Navaratri, literally "Nine Nights", zealously celebrates the manifestations of the female creative force called Shakti Devi. This festival, which goes by different names in various parts of India, lasts for nine nights and ten days, and takes place during the Tamil month of Purattaci (mid-September, mid-October). In Karnataka, Navaratri is known as Dasara and Bathukamma Panduga in Telangana (a new state in Andhra Pradesh created in 2014). Each day a certain aspect of the Goddess is adored, and in Tamil-Nadu she is also worshipped through kolam as Durga, Lakshmi, and Sarasvati. Navaratri is divided into series of three days. On the first three nights, Durga, the warrior goddess, is revered. A myth tells how she fought the army of the buffalo-demon Mahisha for nine nights, vanquishing him on the tenth day. The triumph of the light of knowledge superseding darkness and ignorance carries profound symbolism in Hinduism.
The forms of the Goddess are many, for she is both one and many. One, when she embodies the primordial energy that created the universe, for she carries within her the combined powers of the gods Vishnu, Shiva, and Brahma. Multiple when she restores the balance of the world by fighting the unruly, negative forces. In response to the asura Shumba who mocks the presence of other goddesses on the battlefield, the Goddess retorts:
"I am all alone in the world here. Who else is there besides me? See, O vile one, these Goddesses, who are but my own powers, entering into my own self!' The numerous forms which I projected by my power here"
In Bengal and more so in Kolkata, the last four days of Navaratri are significant and celebrated as "Durga puja". Statues of the goddess, created in the Kumartuli area, are bought, and displayed in temporary pavilions sponsored by families, associations, or companies.
In Tamil-Nadu, the next three nights are dedicated to Goddess Lakshmi. She embodies beauty, abundance, prosperity, and marital happiness. Flanked by two elephants pouring gold coins on her, Lakshmi sits or stands on a lotus holding a lotus in each hand. Women pray and praise her daily to keep illness, poverty, and misfortune away from the family home.
In kolam depictions, anthropomorphic images of the Goddess are rare, and she is invoked through geometric diagrams. The most prominent are Aishwarya kolam or prosperity kolam, Hridaya kolam or kolam of the lotus of the heart. The Sahasradala kolam or thousand petalled lotus kolam can also be drawn.
The last three days are dedicated to Saraswati, the goddess of speech, mother of scripture and knowledge, and patroness of science and the arts. To signify her presence in the home, her attributes (the vina, a rosary composed of the letters of the Sanskrit alphabet, or a book) are drawn rather than her image.
The ninth day is the Saraswati Puja. It is believed that the Goddess rests on this day, and so, all students, artisans and artists lay down their books and tools in front of the Goddess. In the homes, a special kolam is drawn in front of the altar. It is said to symbolise the seven notes of the Indian musical scale because Goddess Sarasvati is the very embodiment of the classical music of India.
"Ayudha puja" tool worship ceremony
The blessing of work tools is an integral part of the Navaratri festival. Professions and related equipment are worshipped to make them more efficient. Agricultural India honours ploughs, buffalo yokes, and tractors. Weapons are worshipped by soldiers and by martial arts practitioners. Students pay tribute to their notebooks, books, and more recently to computers. Musicians revere their instruments and dancers their anklets with bells. In the cities, taxi drivers decorate their vehicles with garlands of flowers and mark the steering wheel with sandalwood paste and kumkumam.
Bommai golu, displaying dolls and figurines
Throughout the Navaratri festival, particularly in the states of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, and Tamil Nadu, it is traditional to place figurines on a staircase-like structure. After covering the steps with a sumptuous silken fabric, statues of gods and goddesses and various figurines, gleaned year after year or heirlooms handed down from generation to generation, are placed on the steps.
These thematic exhibitions display deities from the Hindu pantheon, episodes from the great epics, local legends, everyday occupations, traditional wedding, and engagement scenes, etc. There are also dolls representing men and women who have marked the history of India (Abdul Kalam, Vivekananda, Buddha, Gandhi, etc.). Families and neighbours visit each other to admire the installations. During these exchanges, verses from Devi Mahatmyam (Celebration of the great goddess) or Lalitasaharanamam (litany of the thousand names of Lalita) are chanted, and the deities are paid homage. After the worship ritual, food prepared for the Goddess is shared with the guests.
Navaratri is also a time for creative endeavours. In 2019, Ramya Mani, a resident of Chennai chose to create in paper the street and the famous kolam competition of the Mylapore festival held every January near Kapaleeswarar temple. An imaginative concept met with immense success during neighbourhood visits.
Bathukamma in Telangana
In Telangana, Navaratri is celebrated as Bathukamma Panduga, which means "Come back to life, Mother". The nine days are dedicated to Goddess Sati, the first wife of God Shiva who immolated herself in the sacrificial fire of her father Daksha and who, according to legend, returned in the form of Goddess Parvati. On this occasion, women make impressive conical floral offerings. To do this, they arrange various flowers on a wooden board or a copper tray in successive layers that rise in a series of concentric circles until it resembles a pyramidal temple gate or gopuram. On the last day of Navaratri, the Bathukamma is carried in a procession to the sound of drums and music, before being immersed in a body of water.