Kanchi Paramacharya, Sri Chandrasekara Saraswathi Swamigal of Kanchi Kamakoti Peetam, explains why of all the Hindu festivals and pujas, Navarathri is the one celebrated throughout the length and breadth of Bharat.
“The Navarathri celebrated in the Tamil month of Purattasi is really ‘sarada’ navarathri because it comes in the ‘sarad rithu’ (=autumn) period of the year. Sarada is also a name for Saraswathi, whose puja is an important part of this festival. In Mookapanchasathi, a sloka in worship of Goddess Saraswathi starts with ‘vimalapati’, referring to the pure white dress that adorns Her. ‘Sarathchandran’, or, the moon during the period of Sarad, because the sky is clear, appears in white splendor. Attainment of knowledge personified in Goddess Saraswathi is facilitated when there is calmness in the surroundings and purity and clarity in the mind.
‘The Navarathri period is one time during the year when there is about the most uniform and temperate climate throughout India. The south west monsoon would have finished battering the western coast and other parts of India, but, the north east monsoon that brings rains to Tamilnadu and coastal east of India is still to set in. The peak summer heat of north and central India is gone, but, the cold winter of Kashmir or north India is still to arrive. If one looks at the weather reports, the maximum temperature of all major cities in India is likely to be within plus or minus 10° of 85°F. The climate and external conditions – not very hot, not very cold, no rain, low humidity, clear skies, etc., - provide the most conducive time of the year for puja throughout India”
Different ways Navarathri is celebrated
While the navarathri that comes at the beginning of vasantha rithu (or March April) is primarily a temple celebration, the sarad navarathri is celebrated at homes and in temples. While there are various Puranic stories associated with the festival, the most important aspect is the worship of Devi, or mother Goddess, in all her forms.
In South India, the tenth day is observed as Aayuda puja, thus extending navarathri into a dassera. Dussera in Mysore is very famous. Chamundi, a form of Durga, is the family deity of the Mysore Maharajas and the annual celebrations, culminating in a procession of elephants, horses, etc., to the top of the Chamundi Hill is a great sight to watch. Chamundeswari is a form of Durga who according to Puranas vanquished the demon Mahisashura.
In Bengal, the festival is called Durga Puja and is confined to the last five days of Navarathri but is the grandest festival of the year and culminates, like Ganesh Chathurthi in the West, in the immersion of Durga’s idol in holy waters. In the northern India states, UP, MP, Delhi etc., it is also known as Ramleela. According to Bhagavatham, Lord Rama observed Saradh navarathri puja and as a result acquired the power to destroy Ravana. Typically, Ramleela depicts the life Rama for nine days and on the tenth day the annihilation of Kumbakarna and Ravana.
In the West, particularly, Gujarat, navarathri is celebrated as Garba and Dandiya-Raas dance. Because it provides an opportunity for dance, particularly for the youth, this flamboyant version of celebration is the most popular one for Indians outside India! There is a pattern in the rhythm of dancing. The dancers begin with a slow tempo but as the dance progresses go into faster and faster. Ultimately I gets so frenzied that each person performs both a solo dance with sticks but also strikes his or her partner’s dandias in style!!
Navarathri in the South India
In the south, in particular Tamilnadu, navarathri celebrations have three parts: first, ‘kolu’ of dolls; second, devi puja during the nine days, including Saraswathi puja on the navami or ninth day; and third, Aayuda puja on the tenth day.
‘Kolu’ is really a royal court for Goddess Durga and provides an opportunity to display dolls and figurines on an odd number of steps, maximum 9. While inevitably there will be several images of gods and goddesses, it is usual to include a ‘marapachi’ or a pair of wooden dolls, Saraswathi and Mahalakshmi and a Kalasam. Tradition dictates the order in which the various dolls are displayed. In recent times, people tend to display their artistic talents in making the display unique and sometimes high-tech. Women and children visit others’ houses during the evenings during Navarathri.
Devi Bhaagavatham sets out the puja procedure. Devi is deemed the ultimate sakti: physical power imbibed in Durga, wealth in Lakshmi and knowledge in Saraswathi. Most commonly, Durga is the focus of worship in the first 3 days, Lakshmi next 3 days and Saraswathi the last three days. While the tradition is to do a puja all nine days, some just offer neivedyam and karpooraharathi the first 8 days but do the elaborate puja on the ninth day as Saraswathi puja. Incidentally, while doing Saraswathi puja, all three Goddesses – Durga, Lakshmi and Saraswathi – are invoked.
The tenth day is ‘aayuda puja’ or puja of tools and implements. It is believed that it was on this day, also called Vijayadashami, that Arjuna, the third of the five Pandava brothers, retrieved his weapons of war from the hole in the tree where he had hidden them when he had gone on his forced exile. The Pandavas were victorious in their war. It is believed that the day is auspicious to begin any new venture and professional pursuits. Children’s formal education is usually started on this day. Incidentally, on the Saraswathi Puja day books and musical instruments are placed on a pedestal and included in the puja and not disturbed during that day meant for meditation and reflection. On the Vijayadasami day they are taken out and used. Irrespective of one’s profession, intellectual or manual, one needs a divine force to succeed.
Kanchi Paramacharya says:
“Whether we worship Devi in the three forms of Durga, Lakshmi and Saraswathi, or in 330 million forms, ultimately there is only one Sakti – ‘Parasakti’. In Lalitha Sahasranamam, for example, Devi is at once described the creator (Shrishtikarthee and brahmaupa), the preserver (gopthri, govindaupini) and destroyer (samharini, rudrarupini). In both Lakshmi astothram and Saraswathi astothram, we call Her ‘Brahma-vishnu-sivathmikaaya’. Durga, Saraswathi and Lakshmi are one and the same.
“It is also common to perform kanya pujas during Navarathri. The reason is Lakshmi was born as Sage Brihu’s daughter – hence called ‘Bargavi’, and Parvathi as the daughter of Sage Kathyayana – hence ‘Kathyayani’ in Durga suktam. When we worship the Goddess in the form of a child, we celebrate innocence, absence of ‘kama, kroda and dukkam’. Indeed the Upanishads asks us to be ‘child’.
“By worshipping Devi as Durga, Lakshmi and Saraswathi, and as a Kumari, during Navarathri, what we seek is the grace of ultimate power or Sakthi to bestow upon us the strength, wealth and knowledge.”