Safe, never expires
Safe, never expires
The 9- or 10-day period of festivities close to the autumn harvest season across much of India signals for many places, the end of battles with uncertainty over crops, fights against floods and famine, the final dying of the hectic heat in the tropical plains and sweltering forests. In many places, it is time to renew the year, make annual plans and store up wealth and wardrobes for another year or at least half a year.
Many Indian Hindu cultures celebrate this fortnight as the Devi Paksha, the days of the Great Goddess. But hers is not the only story that will be retold, hers not the only win to celebrate.
In this series, we collected stories and associations for the autumnal exuberance from around the country, and also gather them in from around the edges of the Subcontinent’s other nations. It’s been quite a journey learning about some of these, and lots of fun!
Today, in the first part, we talk of the tales of the goddesses. In the second part, we will talk of royal triumphs and familial losses, and in the final one, about the foods and homely rituals surrounding these days.
The 9 goddesses of Navratri
The northern Indian celebration of Navratri associates each of the nine days of the festival with a different aspect of the mother-warrior goddess:
Forms of Durga celebrated during Navratri, in a Bengali rendering : L-R -Shailaputri, Brahmacharini, Chandraghanta(Image by ShotgunMavericks)
Forms of Durga celebrated during Navratri, in a Bengali rendering : L-R - Kalaratri, Mahagauri, Siddhidatri,(Image by ShotgunMavericks)
Of course, the colour preferences and offerings, and even the exact forms and functions of the goddess(es) vary from community to community, text to text, tradition to tradition. If you know another variant, please share with us in the comments below—and thank you so much!
The 32 goddesses of the 36 forts!
In Chattisgarh’s celebration of the goddess Danteshwari, the mainstream Hindu legend relates the name Dantewada, acknowledged a shakti-peeth (sacred spot of Shakti), to the spot where Sati’s teeth feel, when Vishnu had to dismember her corpse to calm a rampaging, disconsolate Shiva following her self-immolation. Indeed, there stands a 600-year-old temple at the confluence of the rivers Shanini and Dhankini. The goddess there is dark and peaceful in stone, bearing semblance to neither the mainstream icon of Durga or Parvati, nor to Kali. She goes out in an eight-wheeled chariot for Dussehra, reminiscent of the rath yatra of Odisha, but she also has a human representative on earth to flag off the celebrations—a woman seated in a swing will be ritually entranced to take on the persona of Kanchan Devi, smeared in turmeric (golden is the literal sense of Kanchan), and the festivities can only begin when blessed with a go-ahead from her.
However, the local tribal communities, especially the Gond and Halba peoples, build their own places of worship in their villages, called matagudis. They honour there the 32 incarnations of Danteshwari called the Battis Behna. Their images have nothing in common with the typical Hindu Shakta imagination! Here stands an idol flanked by two wooden horses, there another sits between two huge poles, veiled in red. What they have in common, and they attendant deos, are kinship ties connecting the different tribespeople. In the end, the grand finale consists of all the various deos and devis going out in procession in their own chariots (dolis) to culminate in the immersion. Oftentimes, it is said that some participating in carrying the dolis of the Anga Deo—the tribes’ gods—will become goddess-touched and commune readily with spirits for a while.
She is every mother
A somewhat different celebration of the goddess, still predicated on the symbolism of nine, is seen in the garbo tradition of Gujarat in honour of Amba. The rituals are centred on the clay pot that represents the womb—both of the earth/universe and of humans (who gestate for nine months). In honour of her fecundity and her labour to bring forth the harvest and to unveil the universe itself, a stricter fasting is enjoined on some, where they drink only liquids, abjuring the fruits of the field and forest for nine days.
Nine by nine, by nine, by nine…
The southern Indian tradition of golu or bomma kolu—clay dolls arranged for the festive season in a stepped altar—is another variant of the goddess worship prominent in this autumnal harvest season.
It begins by building wooden steps, after the first images of Saraswathi, Parvati and Lakshmi are set up by one of the senior members of the family, in the Kalasa Ahavana ceremony that kicks off the 9-day festivities. The steps, or padis, themselves may number nine—or three, or five, or seven, or eleven! They are then decorated with clay toys and dolls, representing everything from vignettes of daily life to mythological deities (who sit in the top tier).
A golu setup in Tamil Nadu - Image by Kamala Ragunath from Pinterest
Each family’s doll collection has at its core a pair that a new bride had been gifted—wooden images of herself and her groom—as part of the trousseau. This couple, the marapachi bommai or kondapalli (king and queen), will get new dresses—just like the humans they represent—every year! The kolu, meaning court, is theirs to preside over, their prominence overshadowed only by the divine beings. Regular human life is at the base of the cloth-covered ziggurat, with Chettiar merchants prominent in their trades. Likewise, idols of gods and goddesses—the dasavatar (10 avatars of Vishnu) are popular, as are the ashta-Lakshmi (eight forms of the goddess)—will be handed down through the generations, their provenance retold to new younglings every year. At the same time, at least one new doll will be introduced every year.
Amongst the deities and prominent personages, there may be regional figures such as the goddess Kaveri of the river, the saptha kannigal or matrikas (seven warrior goddesses, both virgin and maternal, reminiscent of the Nava Durga of the north, including the boar-tusked Varahi and the elephant-borne proud Indrani) or perhaps Andal Devi, the only female Alvar saint of a dozen. There may equally be movie stars and musicians—and of late, Marvel superheroes rendered as ‘still life’. This is a celebration of not just the divine spirit, but also of human joys and excitement, and their compunctions and frailties, as well as their creativities—both in fragile and exuberant clay, and through other media of living in the world we share.
There is a bit of a competitive as well as collaborative spirit to the festivities, as people visit each other’s bommai display—similar to the competitions over Durga Puja pandals in Bengal, for example. However, this is also an exchange of gifts—bangles, fruits and flowers, betel leaf, kumkum (vermillion), coconut for the women, bowls of sundal and sweets for the children. There will be nine varieties of sundal prepared for each of the nine days (more on this in the last part of our series, on fasting, feasting and other offerings!), and the highlight of each day is visiting your neighbors’ golu set-ups, singing in front of the idols and departing with the mandatory token gift and a sundal offering.
In the golu tradition, the ninth day is dedicated to Saraswathi, so books and musical instruments get added to the display. It is also the day of ayudha puja, so tools and vehicles will be parked and feted as well. The next day, it is time to bring them out again for new beginnings of learning to fulfil new aspirations! Time to purchase new instruments!
Finally, on the 10th day, the dolls are snuggled back into ‘bed’, to wait for their next dress-up parade the following year. Meanwhile, with books and pens blessed by Saraswathi, many a child starts their first reading & writing session on this day. Playtime is going to have to wait a little each day, eh? Or maybe this whole life is learning from play?
What of the Ten-Armed Goddess, Durga as Dasabhuja?
The iconic Durga of the 10 hands is popular even in contemporary imagination as the woman who does it all, and does it superlatively well.
So is Durga merely a disguise for the male gods to act craftily as one, while keeping themselves safe? Perhaps; perhaps not. Variant myths suggest that when the gods all fail, it is the three emanations of Adi Shakti (the primordial energy) as Lakshmi, Saraswati and Parvati who voluntarily blend into Durga. Another version sees it as the gods energies themselves are only wielded by them—they provide direction alone to what is quintessentially a feminine shakti, and these shaktis that they have borrowed from the universe itself (Mahamaya herself!) now go back to source, coalescing into the great goddess.
However, each item in her hands also has a symbolism all its own, and vary across representations of the goddess:
The mother goddess returns East… to her mother!
In Bengali and Nepali belief, the goddess Durga is depicted as a married woman coming home to visit her own family of birth. There is a distinct women-together flavour to the celebration from start to finish. Durga comes with all her children—Karthik, Ganesh, Lakshmi and Saraswati in Bengal, and various other companions are depicted with the main idol in Nepali tradition—and the goddess seems to look forward to meeting all her siblings, her cousins, her aunts, their many children… making for a large community-as-family celebration that Bengalis observe in both baroari (public) and home (ghoroa) pujas.
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The kawla-bou ritual
Intriguingly, Bengal, Bihar, Jharkhand, Assam, Odisha and neighbouring Bangladesh stand apart from Nepal, Bhutan and indeed Sikkim in celebrating for really 4 days rather than the full nine. The image of the goddess is unawakened in these former states until the 5th day, which begins with Pran-pratishtha and Bodhan, the painting of the eyes on to the idol, marking the arrival of the divine presence in the clay form, and finally unmasking her visage as living goddess, not mere sculpture.
The family vibes actually start with the dawn of the Durga Puja festivities on Shosthi (the sixth day), when traditionally, most people wear new clothes, and children in particular dress in reds and pinks, evoking a folk representation of the deity Shasthi Devi, protector of young children and baby animals, as well as of pregnant women.*
The Bengali celebration begins in earnest on Saptami (the seventh day of the lunar fortnight) with the bathing of the goddess as ‘kawla-bou’, the banana-tree bride of Ganesha, who gets a ritual bath. Other versions of the myth state this is the form of Shakti resident in medicinal plants, attached also to the Navadurga (nine forms of the goddess) by way of the navapatrika ritual, where the banana sapling is tired together with the leaves of colocasia, turmeric, wood apple, pomegranate, arum lily, (Sita) ashoka, rice paddy … and the now vanishingly rare jayanti tree (Sesbania sesban). These nine plants are associated with various goddesses—and interestingly, some of these are actually cousins of Durga, by way of Ira, a daughter of Daksha Prajapati, the father of the goddess herself in her Sati form!
In Nepali tradition likewise, the royal Kalash goes out in a processional showing with banana and sugarcane, called phulpati.
The ‘big day’ of Durga Puja in Bengal is Maha-ashtami, the ‘great eighth day’, which begins with Kumari Puja, the worship of the goddess as a young (strictly pre-adolescent) girl, a throwback to a time long before she was anyone’s consort or mother. Perhaps it is a reminder—together with her widow form, Dhumavati, the smoky-haired ‘hag’, close to the Western witch—that the goddess’ shakti (primordial energy) is resident in every feminine creature, not just the more typically feted wife and mother.
Kumari Puja - Image by Belur Math Media Gallery from Pinterest
The evening of the eighth day (typically) is an interesting point—it is sandhi puja, the worship held at the moment where ashtami gives way to navami, reminiscent of the auspicious twilight no-man’s land at which the goddess Durga (often imagined as Katyayani here) finally slew Mahishasur at a time that was neither day nor night, in a place that was neither heaven nor earth, neither astride chariot nor on foot (she has one foot on her lion mount!), being herself neither human nor god (for gods are male!), neither lone hero nor an army, fulfilling the terms of terms of the boon Mahishasur had long gained from Brahma himself. The interesting thing there is that Durga’s many aspects as kanyas and matrikas are on the battlefield when the asura challenges her to solitary combat, and only then realises his mistake as all her forms, energies and emanations of the various gods, are absorbed into the one great goddess. This is the moment of duality and transformation where child becomes wife becomes mother, all in one, all in all—just Mahishashur himself is caught halfway in his transformation from beast to human being, fulfilling the last term of his boon, that he would not be killed in either form. In that moment, he recognizes his opponent as Mahamaya herself, who is the illusion in all things and also the reality at the core of all things—which is nothingness and dissolution. He surrenders and abandons his arrogance and his attachment to the world of the living, both.
It is on the last day, Vijaya Dashami, that the mother-goddess-as-daughter is most obvious, with all married women gathering in red and white sarees to see the goddess off as a daughter going back to her husband’s hope.
Sindoor khela - Image by
Today, she is no more the Kumari, and is entirely the bride in red and gold, sweets and betel leaf in her mouth as she departs her mother’s home. The bhaasaan, the immersion of idols in the Hugli-Ganga river (or nearest large waterbody), begins in some traditions with the releasing of an Indian bluejay or roller bird—called neel-kontho pakhi in Bengal—to send a message to Shiva (also referred to as Neelkanth) in Kailash to tell him the goddess is coming home. In Nepal, the goddess’ annual leavetaking is echoed in all children coming to their elders for blessings, marked by a red tika. In Bengal, the greetings and wishes cross all generations—and often, all religions boundaries.
*Shashthi is identified as many commentators as a proto-Hindu folk goddess of fertility, and is represented with a child in her lap, customarily invoked at childbirth and represented in many rituals by the purno ghot, a rotund water pot that is quite reminiscent of the womb in iconography.
Ghata-sthapana - Image by Jagran
In turn, celebrating this aspect of the goddess is strikingly similar to Nepali Dasain ritual of the sowing of maize and barley in a jar of soil fertilised with cow dung, a celebration called ghata-sthapana (establishing the pot), on pratipada, the first day of Navaratri. Interestingly, throughout the nine days, the pot will be guarded from the sight of outsiders, tended only by family members—quite like a new Nepali mother!
After the battle is lost and won...
Goa has an unusual aspect of the goddess in mind for Dasro—she is the peace that comes after war. She is Shantadurga, who is calm and happy to be reunited with Shiva after the slaying of demons is done. In her temple at Ponda, she bears no weapons.
Tarang- Image by Goa Blog.org
Also, local lore marks this time as the wedding of Shiva and Shakti, celebrating the goddess as Mauli (mother), Ila, Sateri (umbrella of protection), Bhumika, Tarang (skirted totems). These invoke a protective aspect of the goddess that perhaps connects to the goddess as Taarini, ferrying each devotee safely across the stormy sea of life)... Interestingly, the ninth day also sees a fervid celebration of Shiva as Bhutnath, frenzied and running amok when he realises there are no temples in his honour—so that devotees must either follow him in his wild frenzy or soothe him with promises to build that temple soon.
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.