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Navaratri and Dashahara are among the most popular Indian festivals. They are marked by the worship of Goddess Durga, the incarnation of Shakti, the cosmic energy. The rituals of Durga Puja vary in different parts of India, but the common theme in all the celebrations is the triumph of good over evil.
Ram Lila forms a major part of Dashahara celebrations in North India, marking the victory of Lord Rama over the demon king Ravana. The war between the mythical kings is played by many amateur troupes with high-decibel music, recitations, and enthusiasm, culminating in the burning of Ravana’s effigy.
In Bengal, Ma Durga is worshipped with great enthusiasm in every household, and Durga Puja is the cornerstone of Navaratri celebrations. Pandals are set up in every nook and corner of the state with giant-size statues of Durga Ma. Dances and dramas are enacted, while devotees chant Durga bhajans for nine days. On the last day, all the statues are taken in a procession around the city and immersed in a nearby water source. The ceremony is called visarjana.
In Gujarat Navaratri is commemorated on a grand scale with song and dance. The major attraction is the garba raas or dandiya played by young and old with enthusiasm and gusto for nine nights. Men and women, boys and girls dress in their best ethnic attires to dance their favorite steps.
In South India, the nine nights of Navaratri are a time for special prayers. The three main Hindu goddesses, Lakshmi, Sarasvati, and Parvati, are worshipped for three days each. Each is worshipped in all the forms they’ve taken to save mankind from evil. A unique feature in South India is the ritual of bommai kollu. The young children of the family get together to arrange dolls in various themes.
In Mysore, the magnificent procession of elephants during Dashahara celebrations draws tourists from all over the country.
Underlying these many elaborate rituals is a sophisticated view of the cosmos. Durga, or Shakti, synonymous with energy, is none other than the great power of Nature, which brings to birth, nourishes, preserves, and at the appropriate time, merges everything back into Herself.
Traces of this festival are seen all over the world. Essentially, it is a thanksgiving to Nature in her myriad forms.
Many families give a personal twist to these traditions. On the first day of Dashahara, my mother would sow wheat grain in a small pot near the pooja room. For nine days she performed special puja and watered the pot before we woke up. By the ninth day the wheat grass would be lush and green and she would feed each of us a couple of strands of the wheat grass before the feast.
Our family friend, Sanjay Mathur, fondly recalls Dashahara festivity during his childhood in Lucknow. In his family there was a tradition to build two effigies of the demon Ravana, one with wood and paper, and the other with gobar (cow dung and dry hay). As a child, it was his duty to collect cow dung and make the gobar paste for his mother to make 10 symbolic heads of Ravana, and place them in the courtyard. Mathur also reminisces about his mother’s special green-mango pickle, achaar, which had been marinated all through the summer and was ready to be served on Dashahara day.
My friend’s mother-in-law, Malati Marathe, recollects the special food, sakharbhaat, which was carefully prepared with cooked rice, sugar, and saffron for Dashahara in Mumbai. Here’s her recipe.
Sakharbhaat (Aromatic Sweet Rice)
2 cups rice
4 cups water
¾ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon lime juice
10-12 saffron strands
1 tablespoon milk
2 teaspoons ghee
1 one-inch cinnamon stick
2 cups sugar
1 tablespoon shredded coconut
5-6 cardamom pods, crushed
Wash rice under running water and drain it.
Boil the water in a thick-bottomed pot. Add salt, limejuice, and washed rice, and cook uncovered on high heat for five minutes. Then lower the heat and cover with a tight-fitting lid for five minutes. Turn off the heat, but do not remove the lid for five minutes. Then empty out the cooked rice on a big plate and let it air dry for 20 minutes.
Soak saffron threads in warm milk for 15 to 20 minutes.
In a thick-bottomed pan, heat one teaspoon of ghee. Add the cinnamon stick and cloves and let them sizzle. Add the cooked rice, sugar, and saffron milk. Stir well, cover with a tight-fitting lid, and cook on low heat for 20 minutes. Stir every 4 to 5 minutes to avoid burning the bottom.
Finally, add coconut, cashews, raisins, crushed cardamom, and one teaspoon ghee.
Hema’s Hints: Add dried cranberries, chopped pistachio nuts, and almonds for variety. This recipe tastes best with ghee or unsalted butter.
Hema Alur-Kundargi is the producer, editor, and host of an award-winning television show Indian Vegetarian Gourmet.