the ladies. Durga is the feminine form of divinity, so many of the rituals and practices surrounding her festival represent fertility, and it is largely women who perform these rituals throughout the festival. In North India, generally women fast (which doesn’t mean not eating – it means only eating special “fasting foods” which can be really delicious, such as peanut curry – because this is India, how could you not eat for nine days?), and do puja (prayer). During puja, hymns (including bell ringing), food, and fire are offered to the goddess.
Another practice is sowing seeds to represent fertility. On the first day of the festival, the seeds are placed in a pot in the prayer room of the house and watered for nine days, while women pray and give offerings of fruit and flowers to encourage the seeds to sprout. The sprouts are submerged in water after saying prayers on the ninth day, and on Dussehra, the last day of the festival, the men bring leaves for the prayer.
The fun part of Navratri is dancing – after prayer, garba dances are held every night of the festival. Garba is a type of dance that originated in the state of Gujarat, and is traditionally performed around a clay lantern with a light inside. The lantern represents life, the womb (garbha means womb in Sanskrit) in particular – another fertility metaphor. Modern garba is mixed with and influenced by dandiya raas, another traditional Gujarati folk dance. In garba, dancers whirl and move their feet and arms in complicated choreography. Dandiya raas adds the element of sticks, which are twirled and hit against the sticks of dance partners.
What makes garba a spectacle is the outfits. Women wear chaniya choli – a blouse, skirt, and scarf – which are brightly colored (often multicolored) and decorated with beads, shells, tiny mirrors, and embroidery. These days, to add some extra sparkle, some women decorate their chaniya cholis with CDs! Men are just as spectacularly outfitted, with the same colors and sparkles on their kurtas.
Garba is an interesting social experience – the event is usually held in a large field somewhere, and is full of different groups of people, from six-year-olds to grandmothers, dancing. There are some competitive garba nights, where prizes are given to the most talented group of dancers, and others where everyone is just there to have fun. It’s completely acceptable to join the dance circle of complete strangers – you don’t even have to speak the same language, you just walk up to a circle and join in the dancing. It’s necessary that everyone has some idea of the same moves – at any point, someone in the dance circle can change the move and everyone else has to follow along, so that everyone is twirling, clapping, and/or dandiya-ing in sync.
*Disclaimer: the celebration of Navratri varies around India – this information is mainly based on Maharashtra