(Contributed by Mr. C.I. Sivasubramanian)
Navaratri means a period of nine nights. Two Navaratris are mentioned in the ‘puranas’ and ‘dharmasastras’ as being highly auspicious for the worship of Sakti or the Divine Mother (Durga/Saraswati/Lakshmi). They are ‘Vasanta Navaratri’ the first nine days in the Vasanta rtu or spring from Citra shukla pratipad up to Navami (corresponding to the month of March) in the English calendar) and the more popular Navaratri which begins from ‘Purattasi Shukla Pratamai (Asvayuja shukla pratipad) to Navami (corresponding to English month of October).
Navaratri is celebrated all over the country in different forms: In Bengal it is celebrated as Durgotsava; in Punjaband other parts of North, as Ram Lila, in Karnataka as Dussehra and so forth.
In Tamil Nadu, ‘Kolu’, or the exhibition of dolls, is an important part of the festival. The dolls, mostly of gods and goddesses are placed on an odd number of tiers. It commences with the keeping of a ‘kalasam’ (a brass or silver pot filled with water and adorned with a coconut and mango leaves. Friends and relatives are invited to have a darshan of the Kolu and are given Prasad, the offering given to God that day, kumkum and a bag of gifts usually containing a mirror and a comb.
The guests, usually girls and married women, in their best dresses, visit homes where the Kolu is kept, sing songs in the glory of God, take the prasadam and move on to the next house. Every night ‘arti’ is taken for the dolls.
It is traditional to preserve these dolls to be exhibited in the coming years, add more from time to time and to give away a few of them to the daughters who get married and go to their husband’s home.
In modern times, the dolls exhibition has been expanded and the dolls and decorations spill over to the floor and the sides with modern themes, illumination, etc. The men folk take greater interest in such decorations.
Temples in Tamil Nadu also celebrate the Navaratri puja. It is the practice to read from the ‘Sundara kandam” chapter in the Ramayana (that deals with the war with the Ravana, his defeat and return of Ram victorious) throughout the Navaratri festival.
The 9th day (Navami) is celebrated as Saraswathi puja day. Special poojas are offered to Goddess Saraswathi – the divine source of wisdom and enlightenment. Books and musical instruments are placed in the puja (you may want to place your software CDstoo!) and worshipped as a source of knowledge. Also tools are placed in the puja – as part of “Ayuda Puja”. Even vehicles are washed and decorated with chandan and kumkum, and pujas are performed for them.
The 10th day – “Vijayadasami” – is the most auspicious day of all. It was the day on which evil was finally destroyed by good. It marks a new and prosperous beginning. New ventures started on this day are believed to flourish and bring prosperity. Kids start tutoring on this day – to have a head start in their education.
In the evening of Vijayadasami, any one doll from the doll exhibition is symbolically put to sleep and the Kalasam is moved a bit towards North to mark the end of that year’s Navaratri – Kolu. Prayers are offered to thank God for the successful completion of that year’s Kolu and with the hope of a successful one the next year. Then the Kolu is dismantled and packed up for the next year!
Over the years, Mysore, in the state of Karnataka and the capital of the erstwhile Mysorestate, has become synonymous with the Dasara (or Dussehra) festival. Dasara is the most extravagant festival of Mysore. This festival has been celebrated in Mysorewith great pomp and show for centuries. This tradition is still carried on, though the scale of the celebrations has been watered down. According to Hindu mythology, the festival celebrates and commemorates the victory of Goddess Chamundeshwari in slaying the demon Mahishasura and the triumph of good over evil. The Dussehra festivities have become an integral part of the culture and life in Mysore.
During the 10 day festivities, the normally clam, slow, peaceful city erupts into life and every street and street corner bustles with activity. Houses, shops and important buildings in the city are decorated and illuminated for the period of the celebrations. Today, Dussehra in Mysore has become the state festival of Karnataka. As part of the celebrations, renowned musicians of Karnataka and from outside perform in front of the illuminated palace. The palace is open to the public and the royal throne is displayed. The State Government arranges music, dance, folk dance performances, doll shows, and wrestling and sports competitions.
A two-month long Dussehra exhibition is held at the ‘Doddakere’ maidan, in which several business and industrial houses take part. Apart from this a Food and Film festival is also organized. During the festivities, special religious ceremonies are held at different temples in Mysore, especially the Chamundeshwari Temple on top of the Chamundi Hills. The high point of the Dussehra celebrations is the Vijayadasami procession held on the tenth day. The finale of the celebrations is the state organized procession consisting of floats, the police and their bands, mounted guards in royal livery and folk artists and musicians.
Some traditional items of the royal family form part of the procession. The main attraction of the procession is the idol of Goddess Chamundeshwari kept in the golden howdah on top of a decorated elephant. The procession begins at theMysorePalace and ends at the ‘Banni Mantapa’ grounds, traveling a distance of about 2.5 miles. The procession is followed by a torch light procession in the evening and a stunning display of fireworks.
The Durga puja is the most important festival inBengal, in particular. It is believed that mother Durga who went to sleep on Asadha sukla astami is still sleeping at the time the Durgotsava is planned to be celebrated. She has to be woken up first. This is called ‘bodhana’ and is done on the evening of Asvayuja sukla sasthi. A ‘ghata’ or ‘kalasa’ is established under a bilva tree, the mantras of bodhana or awakening are uttered and the bilva tree itself is worshipped as Mother Durga. A second ghata is also established there itself.
Next morning, i.e., on the saptami day, a small branch of that bilva tree is cut, placed in the second ghata and ceremonially carried to the hall of worship where the clay image has already been established and kept at its feet. After ‘pranapratistha’, a detailed worship is done to the ghata with sixteen ‘upacharas’, followed by ‘homa’ (sacrifice in a duly consecrated fire).
The story goes that when Durga (or Parvati) came to her mother’s house, it was late evening. So she decided not to disturb her parents and spent the whole night under a bilva tree near the house. The ritual described above is symbolic of this.
The pujas done on the Astami and Navami days are practically identical to the Saptami puja. On all the days, snana or bath is given to the sword or the mirror kept in front of the image reflecting it. Again on all the days, ceremonial recitation of the famous work ‘Devimahatmya’ is arranged at a suitable place in the worship hall. The recitation, especially on such holy days is considered to confer great benefits to those who listen to it.
Part of the Astami puja is the Kumari puja or worship of a girl child in the age group of 2 to 10 years. She is to be worshipped as the embodiment of the Devi or goddess herself.
Another important ritual is the Sandhi puja performed at the junction of the two tithies, Astami and Navami. The Devi, along with the Yoginis (various emanations of the Devi, 64 in all) is to be worshipped then. A ‘bali’ (sacrifice) is also to be given. The animal sacrifice had existed as part of Durga puja for long, but it is no more in practice.
On the early morning of Dasami, the tenth day, the visarjana puja (worship signifying a send-off to the goddess) is done, symbolically withdrawing the deity from the image into one’s own heart. In the evening, after a simple arati, the image is taken in a grand procession and immersed in a tank or a river or the sea. Much revelry is seen during the procession and afterwards in the manner of the festivities of Sabaras (mountain tribes or barbarian tribes). In this Sabarotsava, as it is called, all people irrespective of their social status were expected to join, probably emphasizing that all were equal before the mother of all.
The evening of Vijayadasami, after the immersion of the Durga mage, is an occasion of great joy for the people who meet their friends and relatives and warmly greet them.
Unlike the Navaratri of the south where the festivities are confined to homes, the Durgotsava is largely a public function where people gather to celebrate it in a public place.
Ramlila, literally “Rama’s play”, is a performance of the Ramayana epic in the form of a series of scenes that include song, narration, recital and dialogue. It is performed across the whole of northern Indiaduring the festival of Dussehra, held each year according to the ritual calendar around the month of October or November. The most representative Ramlilas are those of Ayodhya, Ramnagar and Benares, Vrindavan, Almora, Sattna and Madhubani.
This staging of the Ramayana is based on the Ramacharitmanas, one of the most popular story-telling forms in the north of India. This sacred text to the glory of Rama, the hero of the Ramayana, was composed by Tulsidas in the sixteenth century in a dialect that is close to Hindi in order to make the Sanskrit epic available to all. The majority of the Ramlilas recount episodes from the Ramacharitmanas through a series of performances lasting an average of ten to twelve days, but some, such as Ramnagar’s, may last a whole month.
Hundreds of festivals are organized in each settlement, town or village during the Dussehra festival season celebrating Rama’s return from exile. Ramlila is particularly focused on recalling the battle between Rama and Ravana and consists of a series of dialogues between the gods, sages and the faithful. Ramlila’s dramatic force stems from the succession of icons representing the climax of each scene. The audience is constantly invited to sing and take part in the narration. The cycle of plays culminates with Dussehra, the moment when the effigies of Ravana, Kumbakarna and Inderjit are burned, symbolizing the victory of good over evil. The Ramlila brings the whole population together, without distinction of caste, religion or age. The play is also characterized by the spontaneity with which all the villagers participate, playing roles or taking part in all kinds of activities involved in the performances, such as making of the masks, costumes, effigies and the make-up, and arranging of the lights, etc.