Dushera or Navaratri, as it is called in South India is a colourful festival. It has great socio-religious-cultural significance, with equal importance to all the three aspects. It is a 10-day long festival that celebrates the various forms and manifestations of Shakti. The ways it is celebrated are as varied as the country’s culture.
Starting with the elaborate festivities of Kulu Manali, to the vibrant garba dance of Gujarat, the grand Durga Puja marquees of West Bengal, the traditional kolu (setting up of nine steps and adorning them with figurines of gods and goddesses in the southern states of Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka), not to forget the famous Mysore Dushera celebrations – it is a grand festival. In Punjab, people fast on the first seven days and break it on the 8th day of Ashtami, when young girls are offered puri with chana and halwa along with some gifts as part of Kanya puja (kanjak).
In the northern parts of the country, it is celebrated as the victory of Lord Ram over Ravan and effigies of the demon king and his brother are burnt on the tenth day of Vijaya Dashmi.
However, this post is about how Tamilians celebrate the festival with vignettes from my childhood.
Unlike in the north, where the goddess is worshipped in the nine manifestations of Durga (Navdurga) — in the southern states she is worshipped in all her three forms, viz., Durga, Lakshmi and Saraswati. Three days each are devoted to these goddesses in that order – the first three to Durga, the next three to Lakshmi and the last three to Saraswati. The ninth day is celebrated as Saraswati Puja when the goddess of learning is worshipped. It is also called Ayudha Puja – not to be confused with weapons! On that day instruments or tools of learning and trade like books, pens, tools used by workmen like saws, knives, pliers and such are placed before the goddess and worshipped. Vijaya Dashami is the day Durga killed the demon Mahishasur. On that day, it is customary to symbolically begin teaching tiny tots to read and write. Those who want to learn any art also begin their lessons that day.
The kolu (also pronounced golu) is set up with nine steps assembled with planks of wood and assorted boxes and draped with a cloth. (These days readymade kolu steps are available in the market, but we used to painstakingly build the steps and took care to see that they stayed put for 10 days.) The kolu symbolizes the assembly of goddess Durga prior to her battle with Mahishasur. The nine steps themselves have a special order to them.
- On the topmost step, a kalash filled with water is kept. Mango leaves decorate the mouth of the kalash and a coconut is placed on the top.
- The top three are devoted to the gods and goddesses including Ganesha, Subramanya, Lakshmi, Saraswati, Ram and Sita and Hanuman.
- The next three steps are adorned with the various avatars of God like the Dashavatar and the figures of saints like Shankaracharya, Raghvendra and Saibaba.
- The bottom three steps are devoted to human figures, engaged in their various occupation like farming, trading etc. the central image here is one of the ‘chettiar’ a symbol of trade and commerce in the state. Animals and birds and inanimate things like vegetables and fruits also vie for space here.
The symbolism of the nine steps is the spiritual ascendance of humans from the lowliest to the most sublime.
The goddess is worshipped by offering daily puja to the kalash and naivedyam (offering) in the form of various mixed rice, kheer or other sweets and the famous sundal, which is made of various dals and whole lentils like chana, green gram and green peas.
The Navratri kolu itself is a showcase of the artistic and aesthetic sensibilities of the people and is a combined effort of all the members of the family, with the menfolk helping to assemble the steps and everyone pitching in to arrange the dolls and decorate the steps with lights and all.
When we were young we had a great time setting up not only the kolu, but also a garden on the floor near the steps, where we spread clay and planted mustard and other grains, set up a ‘pond’ with plastic ducks and fish in them, a playground complete with slides and swings and children playing and once even an airport! A paper plane was suspended from a hook on the ceiling with a thin thread to appear as if it was in flight. These incidentally were the handiwork of my brothers.
My elder sisters made cardboard and paper dolls, drawn and coloured by them, and draped with crepe paper saris and colourful clothes. Though these were two dimensional figures, they looked so full of life.
As I said earlier these kolus showcased the cultural richness of the people. There were elaborate rangolis made of rice paste bordered with geru (chemman/kemmannu), decorating of the doorposts with haldi and kumkum and hanging buntings made of mango leaves in the doorway.
The best part though was the visits of women and girls to partake of haldi-kumkum (turmeric powder and kumkum), along with betel leaves, areca nuts, a banana, some small gift along with the prasad of sundal!
My elder sister and I were assigned to go to all the houses we had been invited to or had to invite (mother went only to very close friends’ and relatives’ houses since she had to ‘hold the fort’ at home when other womenfolk visited us. So we would dress up in all finery and begin the rounds of the houses. My sister had a method to the entire exercise. We would start with the furthest houses in the first few days and continue reducing the radius till the last day when we visited the neighbourhood ones.
With no plastic carry bags, we used to take one of those bags made of plastic wires or a cloth bag to bring home all these. Sometimes the bananas we got would threaten to get squashed and we would be forced to eat them on the way. Ditto with the sundal that had not been properly wrapped in either a leaf or paper. So by the time we staggered home, we would be stuffed to gills with all those prasads!
And oh, we had to sing a devotional song at each house. And if one happened to be learning Carnatic music, these occasions became mini concerts of sorts. Some women whose repertoire was limited were forced to sing the same songs over and over, year after year and got tagged with the song! But sing we all had to. It was fun but sometimes a big pain when one had to sing even when one didn’t want to. We would rehearse excuses hurriedly before entering a particular house if we didn’t want to sing there. Women also congregated in one house by turns to chant shlokas and sing the praise of the goddess. This practice still continues in many cities including Delhi when such shlokas like Lalita Sahasranamam and Soundarya lahari are sung. After aarti, the women are all given haldi-kumkum and gifts.
Today the customs have been truncated to a large extent due to the fast pace of life. Tiny flats preclude huge kolus and they have been reduced to 5 or 3 steps in many houses. Others have given up the custom altogether. Some only have kolu for the last three days and also invite women on specific days due to pressure of a job and other constraints. But the custom of giving haldi-kumkum continues and women visit each other’s houses to partake of it. Again here, commercialization and show are replacing the actual spirit of the custom, with women vying to outdo each other in the gift department – from utensils, to blouse pieces to saris to silverware — it is becoming one big round of showmanship.
But as long as the spirit of the festival is intact, the rest of the things don’t matter. So dance the garba, visit the Durga puja pandal in your neighbourhood, attend the Ramlila and oh, come to my house for haldi–kumkum. Men are welcome too, to eat the sundal! 🙂
Mysore Dusshera pic: dasara2013.blogspot.com
Kolu : Gayathri Krithivas