Rangoli during Navaratri

Four trap drummers in the company of two dholi drummers pound out a steady beat from the elevated stage and whip the crowd to new heights of frenzy. A giant, chandelier-like structure beams forth from the center of the stadium, encircled by thousands of dancers dressed in costumes out of Arabian Nights. Some climb atop the shoulders of their friends. Others are tossed up in the air by friends. Where am I? Nowhere you might suspect. I’m at a Navaratri celebration hosted by the Lion’s Club of Junagadh, an ancient fortified princely state in India.

Navaratri peformances

And Junagadh is in Gujarat, an Indian state like no other.

The northwestern Indian state of Gujarat (population 41 million) is remarkable in so many ways. Many emigrants to the United Kingdom and elsewhere in the developed world come from Gujarat. More specifically, they hail from the port of Porbandar, which doubles as the birthplace of Mahatma Gandhi. In the United States, the Patel clan, all of whose forbears originally hail from Gujarat, control an estimated 60 percent of the budget hotel business. Gujaratis also command a strong presence in Africa. A half-million Gujaratis, expelled from Uganda by Idi Amin during the 1970s, have settled in Britain and made their mark on contemporary society. Some, like Chaitanya Patel (who made his fortune with his Priory Group of rehabilitation clinics), have become multi-millionaires.

Gujarat has long been a cultural crossroads. Its treasured double-ikkat handloom-woven patola silks were donned in ancient Javanese courts. Elaborately carved step wells once hosted visiting caravans. Buddhist caves date back 4,500 years. The mountaintops near Palitana and Junagadh are ringed with extraordinary Jain marble temples. The contemporary India of noxious diesel fumes, ringing cell phones, and people, people everywhere negotiates a precarious coexistence with an increasingly endangered ancient cultural heritage. Less than 300 Asiatic lions subsist in the small reserve set aside for them at Sunan Gir.

Navaratri celebrations

Gujarat is also a land of culture. Its weaving, embroidery, and other crafts are famous throughout India and the world. But Gujarat is also the land of Navaratri mania. Every year for nine nights goddess worship transforms everyday life in unexpected ways. Everyone participates—from the tiniest tot to the eldest woman. In all of India there is nothing quite like it.

And what is Navaratri? That’s not so easy to explain in a nutshell. Navaratri is a nine-night festival (nav means nine, and ratri means night) held in celebration of the goddess of your choosing. Most often this is Amba or Durga. I’ve read that the first three nights of Navaratri may be dedicated to Durga, the next three nights to Lakshmi, and the final three nights to Sarasvati. But I didn’t see any concrete difference between the celebrations on different nights. Perhaps this is because all these goddesses are, in turn, aspects of Shakti, the Divine Mother. It’s all more than a bit confusing to the uninitiated.

Back at the stadium in Junagadh, it’s now 1:45 a.m. Nobody here is drunk (at least should be) because Gujarat is that rare animal known as a “dry state,” which translates into meaning that alcohol is only available at high prices at prescribed locations or, more widely, in the form of illicit hooch, a brew that proves toxic at times. Dying for a drink sometimes has literal meaning in a state that reportedly ranks number two in nationwide alcohol consumption. The ban may be a result of Gandhian legacy. Or, ironically (given the general antipathy towards Muslims prevalent here), it might be a consequence of centuries of Islamic rule under the Mughals.

Some Navaratri events I’ve been invited to and welcomed in. In this instance, my friend Hardy, an outgoing 22-year-old whose worthwhile hobby is hanging out with foreigners, has brought the three of us here along with his friend; we’ve all piled on his friend’s motorcycle. At the gate, he used my presence as an excuse to cajole free entrance for the three of us. Hardy has managed to take some hours off from his all-night gig providing tech support for the local DSL firm. A wild garba enthusiast, he has spent the evening dancing up a storm. As it’s easy to see that I am not Indian, I attract some attention, all of it friendly, and most of it curious.

The Indian Supreme Court has dictated that all celebrations must end by midnight, but this is Gujarat, and so this dictum does not seem to be followed in practice anywhere. There seems to be unilateral agreement that this is a stupid edict, even though I personally would hate to try to be sleeping anywhere near any of the events I attended.

Despite its ancient roots, Navaratri can also be solidly contemporary. Parties can be huge productions. The elaborate costumes are rented, corporate sponsors are in evidence, and food booths abound. The police add additional bandobast (security arrangements) for gatherings, and they are vigilant in keeping “eve teasers” at bay. The police commissioner in the city of Surat has launched an “Anti Romeo Squad” which is to be charged with registering cases of eve teasing, a criminal act which ranges in practice from cat calls to whispered obscenities to pestering, groping, and sexual harassment. In other words, it’s the expression of raging hormones exploding in adolescent protest against the sexually repressive confines of contemporary Indian society, an environs where public kissing is illegal but sexuality runs rampant in advertising.

Navaratri events are also referred to frequently as garba. The word garba derives from the Sanskrit term “garbha deep,” which references a clay-pot-style lantern used in a Hindu temple’s inner sanctum. The pot is a metaphor for the universe from which shakti, the energy of the cosmos, shines through. Dancers encircling a garba illustrate the perpetual cycle of creation, maintenance, and destruction.

Very young girls dance in a circle in the sheri garbas at many small-town gatherings I attend. Often, adolescent and pre-pubescent girls dance in groups on stages. Some perform dandiya raas, a dance in which participants fence with two short bamboo, wooden, or metal sticks. Originally a male dance, dandiya raas once served as a stand-in for swordfights but has lost its meaning and is now just good fun all around.

I learn quite a bit about the festivities from reading India’s lively and colorful English-language press. The girls of Gujarat’s second largest city of Vadodara (former name Baroda, population 1.9 million), are renowned for wearing two-piece costumes—choli (upper) and chaniya (lower)—which expose a bare midriff as well as a daring flash of bare thigh from time to time. In ultra-puritanical India a bit of skin goes a long way. Reportedly, parents were hiring private detectives to shadow their offspring during the festival. I’m told that out-of-wedlock pregnancies are a byproduct of the festival and that abortions in India rise sharply during the months following the climax of the nine nights.

Vibrant Gujarat

The provincial capital of Gandhinagar, named after the Mahatma, is set 20 miles from Ahmedabad (or Amdavad in colloquial; population six million), Gujarat state’s largest city. Here I attend a very different version of the festival—an extravaganza to end all extravaganzas called Vibrant Gujarat. This festival is the product of the public-relations branch of the ruling right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its controversial Chief Minister Narendra Modi. The event was originally intended to be held along the riverbanks in Ahmedabad, where it would have been accompanied by political booths and speeches, but internal mutinies within the BJP coalition have forced snap elections. As this legally precludes political activities receiving government funding, this means a moratorium on political speeches, as well as a ban on the government-propaganda dispensing pavilions. The venue has been shifted to a helipad on Gandhinagar’s outskirts.

The visually stunning 1½-hour performance is truly spectacular, a world-class event with names of the troupes professionally projected above the stage. Troupes have come from as far afield as Assam, Kerala, Bhutan, and even Puerto Rico to perform. One could see this performance every night for a year and not grow tired of it. All of this costs the state government no small fortune. Could the money have perhaps been spent better elsewhere? Or is it appropriate to support the performing arts in this fashion? I go back and forth with my answers.

White-bearded Modi, clad in his white Indian garb, perhaps in an attempt at self-Mahatmaization, does not appear wildly enthusiastic. For a politician to be deprived of the opportunity for speechmaking is akin to taking the kit away from a heroin junkie or depriving a constipated individual of his laxative. It must be particularly rough for him because Modi has been through some tough times recently. A few months back, he was denied a visa to the United States owing to an alleged connection with religious human-rights violations during the 2002 anti-Muslim pogroms which claimed up to 2,000 lives. This decision may have been spurred by a vigorous protest on the part of the Coalition Against Genocide.

Navratri aarti

The performance’s end saw the ritual arti (worship) as participants held their plates with oil lamps high during the event’s concluding number, thus symbolically fending off the darkness with the light. I found it ironic, given the context, that H.D. Deve Gowda, a former prime minister of India, and current chief minister of Karnataka (the state that includes the high-tech bastion of Bangalore), dropped his tray and had to be helped.

Although things did not go as he had planned, Vibrant Gujarat may well have been Modi’s redemption. Tens of thousands attended the nights of free performances. The Modi-ruled BJP shortly triumphed in municipal elections and then won throughout the state. The errant rebel ministers have been ostracized.

Meanwhile, Navaratri winds down. Gujaratis catch up on their sleep. And then it’s time to start gearing up for Divali, the Hindu Festival of Lights which worships Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth.

I take away many impressions from my visit. First of all, I am struck by the cultural richness of Gujarat, which might take months if not years to fully appreciate. Secondly, I’m struck by how friendly the Gujaratis are despite their low wages and poor working and living conditions. Finally, I’m impressed not only by how much money there is in the province, but also how little of this wealth trickles down to the man on the street or the woman at the hand pump.

Journalist, travel guidebook author, artist, and photographer Harry S. Pariser visited Gujarat in October 2005. His most recent book is Explore Costa Rica.www.savethemanatee.com