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.

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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.

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Both Garba and Dandiya Raas have taken staunch hold in immigrant communities, handed over by grandparents and parents as a ritual that is part religious, part cultural. Garba is a religious and social event and harks back to the village traditions.

"All social events that happen in the rural areas always have a ritualistic or religious significance," says Patel, "whether it's the drawings on the walls of the huts, whether it's the motifs you see on the women's skirts--all of them have significance in their religious life and their vratas, the rituals they perform."

The circle formation in garba has a great deal of symbolic and metaphorical importance because life itself is a circle, without beginning or end--an unending cycle. When you perform a garba, you do not break the circle; people go in and come out but the circle remains.

"Garba is definitely a village dance, and it's a participatory type of folk art rather than something that is learned and taught and has tenets," explains Patel. "It is something young women grow up with and infuse it into their being and every time there is a celebration, that is what they perform."

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