The battle between good and evil has long been at the heart of many religions across the world. Hinduism is no different, and Navaratri—translated as “nine nights”—is a celebration of the triumph of good, and the downfall of evil.
The festival celebrates Durga’s victory over the demon, Mahishasura, after nine days and nights of intense battle, and is the greatest festival in the Hindu tradition, celebrated all over India and Nepal.
Taking place at the beginning of October, around harvest time, Navaratri is celebrated for nine days. The Hindu tradition includes many gods and goddesses, and this particular celebration focuses on the warrior-princess Durga, as well as the other eight forms of the supreme goddess, Shakti. This is a festival in which God is worshiped as Mother, a unique aspect of the Hinduism—it is the only religion in the world, in fact, that emphasizes the motherhood of God to such an extent.
Women play a central role in the festival, as it is a celebration of feminine qualities such as dance, decoration, art, and music. It is celebrated differently in India’s various regions—for some, it’s a period of religious contemplation, and for others, it’s a time for feasting, dancing, and colorful celebration.
The festival’s nine nights are dedicated to individual aspects of the divine feminine principle, Shakti. Offerings and rituals are dedicated to these goddesses, as well as to their individual aspects.
The first third of the festival is dedicated to Durga, the warrior princess. This goddess, according to legend, was created for the slaying of a demon by Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva, as well as the other, lesser gods who were unable to overcome this demon. Durga embodies their collective power, and is greater than all of them. She is usually depicted atop a lion, her ten arms holding a blessed weapon from each of the gods.
The next third is dedicated to Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and good fortune. She is the wife of Vishnu, and, according to Hindu tradition, is said to have taken many forms over the course of history.
The final third of the festival is dedicated to Sarasvati, the goddess of learning and the arts. She is traditionally represented as riding on a goose of pure white, and is holding a lute and a manuscript. She is invoked by students and artists of all kinds.
One of the most popular of these rituals is Kanya Puja, which usually falls on the eighth or ninth day. In this, nine young girls are costumed as the nine goddesses worshiped during the festival, and are honored with ritual washing of the feet and offerings of food and clothing.
Durga, particularly, is celebrated for her aforementioned victory, images of which are worshiped daily, and on the final day of the celebration, they are taken in processions to nearby rivers for immersion in water.
The festival often takes the form of community celebrations that bring people together for dances and nightly feasts. The most elaborate of these celebrations take place in Bengal, where enormous depictions of the goddesses are worshiped.
In contrast to this, some areas focus on sacrificing personal interests for the duration of the festival, and devotees fast in order to bring greater success and prosperity upon themselves and their families. Fasting rules differ throughout India, but the most devout keep their fast for all nine days, praying and offering up hymns and mantras. According to Hindu religious texts, however, it is the intention of the devotee that matters, and not the end result, so fasting during Navaratri can take many different forms.
In Gujarat, painted earthen pots filled with water or containing a lamp symbolize the power of the goddesses—the flame symbolizes divine power, while the water symbolizes the transitory nature of life.
For women, Navaratri is the time for shopping for new clothing, jewelry, and accessories—the gold markets are open late each night of the festival. Women dress beautifully each day for the rituals and nightly dances.
The conclusion of the festival on the tenth day is called Dasera, or the Day of Victory, and marks the final defeat of evil and celebrates the motherhood of God.
The rituals involved in Navaratri are as varied as there are regions in India—that is to say, there are many. One of the most popular is the practice of sowing seeds on the first day of the festival in a pot which is watered for nine days. At the end of this period, seeds sprout, and the pot is worshiped for the duration of the festival. This ritual is focused on fertility worship, known as “Khetri”.
Also popular are the Garba and Dandiya Raas dances. People from all over Gujarat and the world come to participate in these high energy reenactments of the fight between Durga and the demon. This fight is also represented, in some areas, through theater and pageants, and the burning of huge effigies of the demon, which are sometimes even stuffed with fireworks for spectacular displays.
Common, also, is animal sacrifice, which occurs in many parts of India during the Navaratri celebration, mostly at temples of the goddesses. Certain regions offer a buffalo or goat as sacrifice to their family goddess during the celebration in a ritual, directed by a Brahmin priest, in which the animal must be killed in a single stroke.
Beginning a new venture on the last day of the festival is said to be a blessed endeavor, and so it is a time of new beginnings, especially for children, who often begin kindergarten from that day onward. The essence of the festival, though, is victory—victory over evil, over bad luck, and over oppression. It represents a casting aside of all that holds an individual back, and an embracing of the personal power to move forward in life.
This is why Navaratri is celebrated with such intense enthusiasm in every state of India, and why people come from all over to observe one of the largest festivals in the world.