Festivals,  Folklore,  Heritage,  Sarees

My Saree Stories: Part 9

The ninth edition of my saree stories celebrates the nine colours of Navratri. These stories have been written one day at a time for Navratri on another forum and this is a compilation.

Navratri celebrates the victory of good over evil. Spanning over nine nights and ten days, the colourful festival is celebrated around the autumn equinox as Sharad Navratri. The nine days of Navratri are dedicated to the nine avatars of Goddess Durga or the Navdurga. Each day celebrates one particular manifestation of the deity. The nine forms of Goddess Durga are: Shailaputri, Brahmacharini, Chandraghanta, Kushmanda, Skandamata, Katyayani, Kaalratri, Mahagauri and Siddhidhatri. The nine day festival ends with the slaying of the demon Mahishasura in a fierce battle.

Navratri is celebrated all over the Indian subcontinent in different ways. Some fast, others feast. In my family we celebrate it as Durga Pooja, as does most of Bengal, Bihar, Assam, Tripura and other states in the North-East. The feminine divinity, the warrior goddess Durga, is honoured and celebrated through this phase. Thousands of pandals crop up all over villages, towns and cities where elaborately crafted idols of the Devi are installed and communities get together to pray together.

In north, central and west India, Navratri is marked by the dramatic enactment of the Ramlila. The festival culminates as Dussehra, where the victory of Ram over Ravana is symbolized by burning huge effigies of Ravana with his brothers Meghnad and Kumbhakarna. In Gujarat besides the ritual fasting over the nine days, everyone looks forward to dress up and dance the garba and dandiya in the evenings. In Goa, the goddess is placed on a decorated silver swing called Makhar and swung to the music of kirtans. The festival is celebrated as Makharotsav. In Nepal, the festival is called Dasain, and is a major family homecoming festival.

Saree # 91: A gold Khadi silk saree for Mahalaya

The festival begins on an Amavasya with Mahalaya, which is an invitation of sorts to Durga to begin her journey from Kailash to her paternal home (earth). Mahalaya marks the end of Pitrapaksha and the beginning of Devipaksha which is considered very auspicious. My earliest childhood memories of Durga Pooja is of my mother tuning into All India Radio in the wee hours of dawn, where the sonorous chants of Birendra Krishna Bhadra narrated the story of the descent of Durga to earth.

Now that my parents and my in laws are no longer around I feel their void. There is this niggling doubt whether all our beautiful traditions will be lost in the future. It made me decide to fast during the nine days of Navratri like my mother did. I do not know all the little details of the puja, but I will try to emulate her as much as I can.

Today is Mahalaya. And I woke up early and tuned in to listen to the Chandipath and Mahishasur Mardini narrated in the familiar voice of Birendra Krishna Bhadra. There is something beautiful about the way a Bengali recites Sanskrit shlokas. There is something magical about the way he recites Ya Devi Sarvabhuteshu reaching a crescendo when the valorous parts of the story are recited. And it is amazing that a programme that has been broadcast from the 1930s still has the same appeal, decades after the narrator has passed on.

If you want to listen to him try this link on Youtube.

Shubho Mahalaya to all of you!

Today’s saree is a simple dull gold khadi silk. Festive without being too flamboyant. The mood was a little low as things are not going too well on the health front in the extended family. Subodh is away trying to manage things, and so the photographs are not as nice as I want them to be.

Saree #92: An orange silk saree with Madhubani art for Pratipada

Today, the first day of Navratri is known as Pratipada. As I sat down to read from Durga Saptashati, so many memories flashed past. This is my mother’s copy of the book. The pages are yellowed, dog-eared and fragile. I can easily buy another copy, but this is precious. As I open the book, a small note in my mother’s handwriting drops out. She had made notes on some shlokas. I remember one year when she celebrated Navratri in my house, sitting just here, after gathering the red hibiscus flowers from my garden.

Pratipada is associated with the first avatar of Durga, Shailaputri. Shailaputri literally means ‘daughter of the mountain’. As the story goes, after Sati immolated herself in Daksha Prajapati’s yagna, she reincarnates as the daughter of Parvatraj Himalaya. So Shailaputri is Parvati. Her father Himalaya is also called Himavat, so this manifestation of Navdurga is also known as Haimavati.

Shailaputri

The goddess is depicted with her mount as Nandi, with a trishul in her right hand and a lotus in her left. This avatar of Durga is an embodiment of Mother Nature: she is the daughter of the pristine mountains, she holds a lotus representing purity in left hand, while the three prongs of her trident represent the past, present and future.

In her avatar as Shailaputri, Parvati is single minded in her pursuit of Shiva. She is worshipped on the first day of Navratri, telling one to be disciplined on your path to self-realisation.

Today’s colour is orange which symbolizes energy and vibrancy. I’m wearing a silk saree with Madhubani fish, peacock and floral motifs drawn all over the borders and pallu. This bright saree is a gift of love from my niece Sweety and my sister-in-law Nirmala di. Sadly they are going through rather difficult times and will be in my prayers this year.

Saree #93: A white Bangladeshi Pabna silk saree for Dwitiya

Durga is worshipped as Brahmacharini on Dwitiya, the second day of Navratri. As is evident from the name Brahmacharini is a woman who practices Brahmacharya. Brahmacharini makes an appearance in the puranas immediately after the Madana Bhasma or Kama Dahana episode.

The legend from the Hari Vamsa goes, that the young maiden Parvati is single-minded in her resolve to marry Shiva. Learning of her desire, her parents, Himavat and Mainavati try to discourage her. After all Shiva is an ascetic who lives a not so comfortable life, and doesn’t care much for love. However, undeterred by all this advice, Parvati performs rigorous penance in the pursuit of her love.

Meanwhile the demon Tarakasur is creating havoc in heaven and the Gods are troubled. The demon has a boon according to which he can be killed only by Shiva’s child. But Shiva is a celibate ascetic! Indra, the king of the Gods, directs Kamadeva, the God of Love, to generate desire in Shiva for Parvati. To create an atmosphere congenial to romance, Kamadeva creates an untimely spring (akaala vasanta). He evades the guard, by assuming the form of a fragrant breeze and reaches the place where Shiva is deep into meditation. He shoots an arrow of flowers from his bow to stir love in Shiva. Disturbed from his penance, an enraged Shiva opens his third eye and reduces Kamadeva into a pile of ashes. With the Lord of Love gone, entire nature becomes listless.

However Kama’s arrow has not missed its mark. Shiva notices Parvati and asks her what she wants. She asks him to bring Kamadeva to life. He agrees, but says that Kamadeva will live in a disembodied form. That is why Kamadeva is also referred to as Ananga or ‘one without a body’. The spirit of love is now disseminated throughout the cosmos. Shiva however tells Parvati that he isn’t looking for love.

Parvati does not lose hope. She begins to live in the mountains like a Brahmacharini, emulating Shiva’s lifestyle. She leads an austere life. She is also called Aparna, one who does not need sustenance, as she performs rigorous fasts. She is a yogin who performs tapasya. Her burning zeal and her arduous penance draws Shiva’s attention, and awakens his interest in her. He meets her in disguise and tries to dissuade her telling her why Shiva isn’t a suitable husband. Parvati doesn’t relent, and eventually Shiva melts. He offers her the left half of his body, and tells her:

I am the sea, you are the wave
You are Prakriti, and I am Purush

Then on they are worshipped as Ardhanareeshwar or Uma Maheshwar.

Brahmacharini

Brahmacharini is depicted like a blissful ascetic who is on her way to attaining moksha. She walks with bare feet, holding a rudraksha japa mala in one hand and a kamandalu in her other. She symbolizes peace and happiness.

Today’s colour aptly is white. It symbolizes peace, purity and prayer in the hearts of the believers. The saree I have chosen to wear is a white handwoven Bangladeshi silk from Pabna.

Saree #94: A red South silk cotton saree for Tritiya

Durga’s third facet who is worshipped on Tritiya is Chandraghanta. The name Chandraghanta is derived from the bell-shaped half-moon which adorns her forehead. This is the avatar of Parvati which appears after her union with Shiva.

It is said that when Shiva finally agrees to marry Parvati, King Himavat’s palace gears up for a grand wedding. However being the activist that Shiva is, he appears at the palace, uncouth, and smeared with ashes with a baraat of ganas, ghouls, ascetics and aghoris. His poor mother-in-law, Mainavati faints when she sees her terrifying son-in-law! Parvati transforms into the beautiful Chandraghanta, and coaxes Shiva to appear in a more charming form. So Shiva transforms, suitably bedecked with jewels like a prince to the satisfaction of his in-laws.

Another story goes like this. When the Gods were troubled by the asuras, Shumbh and Nishumbh, they reached Mount Kailash to pray to Adi Shakti, Shiva’s consort. Parvati, who was having a bath rubbed off her arms and from those cells (koshika) which were sloughed off, emerged a radiance which produced Kaushiki, a stunningly glowing woman with an unusual aura around her. It is said that after this radiance emerged from her body, Parvati herself became dark-skinned.

Chandraghanta

Chandi, Ranchandi and Chandraghanta are all names of Kaushiki. She is depicted with ten hands. Goddess Chandraghanta carries a trident (trishul), mace (gada), sword (khadag) and kamandalu in her four left hands. Her fifth left hand is kept in Varada mudra, which symbolizes charity or ability to grant boons. She carries a lotus flower, arrow, bow and japa mala in her four right hands. Her fifth right hand is placed in Abhaya mudra, where the hand is kept upright with the palm facing front. It is a gesture of reassurance, as if to say ‘have no fear, I’m here’. Her third eye is always open, vigilant and ready for war.

Chandraghanta is an embodiment of serenity, beauty and courage. She has the ability to eradicate all physical and mental suffering, and hurdles from the paths of her devotees. She is ready to go to war to attain peace. Chandraghanta is as benevolent, as she can be malevolent when provoked. She can be kind and compassionate, but she can easily transform into a fierce warring goddess when she needs to.

You will see how.

News quickly spread that a very radiant woman had been sighted in the Himalayas. And Chanda and Munda, two deputies of Shumbh, told him that she was so stunning that he must ‘acquire’ her. So Shumbh sent a messenger to the Devi. The messenger told the Devi that his king ruled the three worlds: earth, heaven and the netherworld. He possessed the most fascinating objects in the three worlds, including Indra’s elephant Airaavat, his horse Ucchaishrava, the Parijaat tree, Brahma’s swan, the jewels of the ocean and so many others. So it would be wise to marry Shumbh and become one of the jewels that he owned. The Devi sighed pitifully and smiled. “I wish I could do that. But in my naivety, I pledged to marry only one who would defeat me in war,” she said. She instructed the messenger to convey this message to Shumbh. On hearing this response, an angry Shumbh directs his deputy Dhoomralochan to drag the Devi by her hair and bring her to him. Though he goes to the Devi armed with an army of five thousand, Dhoomralochan is reduced to a pile of ashes when the Devi merely snorts at him.

The color of the day is symbolically the colour of action and vigour: red. I’m dressed in a red and gold South cotton saree, the colours of the goddess.

Saree #95: A royal blue Kanjeevaram for Chaturthi

Today is the fourth day (Chaturthi) of Navratri. The form of Navdurga worshipped on this day is Kushmanda.

It is said that when the universe did not exist, there was darkness everywhere in that void. And then a divine ray of light appeared. It was initially formless, and eventually it took the form of Kushmanda Devi.
The word Kushmanda is derived from the combination of three words, Ku+ Ushma+ Anda. Ku means little, Ushma means warmth, and Anda means egg. So essentially the word means little cosmic egg.

Kushmanda

Kushmanda Devi is depicted with eight hands and is also called Ashtabhuja Devi. Her mount is a lioness. She holds a kamandal, bow, arrow, and lotus in her four right hands. Her left hands hold a pot of nectar (amrit kalash), japa mala, mace (gada) and discus (chakra). It is believed that Kushmanda Devi bestows supernatural powers (siddhi) and prosperity (nidhi) to her devotees. The white pumpkin is known as Kushmanda (कुष्माण्ड) in Sanskrit, and it is ‘sacrificed’ at her temples.

The Shakti tradition in Indian mythology believes that the gentle mysterious smile of Kushmanda Devi produced the cosmic egg and created the universe. She is looked upon as the creator of this cosmos and is the source of all energy. She created the sun, the planets, the galaxies and brought all beings to life. She is believed to reside in the sun itself and it is said that the sun’s brightness comes from her lumniosity.

After creating the universe she proceeded to create the three supreme goddesses. From her left eye, she created a fearsome woman with a very dark complexion. She had ten faces, ten arms, ten feet, thirty eyes, fifty fingers and fifty toes. She was clad in space (naked) except for a girdle of severed arms and a garland of skulls. Her hair was disheveled, her red tongue hung out and she cackled ghastily, evoking terror. She was armed with cleaver, trident, discus, arrow, shield, severed head, skull-cup, conch-shell, cross-bow and a club. She was collecting blood dripping from the severed head in the skull-cup and sipped it while eating flesh. Kushmanda Devi named her Mahakali.

From the third eye on her forehead, Kushmanda Devi created a ferocious lady with the complexion of lava. She was clad in saffron clothes, and wore an armour and helmet. She had eighteen arms and was armed with a battle-axe, trident, discus, mace, thunderbolt, arrow, sword, lotus, rosary, conch-shell, bell, noose, spear, goad, bow, shield, wine-cup and a kamandalu. She sipped wine from the wine-cup and was seated on a lotus and roared fearsomely. Kushmanda named her Mahalakshmi.

From her right eye, Kushmanda created a benevolent woman with the complexion of milk. She had eight arms and three placid eyes. She was clad in white clothes and wore a crescent moon on her forehead. She was armed with a trident, discus, pestle, arrow, conch shell, bell, bow and a ploughshare. Her face was glorious like the full moon and she wore pearl ornaments. She was seated on a gem-studded throne and maintained a serene smile. Kushmanda named her Mahasaraswati.

A man and woman sprang out of Mahasaraswati’s body. The man had four faces and four arms. He was clad in saffron clothes. He held a lotus, book, rosary and a kamandalu. Kushmanda named him Brahma. The woman, clad in white had four arms and complexion of milk. She held a goad, a rosary, a book and a lotus. Kushmanda named her Saraswati.

Almost immediately, a man and a woman sprang out of Mahalakshmi’s body. The man had four arms. His complexion was dark and he was clad in yellow clothes, and heavily adorned with ornaments. He held a discus, a conch-shell, a mace and a lotus. Kushmanda named him Vishnu. The woman had four arms and fair complexion. Clad in gold, she held two lotus buds in her two upper arms while her two lower hands were held open. She was heavily bedecked with ornaments. Kushmanda named her Lakshmi.

Similarly from Mahakali’s body emerge a man and woman who are Shiva and Shakti. (Note that in other versions of Indian mythology, the trinity- Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva- have other origins. Each deity is told to have been produced by the others. So you will find versions where Brahma emerges from the lotus in Vishnu’s navel, or some stories where he is created by Shiva. In other versions Brahma is said to be the creator of the universe. The above is the version of the Shakti tradition, where the feminine divine is seen as the creator of the universe. )

Thereafter in the legend, Saraswati, Lakshmi and Shakti combine to take the form of Chandi in order to defeat the asuras.

Today I’m wearing a royal blue Kanjeevaram which I picked up from one of my Coimbatore trips. This no zari saree has a Ganga Jamuna border and a beautifully woven motifs in pink over the edges and the pallu. Blue depicts tranquility, yet I feel this shade of blue symbolizes a strong energy.

Today was also time for another kind of prayer. It is Mahatma Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary. We spent the morning in Sevagram ashram where there was an interesting talk on the relevance of Gandhi, and one on Gandhi and Health by Dr Subodh Kelkar from Goa. We also met a Gandhi lookalike, Mr Dhabarde who agreed to pose with us.

Saree # 96: A yellow embroidered georgette saree for Panchami

Today is Panchami and the avatar of Navdurga who is worshipped today is Skandmata, or “mother of Skand”. The strength of a mother surfaces when she feels her baby is in danger, and this form of the goddess personifies that strength.

Skandmata

Skandmata is depicted with four arms and three eyes, riding a lion. She holds her infant, the six-headed Skand, in one of her right arms and a lotus in her other right hand.  Another left hand also carries a lotus flower. Her left hand is in Abhaya Mudra. She is often depicted seated on a lotus, because of which she is also called Goddess Padmasana.

Skand is derived from Skandr which means ‘one who leaps’ or ‘one who attacks’. Skand is another name for Kartikeya, the God of War. He is an important diety in southern India (especially in Tamilnadu) as well as parts of South Asia (Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Mauritius, Singapore etc.) where he is worshipped as Lord Murugan or Subramanya or Kumar. He is depicted as a youthful man riding a peacock, holding several weapons. His favourite of course is the spear or the ‘vel’. As we learnt on Day 2, his birth was ordained to kill the demon Tarakasur. Skand even makes an appearance in Buddhism where he is worshipped as Skanda Bodhisattva.

Kalidasa wrote about the birth of Skand or Kumar in his epic poem Kumarasambhavam. As the story goes, after Shiva finally relents and marries Parvati, they get together to consummate the marriage. After years of abstinence, Shiva’s seed is so strong that the Gods are worried about the end result. They sent Agni to interrupt the union. Shiva’s semen is said to have fallen out from where Agni is said to have taken and dropped it into the Ganges, where Agni helps in the preservation of the warmth (by incubation?). And a glowing child Skand is said to have been found by the banks of the river.

The six stars of the Pleiades cluster, the Krittikas, find him and think he is utterly charming. Each of them want to nurse him and cuddle him. They all begin to argue to claim he is theirs. Skand ends the argument by growing five more heads so that all his six mothers can nurse him. Since he is of the Krittikas, he is called Kartikeya.

(There are other versions to this story, where Agni goes to a hermitage of seven married rishis and their wives. He is attracted to all seven but none of the wives reciprocate. Svaha is present there and is attracted by Agni. However Agni isn’t interested in her at all. Svaha takes the form of six of the wives, one by one, and sleeps with Agni. She cannot take the place of Arundhati (Sage Vashishth’s wife) who is extraordinarily virtuous. Svaha deposits Agni’s semen into the reeds near the banks of the Ganges where a six headed Skand is born.)

Some texts link the birth of Kartikeya and Ganesh to Rati’s curse to Parvati. It is said that when Kamadeva was burnt to ashes by Shiva, and then revived in a disembodied form, his wife, Rati cursed Parvati for losing her husband. She said her womb will never bear a child. So if you see mythology, Kartikeya is born of the divine union without Parvati actually going through childbirth. Even Ganesh is said to be created from her body from the uptan which she applies while having a bath.

In northern traditions, Skand is a celibate bachelor who is eternally young, so he is called Kumar. But in Tamil legends, he has two wives, Valli and Devasena. Some researchers feel that Murugan was originally a Tamil deity who was later adopted by the north.

Today’s colour is yellow. The colour symbolizes brightness, happiness, and cheer. I am wearing a yellow georgette saree with white embroidery. I was told this is Parsi embroidery, but I suspect I got royally cheated!

Saree #97: A green Pochampally ikat for Shashti

The last five days of Navratri are most significant and today, the puja pandals will be buzzing with energy. Today is Shashti, the sixth day of Navratri. I was born on a Shashti and so it is a little more special to me.

In Bengal, most of the important rituals in the puja pandals start on Mahashashti. The purohit starts the puja early in the morning with Kalprarambh, where the idol of Durga is installed and ghatasthapana is done. This is followed by Bodhan, which involves rites to awaken the goddess by chanting shlokas and singing devotional songs. The face of the goddess is unveiled on this day. Hindus believe that during Dakshinayana (the six month period between summer solstice to winter solstice), gods and goddesses are in slumber. Because Durga is being awakened at an unusual time, this is called Akaal Bodhan. This is followed by Aamantran or welcoming the goddess. It is believed that during Durga Puja, Durga arrives at her father’s place with her four children: Ganesh, Kartikeya, Saraswati and Lakshmi. Adivaas is an anointing ritual where symbolic offerings are made to Durga and her stay in the puja pandal is sanctified. Women participate in these rituals where they formally welcome the divine Goddess like a daughter on her arrival for a three day trip to her father’s house. Mothers offer Anjali and pray for the well being of their children. The next three days- Mahasaptami, Mahaashtami and Mahanavami– are when prayers are offered to Kali, Lakshmi and Saraswati.

Today the manifestation of Navdurga who is worshipped is the ferocious Katyayani, the Goddess of Victory. She was created to destroy the demon Mahishasura, and is known for her anger, ferocity and ability to vanquish all hurdles in her path. She is said to bestow boons on those who please her. She is also called Mahalakshmi.

One legend goes that a great sage called Katyayana performed a long penance to receive the blessings of the Mother Goddess. As a boon, he requested Adi Shakti that she should be born as his daughter. His wish was granted and Katyayani was born to him.

The Devi Mahatmya narrates an interesting story about her birth. The gods were distraught by the atrocities unleashed on them by the demon Mahishasura. The word Mahishasura means buffalo demon (mahisha + asura). It is said that an asura named Rambha fell in love with a water buffalo (Mahisha). Their progeny was Mahishasura. He was a form shifting demon who could change his shape at will. Since he was born of the union of a buffalo and an asura, he could change between the human form and the buffalo form easily. But it is said that his demonic tendencies never deserted him. It is a symbolic representation of the forces of ignorance and chaos who are deceptive by their outer appearances.

The gods approached Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva and narrated their ordeal because of the demon, hearing which the countenances of the Trinity grew red with anger. A bright radiance appeared from each of the gods’ faces and their combined energies created a beautiful woman. She was resplendent and shone like a thousand suns. She had three eyes, jet black hair and eighteen arms.

Shiva gave her his trident (trishul), and Vishnu a discus (chakra). Varuna gave her a conch (shankha) and a lasso (rope), Agni a dart (shakti), Vayu a bow and a quiver full of arrows. Indra gave her a thunderbolt (vajra) and a bell (ghanta), Kubera a mace, Brahma a water-pot (kamandalu), Kaal gives her a shield and sword, Vishwakarma a battle-axe and other weapons. Other gods adorned her with ornaments and fine clothes. Thus armed and adorned by the gods, Katyayani proceeded to the hills.

When the asuras saw her, they were captivated by her beauty. They went to their king Mahishasura and described her. Mahishasura was now eager to possess her. He asked for her hand, she said that she must be won in war. Mahishasura sent his commanders who were vanquished by the Devi. Finally he went to the battle himself. He took the form of a terrible buffalo who raises the dust and pummeled the ganas to pulp with his hoofs and horns. He then rushed to attack the Devi’s mount, the lion.

In a long arduous battle, the angry Durga snares Mahishasura with a lasso, and he changes to a lion form. The moment the Devi cuts off the lion’s head, he emerges in a human form. The Devi pierces him with several arrows and he transforms into a rogue elephant who troubles her mount. The Devi cuts off the elephant’s trunk and the demon again transforms into a buffalo. A very angry red eyed Durga springs upon the back of Mahisha, pushes him with her feet and thrusts a trident through his throat. The demon tries to emerge from the buffalo in human form when Durga slays him with a sword. Since then she is called Mahishasur Mardini, the Slayer of Mahishasura.

Katyayani

Katyayani is depicted with four arms (sometimes 18 arms). She carries a lotus and a sword in her left hands and her right hands are in Abhaya mudra and Varada mudra. Her mount is the lion.

Other versions of the legend say that Katyayani accompanied Vaishao Durga (Mahalakshmi) to Karvir (present day Kolhapur), and had a battle with the demon Kolhasur. The Tulja Bhavani temple of Tuljapur is also said to be dedicated to this form of the goddess. Shivaji’s famous sword, the ‘Bhawani’, which is said to have brought him success in his military expeditions is supposed to be a blessing from this temple. The virgin goddess, Kanya Kumari is also said to be an avatar of Katyayani. Young girls in search of a good husband are often asked to fast and pray to Katyayani. The city of Mysore is said to be named after Mahishasura.

The word Durga is said to be derived from the word ‘durgam’ which literally means ‘difficult to attain’ or ‘difficult to conquer’. The Feminine Divine is worshipped as Durga on the nine days of Navratri. Central to this festival is the recitation of the Durga Saptashati or the seven hundred verses dedicated to Durga. These powerful verses, also called the Durga Mahatmya consist of narratives, where the Goddess vanquishes Asuras like Mahishashura, Dhoomralochan, Chand, Mund, Shumbh, Nishumbh, Raktabeej and others. I would like to believe that these demons are merely personifications of our vices such as anger, ego, lust, greed, pride, and hypocrisy. But why is the buffalo used as a symbol of evil? There are some claims that these beliefs go back to the Neolithic man when hordes of wild buffalo troubled residents.

Sometimes you don’t know whether these are myths, legends or whether these are distorted stories about actual people who lived. Today as I was researching before writing this piece, I discovered that a tribe called the Asur community actually lives in Bengal and Jharkhand. They believe that they are the descendants of Mahishasura. They believe that the Asuras were the original civilized inhabitants of India and developed Harappa and Mohenjodaro. They almost had an urbanized civilization. Until the white skinned Aryans invaded India and the Asuras were forced to flee and scatter all across the country. The Asuras believe that their tribal rules do not permit one to attack a woman, an elderly person or someone with disabilities, and hence they lost the battle. During the nine day festival of Navratri they do not venture out of their homes and mourn. On the last day they pray for the well-being of their ancestors. If you want to learn more, watch a documentary called ‘From Durga to Hudur Durga’ on Youtube. I find it fascinating that so many beliefs and perspectives exist— all connected to one common storyline. As they say, every person finds their own truth and believes in it.

Today’s colour is green, the colour of growth and energy. I’m wearing a Pochampally Ikat saree on this occasion.

Saree #98: A grey Bandhani Saree for Saptami

Greetings on Mahasaptami! On this day at daybreak, Bengali puja pandals invoke Goddess Durga with Navapatrika. These are essentially leaves of nine plants bunched together (banana, colacasia, turmeric, Jayanti, bel, pomegranate, ashoka, arum, rice paddy). These represent nine goddesses. These are tied to the twigs of a white aparajita plant with a yellow thread. The navapatrika is given a predawn bath along with Kolabau in Gangajal. Kola is Bangla for banana and bou means wife. It is a symbolic representation of Lord Ganesh’s wife. The banana stem is draped in a new saree and kept next to the idol of Ganesh.  It is believed that this ritual has agrarian roots, and was originally observed by peasants who prayed for a good harvest of paddy.

Another ritual carried out today is mahasnan. A mirror is placed in front of Goddess Durga’s idol and the reflection in the mirror is given a bath. The daily rituals performed from today in the community puja include pushpanjali, hom (yagna), distribution of bhog (prasad), sandhya aarti, as well as my favourite, the playing of dhaak and the dhunchi naach.

On Saptami, the most ferocious avatar of Goddess Durga, Kaalratri is worshipped. Kaalratri literally means the ‘night of death’. This avatar is more popularly called Kaali (the dark skinned one), Mahakali, Bhadrakali, Bhairavi or Chamunda. Durga took this avatar to kill the demons Shumbh and Nishumbh.

There are two major episodes in the Devi Mahatmya where Kaali makes an appearance. The first is when the demons Shumbh and Nishumbh send their commanders Chand and Mund to capture the Devi. Goddess Chandi creates a dark goddess who kills Chand and Mund, and therefore she is called Chamunda Devi.

Later, the demons send their most fierce demon Raktabeej. This demon has a strange boon. Whenever a single drop of blood from his body fell on earth, another clone of him would be created. The goddesses were fighting a losing battle, as whenever he was attacked, several others like him would appear and they were rather scary. So Chandi devises a battle strategy. Kaalratri flew into a rage and did not let a single drop of Raktabeej’s blood fall on the earth. She drank it all. She chomped up any clone who tried to appear. And eventually Raktabeej was finished.

Kaalratri

Kaalratri is depicted as a four armed woman who is very dark skinned and rides a donkey. She evokes fear with her appearance. She has large red eyes, her mouth is open, her red tongue hangs out and her jet black hair is disheveled and left open. She carries a sword and a menacing iron hook in her left hands. Her right hands are in Abhaya mudra and Varada mudra. Kaalratri is believed to be the destroyer of all demons, ghosts, spirits and negative energies. Another of her names is Shubhankari, which means she always wishes well and does well to her devotees. Darkness that is mentioned with her name is also symbolic of ignorance. So Kali is also a goddess who destroys ignorance.

Kaalratri is also mentioned in the Sauptika Parva in the Mahabharata. At the end of the great battle, an enraged Ashwatthama creeps into the Pandava camp and kills the sleeping children in a murderous frenzy, mistaking them to be the Pandavas. Kaalratri appears on the scene, in her blackest form, with a bloody mouth and bloody eyes, wearing crimson garlands, smeared with red, attired in a single piece of red cloth, with a noose in hand resembling an elderly lady, chanting a dismal note. Here she personifies the horrors and worthlessness of war.

Saptami is also considered the day when Lord Ram started preparing for his battle with Ravana. He is supposed to have prayed to Durga for his success before the battle.

Today’s Navratri colour is grey. I’m wearing a grey bandhni (tie and dye) saree that I picked up at Bapu Bazaar on my last trip to Jaipur.

Saree #99: A purple Kanjeevaram for Ashtami

The eight day of the Puja begins with elaborate Pushpanjali rituals where flowers and bel patra are offered to the goddess with the chanting of the three Pushpanjali mantras.

ॐ जयन्ती, मङ्गला, काली, भद्रकाली, कपालिनी।
दुर्गा, शिवा, क्षमा, धात्री, स्वाहा, स्वधा नमोऽस्तु ते॥
एष सचन्दन गन्ध पुष्प बिल्व पत्राञ्जली ॐ ह्रीं दुर्गायै नमः॥

ॐ महिषघ्नी महामाये चामुण्डे मुण्डमालिनी।
आयुरारोग्यविजयं देहि देवि! नमोऽस्तु ते॥
एष सचन्दन गन्ध पुष्प बिल्व पत्राञ्जली ॐ ह्रीं दुर्गायै नमः॥

ॐ सर्व मङ्गल माङ्गल्ये शिवे सर्वार्थ साधिके।
शरण्ये त्र्यम्बके गौरी नारायणि नमोऽस्तु ते॥१॥
सृष्टि स्थिति विनाशानां शक्तिभूते सनातनि।
गुणाश्रये गुणमये नारायणि! नमोऽस्तु ते॥२॥
शरणागत दीनार्त परित्राण परायणे।
सर्वस्यार्तिहरे देवि! नारायणि! नमोऽस्तु ते॥३॥

The highlight, of course, is the Sandhi puja, which is performed at the cusp between Ashtami and Navami. According to the Puranas this is the time when the asuras Chand and Mund attack the Devi from behind her. Chamunda is said to have emerged from the third eye of an enraged Durga. Chamunda Devi then proceeds to kill the two demons. This is the time when animal sacrifice was traditionally offered. Now of course vegetables are symbolically sacrificed as a substitute. 108 lotuses are offered during the puja and 108 lamps are lit. The surrogate effigy is smeared in red vermillion to symbolize blood. The goddess is then offered bhog.

The eight manifestation of Navdurga is Mahagauri. As a young maiden Parvati was extremely fair and due to her complexion was called Mahagauri or “the great fair-skinned one”. She is said to glow like a white pearl and possess unimaginable beauty. Mahagauri is the goddess of purity and cleanliness. As the story goes, after Kaushiki, the fair skinned beautiful maiden, killed Shumbh and Nishumbh, she merged back with Parvati, and she is called Ambika in the Devi Mahatmya.

Mahagauri

Mahagauri is depicted with four arms. She holds a trident (trishul) in one of her right hands and a small rattle drum (damaru) in one of her left hands. Her other right hand is in Abhaya Mudra. The other left hand is either depicted in Varada mudra, or sometimes she carries a kamandalu. Her mount is the bull, Nandi.

There are different versions of the story of Parvati’s fairness. One goes that while she performed severe penance to beget Shiva as a husband, her soft skin bore the brunt of the extreme weather and turned dark. When Shiva agreed to marry her, she bathed in the holy Ganges and turned extremely fair.

Another story goes that Shiva turned her fair skin to dark and began calling her Kali as a joke. The word Kali also has its origin in Kaal or death, and her friends teased her. Parvati was very hurt and leaves Shiva. She prays to Brahma and performs rigorous tapasya. Lord Brahma appears and asks her to go to Mansarovar, where a bath in the river brings back her fair complexion.

I find it strange that so much emphasis is given to the colour of the skin in Hindu mythology, and yet both the dark-skinned Kali and the fair skinned Gauri are equally revered. Unlike the malevolent Kali, Mahagauri is the forgiving one. She is said to wash away to sins of past, present and future, of all her devotees. I doubt whether this has racist undertones like one would be quick to conclude. Simply because the most loved God, Krishna, has been described always as the dark-skinned but good looking Shyam. 

Today’s saree is a simple purple Kanjeevaram.  The colour represents ambition and power. Since there was a tragedy in the family and our Navratri celebrations were terminated, I am posting an archival picture.

Saree #100: A peacock green Bangladeshi silk saree for Navami

On Navami, people pray to Siddhidhatri, the last avatar of Navdurga. The word Siddhidhatri literally means “bestower of supernatural powers”.

She is said to possess eight siddhis or supernatural powers. These are anima, mahima, garima, laghima, prapti, prakambya, ishitva and vashitva. Anima means the ability to diminish one’s body to the size of an atom. Mahima on the other hand means the ability to expand one’s size to an infinitely gigantic form. Laghima means the power to become weightless, while garima means the power to become infinitely heavy. Prapti is the power to be omnipresent. Prakambya means the power to achieve whatever one desires. Ishitva means the power to become the lord of all worlds, while vashitva means the power to subjugate all. Siddhidhatri is believed to grant supernatural powers (siddhi) to her devotees.

Siddhidhatri

Goddess Siddhidhatri sits on a lotus and has four arms. She is sometimes depicted riding a lion or a tiger. She has a mace (gada) and discus (chakra) in her right hands. She holds a lotus and a conch shell (shankh) in her left hands.

We have already heard the story of the creation of the universe by Kushmanda Devi. After this the holy trinity, Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, worshipped Goddess Siddhidhatri who granted them their supernatural powers. Siddhidhatri entrusted Brahma to take on the role of the creator, Vishnu with the role of the preserver of creation and Shiva with the role of the destroyer or activist when required.

She grants the holy trinity the eight siddhis to carry out their tasks. She tells them that their powers lay with their respective wives. The symbolism is amazing. Each God gets what he needs as a complementary in his spouse. So Saraswati or wisdom accompanies the creator, Lakshmi or wealth accompanies the preserver, and Shakti or strength accompanies the activist. It is believed that at the behest of Lord Brahma, the creator, Goddess Siddhidhatri transformed Shiva and Parvati into Ardhanareeshwar so that they could create the world and all its creatures.

Just like on Ashtami, Maha Navami also begins with pushpanjali and aarti. A hom is organized followed by bhog. There is an overwhelming sense of grief as the Mother Goddess will depart from earth on the next day. People offer pumpkins to the goddess symbolically as a substitute for animal sacrifice. Community feasts or bhog is served where the khichuri is much loved.

Today’s Navratri colour is peacock green. This is a silk half and half saree which Subodh got me from Bangladesh which has beautiful embroidery all over in satin thread and little black sequins embroidered at the edges.

Vijaydashmi

Vijayadashmi, or the victory of Goddess Durga over the buffalo demon Mahishasur, is celebrated on the tenth day. The day is marked by Sindoor Khela where women smear sindoor on the idols and on each other. It signifies the wish for a blissful married life. While historically only married women participated in the Sindoor Khela, the ritual has become more inclusive by allowing everyone to participate. An emotional goodbye is given to the Goddess. The idols are taken in a grand procession to a river or coast and immersed.

There is something about the Kolkata style of Durga idols which always attracted me. Especially the eyes. I would tell my mother that the idol reminded me of her face, and she would say I was being silly. It still does, and everytime I see a Durga idol being immersed after the ten day puja, my eyes well up.

(All Navdurga images have been sourced from Wikipedia Open Commons)

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