The festival of Navaratri is celebrated all over India to worship Goddess of Shakti, Durga. Mahisasura (buffalo demon), the king of asuras (demons) through his austerities and meditation was granted a boon from Brahma that no man or deity could kill him. Empowered by this, Mahisasura decided to take over all three worlds of earth, heaven and hell. All the deity Gods were constantly harassed by him and in despair under the leadership of king Indra, they approached the Holy Trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. Enraged by the acts of Mahisasura, the three Gods created Goddess Durga, a beautiful female through the union of their Shakti or divine power. Goddess Durga challenged Mahisasura, fought him for nine days and killed him on the tenth day of Vijayadashmi. This is the same day that Lord Ram killed Ravan and is also known as Dushara. These nine days during which Goddess Durga fought Mahisasura are celebrated as the festival of Navaratri (nava = nine + ratri = nights).
The festival was initially observed in the month of Chaitra (beginning of spring), when King Suratha used to worship Goddess Durga. But this was proponed when Lord Ram worshipped her in the month of Aswhina (beginning of autumn) right before His battle with Ravan. This untimely worship of Goddess Durga by Ram is called "Akal Bodhon"
Thus, this festival is now observed twice a year, but most popularly it is observed according to the Akal Bodhon of Lord Ram in the month of Ashwina, which coincides around October.
There are several interpretations on the significance of Navaratri, but the common theme of the festival is to celebrate the triumph of Good over Evil. During the nine days of Navaratri, three days are devoted to the worship of Maa Durga - the Goddess of Valor, the next three are for Ma Lakshmi - the Goddess of Peace and Prosperity and the final three are for Ma Saraswati - the Goddess of Knowledge. Spiritually the first three days are dedicated to worship Ma Durga so she can destroy and annihilate all the evil within oneself. The next three days are set for an orderly, steady, calm and serene effort to develop purity within oneself via worship of Ma Lakshmi. The final three days signify attaining supreme wisdom by the worship of Ma Saraswati. The tenth day, Vijaya Dasami, marks the triumph of the soul at having attained liberation through the descent of knowledge by the Grace of Goddess Saraswathi. Dussera is also interpreted as "Dasa-Hara", which means the cutting of the ten heads of Ravana, each of which signify --passion, pride, anger, greed, infatuation, lust, hatred, jealousy, selfishness and crookedness.
Each part of India has different traditions and customs of celebrating the Navaratri festival. In Bengal, the last five days of Navaratri are celebrated by Durga Puja. On Shashti (the sixth day of Navaratri), Durga is said to have come to Her father's house, the king of Himalayas. Thus Bengalis treat Goddess Durga as a daughter who has come back to her parent's house. She stays at her parent's house for the seventh, eight and the ninth day of Navaratri. On the tenth day of Vijayadasmi, she is said to go back to her husband's house, which is symbolized by the immersion of Goddess Durga idols in the sea. In Gujarat, Goddess Durga is also known as Amba. The festival is celebrated by performing the puja of Goddess Amba, followed by Garba and Dandiya Raas dances.
Garba word comes from sanskrit word "Garbha Deep". The closest meaning of "Garbha" in English language is "inside", as inside of an earthen pot which people still use to store drinking water and the meaning of "Deep" is diya (lamp), with a burning cotton wick in oil in an earthen, small vessel. During Navaratri, women prepare a Garbha Deep and offer it to Ambaji. They form a circle around the Garbha Deep and perform a dance known as Garba. The dance symbolizes their offering to Ma Ambaji. The dance is performed by rhythmic claps with one woman singing a song in praise of Amba Ma and the others supporting her in chorus. The Garba dance consists of co-ordinated hand, leg and neck movements characterized by twirls. Garba is performed in a circle with several variations in the movement of the circle. One of the most popular Garba dance is called tran-taali (3-beat) Garba. The rhythm of this garba consists of three distinct claps in a measure. Garba also has bea-taali (2-beat) rhythm, which is characterized by two claps in a measure.
Although dandiya is now associated with the festival Navaratri, originally it has a complete different root. Dandiya was performed by men with a pair of bamboo sticks, which are about 2 inches in length. It was originally intended to serve as practice exercise for footwork for sword fighting. Thus, this dance is very energetic and was only performed by men. But nowadays women and men both perform this dance in two concentric circles rotating in opposite directions.
The "lasya" nritya (dance) performed by Krishna approximately 5,000 years ago is Raas. Lord Krishna use to perform this dance with Radha and Gopis. Both Garba and Dandiya incorporate the Raas. Raas is a very energetic, colorful and playful dance providing opportunity for acting and exchanging messages through eye contact. It is no wonder that many romances bloom during Navaratri and hence the popularity of the dance among the younger generation. The component of Raas can be easily seen in Garba and Dandiya dances as some of the poses and expressions in them reminds one of Radha and Krishna. Thus, during Navaratri songs describing the love story of Radha and Krishna are also sung.
Modern Day Navaratri
The modern day Navaratri is celebrated with high energy and fanfare with dance festivals happening every nine days of the Navratri. In Gujarat and Mumbai, the night starts with a puja of Ambaji and Garbha Deep. This is followed by tran-taali Garba or Be-taali garba, which lasts for an hour and a half. This is further followed by dandiya raas, which also lasts for about 2 hours. In United States, especially in Edison, New Jersey, the same festival format is followed. About 10, 000 people gather every Navaratri in Edison, New Jersey to celebrate this festival. Lately, this festival has become very prominent on University of Maryland, College Park campus as well. It is also celeberated all over the world where Gujarati community lives.