Dussehra, Dasara, Vijayadasami, Dasain - A Day of Many Victories (Part 3)
We talked in the earlier segments of our series on the Indian autumn celebrations about goddesses and princes; we round it off today with an array of the foods, flowers and other offerings—and abstinences—that mark this special time when people of so many communities pause, come together to connect, make plans and arrangements, before returning in half a month to their day-to-day with new memories and old traditions better cemented.
Offerings to the original cosmic energy
Special offerings to Shakti herself typically acknowledge her role as the cosmic mother and the procreative impulse, as well as strength in the face of fortitude and falsehood.
Flowers of the goddesses
Favourite flowers of the goddess, especially in her warlike aspects of Aparajita (the ever-victorious) and Kali (the timeless or dark one), include the blue flowers of the butterfly pea, the krishna-kamal or passionflower, as well as the red hibiscus and the crimson or yellow kaner, karabi or oleander. Of course, Katyayani enjoys the humble marigold too, which matches her own golden hue. As Brahmacharini, she accepts the shevanti, or chrysanthemum, while Kushmanda loves the simple yet fragrant jasmine, abundant in the fecund monsoon season.
Skandamata's flowers (L-R) Yellow Rose, Champa, Palash, Kadamba, Shuili
Skandamata quite likes the rare yellow rose! According to various tales, the devi also likes the vibrant orange palash (flame of the forest), golden champa (magnolia, not plumeria), rotund kadamba (burflower, also a favourite of the blue god Krishna), orange-stemmed shiuli (coral tree, identified with the heavenly immortal bloom of the parijat in Indra’s garden of Amaravati).
The other aspect of Durga Puja in eastern India reverts to the celebration of goddess as warrior and protector, rather than gentle mother and daughter. The evil she wards off in her aspect as “durgatinashini”, the saviour from all distress, is depicted as Mahishasura in Bengal, the buffalo demon, and both Bengali and Nepali culture entail animal sacrifice at this time.
Yes, in the very Hindu nation of Nepal (though it is no longer the official state religion), this is the day of buffalo sacrifices, though other animals are also offered—right down to a duck!—in honour of Durga-Ma in her aspect of Kali, on ashtami. In India, the animal offered is more likely to be a goat, on navami; but the mohish boli, or buffalo sacrifice, still survives in some parts of the eastern Indian states, symbolic of banishing the baser passions, all that is brutish, slavish, violent and ignorant within us.
A buffalo sacrifice during the ninth day of the Hindu Dashain Festival in Kathmandu - Image by Prakash Mathema from Getty Images
Animal sacrifices as well as alcohol are also part of tantric ritual offerings, especially to the Kali aspect, acknowledging the connection between the great goddess and Shiva, who is strongly associated with intoxicants and hallucinogens alike, since states of altered consciousness are considered to have mystical significance and denote freedom from the usual bindings of maya that cloud our vision of universal truths (which illusion is also an attribute of the goddess as Mahamaya). Interestingly, some communities parallel the goddess’ consumption of alcohol with Shiva’s consumption of poison to protect humans and other beings from their ill effects as well!
Meanwhile, pigeons are popular offerings in Assam (can someone tell us why?)! That said, at Kamakhya, a key shakti-peeth, animal sacrifices are a daily affair, only amped up somewhat for autumn. In Rajasthan, likewise, the Kuldevi is offered a goat, that must be slain in a single stroke. (Animals are extra important in these desert parts, where the ayudha puja will also include horses alongside weapons of war!)
In the Vaishnavism-inflected tradition of parts of Bengal, though, some people replace the usual goat with a pumpkin—interestingly, this vegetable is also referred to as the ‘flower egg’ (kushmando). This is similar to northern and central Indian traditions, where the pumpkin in fact is one of the honoured vegetables of the Navratri fast, being a fruit, yet is never cut by mothers in many communities—a childless person, often a man, will be called in to make the first cut, as it is equated with the health of children and women’s fertility. In Nepal, similarly, there has been a move towards replacing animal offerings with vegetables—yet often explicitly identifying the vegetable as a token in place of an animal, with little stick legs added in or a face and horns drawn or carved on!
A far more benign gift is demanded by/given to Ma Samaleshwari of Samalpur, in Orissa—like many Indian children and their mothers, she only asks a fresh wardrobe. The swayambhu (self-immanent) stone that holds the goddess’ shakti is usually draped in red all year round—except for Navratri, when she switches to a shining white on Mahalaya. Her golden nose ring remains a constant in her Varahi-like visage as do her gold leaf eyes, but her attire moves to this ‘dhabalamukhi besha’, also called the Ganga-darshan form as it assures the devotee beholding her in this garb of the same ritual purity as the Ganges waters. This is followed throughout the Navratri period with daily changes.
The most esoteric and exuberant offerings perhaps come from music and dance! From the dhunuchi naach (incense burner dance) of Bengal to the Garba of Gujarat and the Dandiya Raas, music and movement are also sacred to the goddess—after all, she is both Saraswati and Shakti.
At one level, the clashing sticks of the Dandiya Raas are the eternal battles of life, Durga vs demon, righteousness vs injustice, ignorance vs enlightenment… and they all make the world go round! At another level, it evidences that all of these, both sides, are part of the one great pattern of Mahamaya herself. It is maya that blinds, it is also maya that moves aside and sets the soul free; the goddess herself binds and releases from compulsions. The dandiya—in its circles that expand and contract, turning around and around, like human consciousness and awareness, like time—becomes one with the cosmic dance itself. It is constant, rhythmic motion… centred on the stillness of Shakti herself and yet powered by her.
Garba performance - Image From DNA
The Garba leaves the sticks aside, and uses the hands themselves in turning mudras. Again, the dancers circle, like the seasons, like cycles of birth and rebirth spiralling. In their midst stands the garbha deep, the pregnant lamp, lit with life—this is the goddess herself, the axis, the still centre of all things and the pregnant mother, full of all possibilities. It is a celebration, at its most mundane, of the power that is motherhood.
A different set of circles dominates the Dasara celebrations of Telangana. Here, the goddess in triple aspect is represented by interwoven floral mounds, in the celebration of Bathukamma, the life-giving goddess, Gauri. The flower stacks are built of seven concentric rings, rising like a temple gopuram—or a child’s stacking toy! On top is a tiny turmeric Gouramma. A new one is made each day by women, and immersed in the nearest water body at day’s end—to be recreated again the next day. During this time, the women mostly return to the homes of their birth, and the songs sung for Gouri are communal, along with a shared snack of sweet malida laddoos after the immersions. It is said that this ritual recalls the wars between the Chola and Rashtrakuta rulers, with the local Chalukyas siding with the Rahstrakutas. When the Chola prince defeated them, he took away the lingam from the temple and used that to establish the Brihadeeshwara temple at Thanjavur—which was also funded with other spoils of war. The downcast community began this celebration to console the goddess, left behind without her consort, it is said, and to hold out hope the return of the temple to its glory is enacted in the repeated immersions and rebuildings. Significantly, the flowers are from plants said to have medicinal value, thus healing properties. It is as though history itself is offered as a promise of faith. Curiously, the primary work of making the floral offering devolves on the unmarried women, though other family members may help to gather the ingredients.
In many parts of India and other Hindu traditions, the nine days of Navratri see an unique blend of abstinence and culinary abundance on the same plate.
Navratra Thali in the North - Delhi - Image form Salt and Sandals
Northern and central India, in particular, abstain from root and tuberous vegetables, as well as grain, which symbolise nascent life and fertility. Similarly, flesh and eggs of animals are not eaten. Garlic and onions are verboten as well. Also forbidden are alcohol, and key Indian spices like turmeric, sea salt, and the-less traditional chillies; pepper, the more traditional ‘hot’ spice seems to be allowed, as is ginger, though not the more aromatic spices of garam masala (cinnamon, cassia leaf, cloves, though some communities allow green cardamom, if not black). Some people continue to use cumin as a tempering while some switch to caraway (shajeera) or bishop’s weed (ajwain); others sidestep the salt prohibition with unrefined rock salt, and pepper remains popular.
Curiously enough, though, seeds and nuts are encouraged at this time, along with dairy products, and pseudo-grain seeds like buckwheat, amaranth and quinoa are used to replace true grains (including wheat, rice and millets, the staples of most Indian culinary traditions—though some communities actively exchange an ancient millet, samak, for rice). Dried and ground tubers like water chestnut flour, tapioca pearls and cassava may also be used, as also sweet potato and colocasia. Raw bananas also replace some of the lost starches.
For cooking, seed oils are prohibited, so sesame and mustard oils are set aside, as well as the more modern sunflower oil, to be replaced by peanut oil, coconut oil and ghee.
By contrast, in eastern India and a few other parts were animal sacrifices are prominent, it is incumbent on the Shakta devotee to partake of flesh on Ashtami or Navami, depending on the local culture. Of course, petha (pumpkin) and large bottlegourd are considered good vegetarian substitutes, and are also acceptable for those proscribed meat (such as widows or Vaishnav devotees) as well as for those squeamish.
Navratri Sundal Varieties - Image by NamsCorner
Over in southern India, the offerings to the goddesses of the golu or bommai kolu (Tamil) are savoury legumes, gently tempered and garnished with coconut. The quintessential sundal will be served in at least nine different forms, eschewing onion and garlic to keep it sattvik for the deities. The most common are peanut, split green gram (moong, pasi paruppu) and Bengal gram (kadalai) sundals, but in this season, if you are lucky enough to be in the neighbourhood, you will be treated to whole green gram (moong, pasi paruppu), corn, kidney bean (rajma), black-eyed pea (lobhia or karamani), horse gram (kollu, kulath), split Bengal gram (chana dal), dried peas, butter beans (mochai)… There’s even a navratna sundal that combines different types of legumes, prepared especially on the last, ninth day, which is sacred to Saraswathi.
On the other hand, in Goa, you may find sweet offerings of puranpoli and shrikhand, rather than savouries! And among the nomadic pastoral Dhangar community—traditionally shepherds, goatherds and buffalo herders—the abstinence from animal products is even more significant. It serves probably as a reminder of what it is the goddess of plenty—the life-sustaining earth, called Mhalchhi Pandhar—grants them and what their absence might feel like.
Puranpoli and Shrikhand - Image from Medium
On the first day of festivities, Zagor, she is offered a box in a mandap, decorated with five coconuts strung together and seasonal fruits and flowers—but strictly no brinjal! A clay pot of buttermilk is offered too. On the second day, the altar is expanded, and a blanket laid with rice and millets, topped with coconut, betelnut and betel leaves is put together. Clan deities will be enshrined here too, and the celebration includes both dancing — gaja nrutya is performed by the men only, to drums and flute—offerings of milk frothed in earthen pots for the ancestors who have passed on, to be served at the burial grounds and grave sites.
Naivedyam from top left : curd rice, tamarind rice, coconut rice, sesame rice and lemon rice
Going from death to life, though, here’s another version of the Bathukamma story. This one goes that the goddess as Mahishasurmardini fell asleep from exhaustion after her victory—and the celebrations are to help her regain her strength with healing herbs and flowers (from marigold to gourds!) and food. There is sesame podi (a sweet powder to be offered rice), a dessert made with beaten rice, different dals, milk and rice porridges, rice-flour pancakes, savouries shaped like neem fruit(!), sweet sesame laddoos, with plenty of ghee and jaggery interspersed, and a mid-way fast day even—and then on the tenth day, Saddula Bathukamma, she finally fully revives and awakes, to be greeted with a full naivedyam of five types of cooked rice: curd rice, tamarind rice, lemon rice, coconut rice and yes, sesame rice. In some communities, the cooks go about four better—making nine varieties of rice (add in roasted gram, urad, curry leaf, and peanut variants)!
Finally, to end on the sweetest note, the goddess Mahushasurmardini will take leave of her followers in Bengal and several other parts of eastern India with her face literally and figuratively stuffed with sweets made of cottage cheese and a well-dressed sharp-sweet paan (betel leaf packet). This marks the beginning of sweet greetings and gifts—and the modaks (sweetmeat makers) all over these parts will vie with each each other to make their best annual novelties and recreate the most authentic ‘heritage’ sweets.
Cautionary note... and invitation: We are not claiming any of these traditions are universal or mandatory! There are enough people in every region and community who do not in fact follow these rituals or set much store by these tales. We do know that.
On the other hand, if you have a story or tradition we have not heard of before, please, please do share in the comments!
Further reading for alternative takes:
Manidipa Mandal is a seven-year-old parent still learning about parenting. She also likes to read and write about ecology, biology (especially gender), food and travel.