Nine Nights of the Goddess

The Navaratri Festival in South Asia

Edited by Caleb Simmons, Moumita Sen and Hillary Rodrigues

Whose goddess is it anyway?


The age-old annual autumnal worship of the Devi (Durga, Amba and other forms) has grown from strength to strength and in recent years, even turned into a colourcoordinated celebrationof ethnic wear in workplaces, housing societies, puja pandals and other public spaces with each of the nine days of the festival assigned a unique and auspicious colour.

The Navaratra/Navaratri festival is riding the highs of a popularity wave. And while such forms of celebration and worship are far removed from the practices set out in the original texts and purists may frown, what is strikingis that Devi worship is thriving. Even as the goddess disappears from the public altar in other cultures, both her form and her followers areexpanding and evolving in the region.

In this context, a deep dive of the kind that this book provides, is invaluable. Structured as a collection of 15 essays that look at Navaratri through the ages and across the social spectrum,it traces the emergence of the festival in early Sanskrit texts, to the engagement with the goddess in popular culture, to her present-day politicisation.And thus opens a window into the socio-political and cultural evolution of people in the region.

The book also shows just how diverse goddess worship has always been in the region, from the Navaratra celebrations in parts of Uttar Pradesh to her invocation as part of Ramlilaand to the Durga Puja in Bengal—the goddess undergoes many changes.

One of the essays (Which Durga? Which Navaratra?) digs intothe stark differences in ritual practices between two groups of followers in Nepal where the festival is celebrated as Dasain. TheNewars and the Parbatiyas, who derive their traditions from the Malla and Shah dynasties that ruled over the Kathmandu region in the 18th century, worship the same goddess, but in very different ways. This is despite the fact that both the royal dynasties conflated political power with the goddess and followed the same Vedic text.

Such diversity is a sign of the flexibility that the worship of the goddess afforded her followers. To an extent, that is also probably why the goddess has continued to hold her place in the large and increasingly dominant pantheon of male gods in the region.

The Navratra/ratri (nine nights) festival has been co-optedby both the epics where the worship of the Devi heralds victory. In the Ramayana, Rama turns to Durga when he finds himself weakened against Ravana’s might. This story is not part of the ValmikiRamayan, but in later texts, especially the vernacular versions. In the ValmikiRamayana, Surya, the sun god is worshipped. When he is replaced by Durga, the prayers and rituals remain the same even as the presiding deity changes. Recycle and reuse has been an ancient Vedic mantra.

In the Mahabharata, the Pandavas worship the goddess before going incognito during their exile. They hide their weapons on a Sami tree (Prosopis Cineraria) and then sing praises of the goddess—the Sami tree has cult status in ancient Indian texts and was a part of the royal celebrations during Navaratri and Vijayadasami. Closely linked to the goddess, it follows her wherever she is worshipped.

The clout of the goddess is considerable even today, even if it has been modified to suit the growing influence and grip of Brahminical patriarchyand political needs.One of the essays (Politics, religion and art in the Durga Puja of West Bengal) shows how the goddess and her worship has been appropriated and transformed within the political space in Bengal. From the artistry that marks the designing of the pandals, to the nature of the clubs that organize the festival and the invitation cards that go out at the start of the festival and to the deification of Mamata Banerjee, chief minister of the state, as Sakti—the Durga Puja has lent itself to the political theatre of the times.

The essay weaves the narrative around three case studies in the state to show how the image of the goddess has been used. First there was a metaphorical representation of Banerjee as goddess demolishing the demonic figures that symbolize the CPM (her opposition). In the second phase she turned into an artist who gives form to the goddess, painting an artistic Durga for a Puja organised by one of the influential clubs.And finally she becomes the one to breathe life into the idol, by painting her eyes.

Just as political exigencies have created a new idiom for the goddess, so has the changing economic profile of worshippers. In Benares, for instance, the Ram Lila that was once the most important and spectacular festival of the region has seen its allure dim as the economically powerful community of Bengalis has grown. There has been a more than 200 per cent increase in Durga Puja celebrations in the city, the essays (Navaratri in Benares)records. It also documents the changing views about the festival among the people in the city. For those familiar with the loud rhetoric and shrill narrative of a militant urban class, the essay is a must read as it may wellopenthe door to a new world.