Navaratri – Nine nights of Shakti

From the archives….

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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.

The vibrant and colourful garba

The vibrant and colourful garba

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 grand kolu at my niece's house in Phoenix. The rangoli in the foreground has been painstakingly hand-painted!

The grand kolu at my niece’s house in Phoenix. The rangoli in the foreground has been painstakingly hand-painted!

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 haldikumkum. Men are welcome too, to eat the sundal! 🙂

Images courtesy:

Homepage: http://www.meraevents.com_40

Mysore Dusshera pic: dasara2013.blogspot.com

Kolu : Gayathri Krithivas

38 comments

  1. Very interesting to know the south indian aspect of this festival!
    Hope you are well, Zephyr ji! Visiting your page after a long time!

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    1. I swear I posted all replies the other day and when I opened the comment page, find them all missing. WP sometimes plays the fool with me. I am happy to have given you a glimpse of the other aspects of this wonderful festival. YEs, missed you too, Roshni 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. That Is a lot of tradition… wowo ..loved the pic of all that decorations. . Beautiful. .

    Never been to one or seen in real. .

    Happy navratri mami to you and everyone around you. ..

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    1. You should visit south Indian homes to see it, Bikram. My DIL there also has a small one every year, not as elaborate as my niece’s but traditional and sweet. Kabhi chale jana 🙂

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  3. Ohh..that’s interesting to know about the 9 steps and what each of them carries. We don’t do duessara in our place but I have been to a few friends places who do the golu. I know like people carry Christmas ornaments each year, some families have the tradition to carry the golu statues. Your niece’s golu is really nice and elaborate. In our home town, Ravan is burnt in the public grounds and it’s a sight. 🙂

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    1. Oh the Kolu dolls are carried down generations. With additions every year the set up would sometimes be really big. I remember we had a huge trunk full of these, carefully wrapped in paper and cloth and carried from city to city as I grew up. Ravan dahan is there in the northern and central parts of India. In the south it is the celebration of Devi in her various forms. Gayatri is a great artist when it comes to decoration and themes.

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  4. upasna1987 · · Reply

    Never seen Kolu setup but it seems like bright and vibrant. Thanks for the insight. Shared it on Tumblr.

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    1. Kolu is like the jhanki that they have in the north which are set up during Janmashtami, only the symbolism differs. I have substituted the kolu picture with the one at my niece’s home in the US. She is a consummate artist. Do take a look! Thanks for share, Upasna 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I love this tradition of kolu..one gets to see such beautiful collection and the creativity of so many people.

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  6. With a keen eye for details ,you have left out nothing of this all India festival with its local variations but emphasizing the underlying religious spirit.The one festival enabling gathering of friends and relatives,mostly women.Your post brought back memories of me a s a chit accompanying my sisters to different houses lured by the sundal and readily offering to sing tempted by an extra packet of sundal much to the embarrassment of my sisters and amusement of other visitors!..The festival was also an occasion to dress the young children as balakrishna,muruga or in different disguises.
    Thank you for the interesting post.

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  7. Enjoyed reading this Athai, reminds of all the fun we used to have as kids in Gayathri Apt Delhi. The sundal, pattu pavadais , singing and Yes I had a patent song too 🙂

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    1. Oh yes! Gayatri Apt kolu and celebrations were grand, weren’t they? Do you still sing? You used to, so fabulously! Good to see you here, Vibhs.

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  8. Loved reading this, Zephyr.

    The other day we visited our new neighbours’ home and had the privilege to see their beautiful kolu.

    Happy Navaratri to you and your family. Hugs.

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    1. Do see the pic I have uploaded in the post, with the kolu in my niece’s house in the US! She is her mother’s daughter all right. Remember the flower arrangements I used to share? We used to have elaborate kolus in our house in Nagpur. I don’t have them nowadays, just the Devi in the puja and lots of shlokas and songs of the goddess.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. That was very interesting.It must have been great fun.Do you make the golu still?

    It is really sad that the old traditions are fading with time–i myself am guilty of reducing the festival to a bare minimum.Sad !

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    1. We don’t have the kolu at home but my elder DIL has taken it up now. So the tradition continues 🙂 We have to cut the coat to suit the cloth as we grow older and now it is more stutis and prayers for me for Navratri than the social and cultural trappings. And yes, the minimum rule applies to my celebrations too.

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  10. I felt like visiting the good old days, Zephyr! though we don’t keep golu at home, we used to visit the houses and have different types of sundal! And we had a stock of 4-5 songs, I and my sister used to sing those songs in rotation! Fun it was!

    The golu you have displayed here is beautiful!

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    1. It would be a little embarrassing to find better singers in the homes at the same time as our visits as our singing prowess were a little shaky 🙂 And yes, we had a stock of a few songs we could manage pretty ok. The pic is courtesy Wiki!

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  11. Lovely account. I finally know what the golu symbolizes. I have always found this display fascinating. I have been invited by a Tamilian friend for the golu and am looking forward to it! And yeah..I am dreading the sing a song moment!

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    1. You can always get out of singing by feigning a bad throat. It never worked for us because they would then ask one of us to sing. Both having a bad throat would have been a little too hard to believe, right? 😀

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  12. […] Ayyappan, the southern deity from the annual pooja celebrations; they also know about Navratri kolu and so […]

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  13. That was a fascinating account! I used to my carnatic music teacher’s house during the festival, and especially remember the sundal:)

    As for us, Saraswati Puja used to be the most important part, so that remains etched in my memory. Lovely account of the pujas across India.

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    1. Welcome here Smitha. Glad the post revived nostalgic memories. Though Navratri comes and goes it is not the same as those days for a variety of reasons. The spontaneity and fervour is somehow missing.

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  14. Made me nostalgic of my childhood days when we used to have extensive Kolu with 9 big steps. And as a child my brother and me used to make different themed parks, village scene etc every year on the side of the Kolu using various material … The good point is I managed to get a 9 step rack and planning to start the Kolu from next year…

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    1. Yes, the kolu was a combined effort of the entire family and the fun part was to come up with new themes every year.all the best with your kolu next year! 🙂

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  15. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Jeffin Jose and Vineet Rajan, Vineet Rajan. Vineet Rajan said: Nine nights of the goddess http://goo.gl/fb/tjDrn […]

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  16. celebration of women!!
    a great festival indeed!

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    1. Yes,Magiceye. Of the women, by the women for the women (the goddesses)!

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  17. Since, I m a huge fan of Indian culture, I totally love knowing more about the same festival celebrated differently in different parts of India and appreciate you spreading the word to most ignorant souls including me in my generation! I am a Maharashtrian, and we do the same Haldi Kumkum that you spoke of. At Nagpur, it was fun gathering at the terrace of our home facing the ground where Raavan was burnt! Now, with the fear of terrorist attacks in Mumbai, I never dared to visit any such crowded place!

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    1. Haldi-kumkum is a custom of the southern states and Maharashtra comes under that since it is south of the Vindhyas! The south south Indians incidentally have adopted the concept of ‘gifts’ with the mandatory haldi kumkum from the Maharashtrians. We used to only give the betel leaf-areca nuts-turmeric roots along with the prasad and maybe a blouse piece if you could afford it. But today everyone gives some small useful gift too.

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  18. one sundal packet parcel!!! 😛

    seriously, i have attended only the north indian version of Dandiya raas… yet to attend a south indian version, yes yes shame on me 😐

    may be this year.. 🙂

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    1. North Indian version? What is that? Today traditional music has been replaced by remixed versions of Bollywood songs even in the authentic Gujarati garba and dandiya. Wonder how the ‘north Indian’ version would be.

      No parcels please. collect in person!

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  19. Nice.. insightful post Man 🙂

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    1. Thanks Mayank.

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  20. Lovely post. It’s been years since I actually did something proper to celebrate Navaratri, but this post sure brought back some wonderful memories of childhood.

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    1. that’s great Titaxy. So what are you planning to do this Navratri? Even just wearing some crisp Kanjivaram and wearing that necklace before lighting the lamp will make you experience the thrill of the festival, so go ahead!

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  21. A lovely detailed account. As you said it has strong South Indian traditions. Enjoyed reading it

    btw….. i sent u a mail, through ur blog…. did u check it?

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    1. Thanks Abha. I will check it right away. What i have detailed is the very traditional way of celebrating the festival. This has been modified to suit modern lifestyles.

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