Thursday, October 17, 2013

Navaratri 2013 नवरात्रि

© Rebecca Delekta 2013
     Twice a year, every year, during the seasonal changes that mark the beginning of summer and winter, Hindus across the world celebrate Navaratri  – a nine night festival worshipping the Mother Goddess.  In Sanskrit, nava means nine, and ratri means night.  Navaratri is one of Hinduism’s most ancient and complex spiritual festivals. Like most other auspicious days, this festival is determined according to the seasonal and lunar calculations of the Hindu calendar. During this time, nine different aspects of the supreme Goddess are worshipped, most notably are Durga – the female representation of power, and the destroyer darkness; Lakshmi – the Goddess of wealth and Saraswati the Goddess of knowledge.

     The intricate cultural elements of Navaratri celebrations differ immensely across India.  In West Bengal, where Goddess worship has the strongest roots, Navaratri is the most vividly celebrated.  The entire city of Kolkata is shut down for the extent of the celebration.  In Gujarat, throughout the nine nights, people get dressed up in their most ornate ethnic wear, and gather in the masses to perform garba – a traditional dance performed with small colorful sticks.  In recent decades, the celebration has also caught on in the South, and Bangalore, with a growing number of Bengalis, has risen to the occasion.  This year, over fifty separate processions took place within the city.  Although I cannot imagine the cultural intensity of Navaratri celebrated in Bengal, the festivities here in Bangalore adequately satiate the outsider with a taste of Bengali culture. 

     Processions across the city are centrally focused on the pandal – the temporary temple constructed for the display of Goddess Durga, and the pujas conducted in her worship.  Although her depictions vary, the sharply lined, almond-shaped, wild eyes of Durga always give her away.  On each evening, just as the sky has turned dark, pujas are performed to awaken and conjure the Goddess’s divine energy.  For roughly half an hour, pujarees perform these sacred rites, and devotees gather to pray and receive the blessings of the Goddess. Once ode is paid to the Mother Goddess, devotees are free to partake in the festivities.  Entertainment and celebration come in a variety of forms.  Known for their talents in the arts, Bengalis often perform dances or sing.  Stalls offer the cultural foods from Bengal, vendors of all kinds sell their products, and carnival rides entertain kids in the masses. 

© Rebecca Delekta 2013
     This year on Soptomi, one of the most celebrated nights in Navaratri, Sanjeev and I decided to visit the procession organized by the Bengalee Association in downtown Bangalore.  On Saturday evening, after dressing in our best attire and braving the city streets for an hour, we reach Commercial Street’s procession gates.  Darkness has just set in and the crowds have yet to fill the grounds.  We roam, eating Krispy Crème doughnuts, and eventually proceed to the food stalls.  We patiently search for an all-vegetarian stall, walking through air thick with the smell of smoke and frying fish (most all Bengalis are non-veg, and seafood is a staple part of the diet due to Bengal’s position as a coastal state on the Bay of Bengal).  After careful deliberation, and multiple turndowns of fish offered, we find a Ganapati Catering stand.  Sanjeev gets poori (fried wheat roti) and Bengali style potato subjee.  I get two samosa snacks, hoping that they might taste like they do in Delhi.  We remove ourselves from the nauseating smell of seafood and stand in the middle of the courtyard, I pick at my Samosas, examining the masala inside, paranoid of finding meat.  It tastes different from the Samosas of the north – tangy with more lentils. 
    After we finish eating, we head back to the pandal display to see that the puja has already started.  The crowd is beginning to thicken, red plastic chairs aligned in rows are nearly full, and people crowd the front of the center isle to pray to the Goddess.  Sanjeev and I wind through the traffic, while he prays, I snap off quick shots of the pujaree waving a smoldering clay urn around the idols to awaken the Goddess, and quickly move on my way to make room for others wanting to offer their prayers.  I stand off to the side, and videotape the rest of the puja, large drums in front of me playing a beat that breeds excitement. 

     Once the puja is complete, and the crowds satisfied, we move to the next tent that houses the stage for the cultural events of the night.  We sit in the corner of the front row and patiently wait as the tent fills with people.  After some time, an announcer informs us in Bengali that several children’s choreographed dances will take place.  I photograph their movements in the color varying light, my favorite is an Assamese dance performed by young girls wrapped in red and white saris.  They sing as they dance, faces smiling and free. 

     After a much-anticipated wait, a stunningly dressed Odissi dancer comes on stage to inform us of the dances about to take place in observance of the Mother Goddess.  I am utterly enthralled when they take the stage, knowing that I am witnessing a dance that embodies ancient India. There are 7 different types of classical dance in India, in their varying forms they often beautifully articulate aspects of the divine.  Three of these dances are amongst the most renowned: Bharatanatyam – deriving from Tamil Nadu – the most ancient of all dance types; Mohiniattam deriving from Kerala; and Odissi originating from Odisha.  Traditional dances have been called “artistic yoga” for their controlled movements and poses, and the intricate use of mudras (hand and finger gestures that influence energies and signify meaning). 1  Classical dances were originally performed to entertain the Gods, but have also been effective in passing on stories within mythology from generation to generation through dance. 2  Those who take on the immense task of learning an ancient dance commit to a lifelong journey.  Odissi is considered one of the most sensuous, passionate and bewitching classical dances. 3  Its roots can be traced back at least 2,000 years, when rulers of the region build kingdoms and the cultural arts were nourished. 3  Many Odissi dances focus centrally on Krishna – the God of love and joy. 

     The three Odissi dancers set to perform tonight are utterly stunning – their outfits consist of intricately wrapped blue and green traditional dance dresses.  Their necks and waists draped in silver jewelry.  Leather bands affixed with hundreds of bells wrap their ankles.  Jet-black hair is neatly smoothed back into buns and covered with white flowered headdresses.  Eyes are lined heavily with kajal and complete with the third eye bindi.  With their elaborate attire and makeup, they are transformed from modern day urban Indians, into representations of antiquity – reflections of Goddess Durga herself.  The first dance is in ode to Goddess Durga, with various poses depicting her different aspects – her softness, her ability to heal and create, and her wrath of power and triumph over evil.  Several scenes articulating the dark side of the Goddess are so powerful they send shivers of energy through my body.  My heart thumps in my chest, and I struggle to hold my camera still, its weight growing heavier.  The second dance is performed by a solo dancer in honor of Krishna, depicting a love encounter at Yamuna River.  The dancer moves her hands and body in ways that make you visualize water; she picks flowers, searchers for Krishna and flirts.  Two dancers perform a final dance, it meaning mysterious but still maintaining that powerful energy.

       After the dancing is finished, we listen to live music performed by an insanely talented Tamil woman, whose voice is reminiscent of old India, and laugh at a Bengali guy too full of himself to realize that he has no talent to sing.  A small group of sari clad Bengali women dance to the music in front of us, I watch them move, clearly enjoying the time they have to dress up and free themselves for a moment from the bonds of daily life.  Once I have had my fill of mosquito bites and the deafening noise, we leave the tent to see that the crowds have grown immensely.  We drive home with the radio low, the Odissi dancers’ bells still ringing through my head. 

(1) Yoga Technology LLC. (2013). Mudras. Retrieved October 17, 2013, from         

(2) Cultural India. (2013). Indian classical dances. Retrieved October 17, 2013, from           

(3) Cultural India. (2013). Orissi Dance. Retrieved October 17, 2013, from