Goddesses have been revered for years in India and include deities of earth, speech, and wisdom. Number-one goddess is Maa Amba – the mother goddess.
In Gujarat, the Navratri festival is devoted to festival to her, Maa Amba, the Goddess of Shakti (power) and temples have a constant stream of visitors. No wonder they call it Vibrant Gujarat The most popular form of celebration is the performance of Gujarat’s folk-dances, the garba and dandia-ras, and beautiful chaniya cholis swirl and glitter as the women wearing them twirl in a fantastic fusion of dance and devotion for the nine nights of Navratri.
Happy Navratri to all my Gujarati friends as you celebrate this year.
Hindu gods and goddesses confuse me with their many names and manifestations – however it seems, Shakti is the divine manifestation of Lord Shiva, and Navratri is dedicated to the three main goddesses of Hinduism – Parvati, Lakshmi and Sarasvati. The first three nights are dedicated to the goddess of action and energy when her different manifestations – Kumari, Parvati and Kali are worshipped. They represent the virgin girl, auspicious wife or mother, and the angry old hag: the different aspects of our nature.
The festival is a non-stop ‘circle of ecstasy’ with millions swaying in a colourful fusion of dance and devotion. Claimed as the longest-dance-in-the-world, it is said Gujarat does not sleep during this time and people dress-up and dance until the wee hours: I am about to find out when I attend the inaugural night held in Gandhinagar, on the outskirts of Ahmedabad.
River sand has been spread over the ground, a fine green nylon mesh laid over it, and thousands of chairs and couches face the huge stage. I’m directed to my seat, where I am most misleadingly identified as a ‘Prominent Lady Journalist’. Exploring the eight themed pavilions and photo-gallery of heritage sites whet my appetite for this, my first trip to India, and although the 150 handicraft stalls are enticing, soon it’s time to return to my front row seat.
The music starts and some seven hundred dancers introduce me to the ancient dances and worship of the female deities. Garba, the traditional dance, ranges from three simple three steps though to complicated routines and I fall in love with the colour and music too. The few hours pass very quickly, the weather stays fine and all too soon an extravagance display of nine simultaneous garba performances signals the finale.
As the music fades, groups of women dressed in pink, move through the hordes handing us all a diya (small earthenware container with a candle inside it) and matches, and as the aarti (blessing) happens, the grounds glow with their flickering, soft yellow lights.
As one of the very few westerners here I am spoken to by many locals as we head for the exits. Again and again I’m told, ‘this makes me feel really nostalgic’ ‘It’s great to see the old traditional garba on the stage’ and ‘This is what Navratri was like in my childhood. I love it.’ So do I.
The next night I join the celebrations and in traditional clothes I too am clapping and trying to dance in the concentric circles. Women and young girls twirl in their glittering chanai-choli while the men, with their traditional clothes and headgear, gracefully keep in step also. Despite laughing, all are tolerant of my clumsy efforts – seemingly enjoying having a westerner join their festivities.
During Navratri, some devotees of Durga observe a fast and prayers are offered for the protection of health and property. A period of introspection and purification, Navratri is traditionally considered an auspicious time for starting new ventures.
Although Gujarat is well-known as a progressive business state and Navratri presents a colourful mix of culture, dance and devotion the state also has a rich tourism potential: exquisite beaches, great birding, enchanting forests, enthralling wildlife, ancient temples, desert, and is the birth-place of Mahatma Gandhi: go there before too many other tourists discover it.