On Navratri Festival, the Goddess Dances

The nine-day Navratri festival, commemorating the Goddess Durga's victory over a demon, is celebrated with joyous traditional Hindu dances.

BY: Lavina Melwani


This article first appeared on Beliefnet in 2001.

They spin round and round, going faster and faster, but never breaking the sacred circle, as they clap their hands rhythmically, dancing around the Garba, or earthen pot. They smile as they twirl around, for in these nine nights they are celebrating the Goddess that is enshrined in all of us.

This empowering dance is called the Garba, and it is the centerpiece--especially in the western Indian state of Gujarat--of the celebration of the Hindu festival of Navratri, or Nine Nights. This year (2001) Navratri starts on Sept. 23 and ends on Oct. 1.

Is the Almighty a He or a She? We lesser mortals may never know for sure, but Navratri is a celebration of the female cosmic energy that makes it possible for humankind to continue--Devi, the Mother Goddess. It marks the victory of the Warrior Goddess Durga over the Buffalo Demon Mahisa, whom she fought for nine days and vanquished on the 10th, and so is a celebration of women's power.

Known in different regions--where they are celebrated somewhat differently--as Navratras or Durga Puja, this festival is one of the most important holidays on the Hindu calendar. It culminates in Dusshera, the 10th day, which marks the victory of Rama over the demon Ravana and leads on to Diwali, the joyous Festival of Lights. It is a time of prayers, dance, and music, and is celebrated lavishly all over India and by the Hindus living abroad. The diya, or light, is lit for nine nights, and it is a time of special rituals.

In the old days only male priests were allowed to conduct religious ceremonies, so the women, for their part, conceived these vratas (rituals) as a way to be involved in the public celebration of this Hindu festival that has so much to do with female power. And what better way to do it than in a joyous manner, through dance?

The first three days of Navratri are devoted to the worship of the Goddess Durga, also known as Amba, Bhavani, Jagdamba, and Mahakali; the next three days are dedicated to Lakshmi, the Goddess of Wealth, and the final three days to Saraswati, the Goddess of knowledge, art, and learning.

In Gujarat, the festival is defined by the ancient village dances of Garba and Dandiya Raas, which are even mentioned in the Vedas. In India there are big Garba and Dandiya Raas parties in towns and cities, often with major dandiya performers (professional singers who entertain during celebrations) joining in. In the U.S., however, celebrations are reserved only for the weekends. Performances and celebrations are held in many venues, such as school auditoriums and huge tented areas where thousands turn up over three weekends for dance, music, and socializing.

The word Garba is derived from the Sanskrit word Garbadeep, which means a light inside a pot and represents the Almighty shining through the perforations of the pot, which symbolizes the universe. The garba tradition revolves around Shakti-Ma or Amba, the Mother Goddess, and garba or the clay pot also represents the womb and fertility.

The circle itself is also a very potent symbol--there's no beginning or end, and so the end is contained in the beginning. It's a very meaningful ritual for women because it honors the Goddess and also their own ability for creation. Garbagraha is the containment of all knowledge; it is the womb from which everything emanates.

"It's about parampara--the female lineage that goes back to eternity, before memory, and it's been passed down to the females through generations," says Smita Amin Patel, an educator in folk arts.

Continued on page 2: Disco Dandiya and Disco Garba »

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