The supreme source of creation, according to Hindu texts, naturally comprises all of life’s dimensions, and therefore includes not only a masculine aspect, but a feminine one as well.
Known as Shakti, or the creative and energetic force of the Divine, the latter provides a spiritual balance to the former, and is thus revered by adherents through various goddess forms, who are particularly recognized during certain festivals of the year — a special one being Navaratri.
A nine-night observance that honors the role the loving, compassionate, and gentle, yet sometimes fierce, feminine energy plays in our lives, Navaratri is famously topped off with a 10th-day celebration of Vijayadashami (commemorating the victory of Goddess Durga over the demon Mahishasura).
Of course, with Hinduism being the incredibly diverse tradition it is, there are many who choose instead to spend the day meditating on a different victory, that of Rama over the demon-king Ravana. While, in this case, it isn’t a goddess directly who destroys the unscrupulous enemy, it is one who inspires such destruction, as it’s the immeasurable power of Sita’s love and devotion that fuels Rama’s drive to vanquish her dishonorable captor.
So, regardless of which pastime one chooses to focus on, the unrelenting light of Shakti dispelling the darkness of corruption is an ultimate lesson every celebration endeavors to appreciate. And, depending on the community, each can look a little different.
The following is an interview with Vasudha Narayanan, a South Indian American who immigrated to America in 1975, and now serves as Distinguished Professor for the Department of Religion at the University of Florida. Having participated in the festivities her whole life, she shares with us her unique perspective: how she celebrated, how she celebrates now, how her outlook and appreciation have evolved over the years, and more.
What are your earliest memories of Navaratri and or Dussehra? What about the holiday period initially resonated with you?
A big part of the reason I continue to celebrate Navaratri today is because of the wonderful memories I have from my childhood. Both sets of my grandparents would observe the festival, and my maternal grandmother, in particular, would celebrate in a grand way.
Some of the earliest memories I have, in fact, are of those celebrations — of getting dressed and offering kumkum [sindoor] and sandalwood paste to our guests, and of setting up the golu [traditional display of dolls, figurines, and deities depicting various Hindu pastimes]. The dolls would come down from the attic and be carefully dusted off, white fabric would be placed on the display steps, and then, one by one, they would go up. And I was given a lot of creative freedom in the arrangement. I could set up parks on the floor, fashion mountains, add animals, even construct a whole village scene. I loved doing it.
When I got older and started my own family, I had boys and no daughters, and traditionally, Navaratri is usually celebrated amongst women. But I wanted to pass on some of the joy I experienced when I was young to my own children. Thus, after my second son was born, I thought, “I’ll do it anyway, they can enjoy it too.” So we’d buy craft dolls, dress them up like gopis to go along with a Krishna, and sure enough, my kids loved it. I’m really happy I was able to give them the kind of memories I was given during my own childhood.
Can you describe, in detail, how you observe the festival time today? What, specifically, makes your community’s form of celebration unique to others?
Though Navaratri is a pan-Hindu festival, the golu form I grew up observing is unique to certain regions of South India, including Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, and parts of Andhra Pradesh.
After we set up the dolls, we’d celebrate for nine days, and while there was some puja [worship], it was largely a festival where the women would go from home to home — sometimes as many as seven in a single day — and participate in music and other forms of performing arts. It wasn’t so much a social performance as it was an intimate engagement in which you sang for the deity and were given a little prasad [sacred food offerings], as well as accepted various symbols of auspiciousness, like haldi [turmeric powder], kumkum [sindoor], and sandalwood paste.
In America now, however, it’s a little different. Here, in trend with my own decision to include my sons, it’s grown into a much broader kind of celebration. Of course, when we first started in Gainesville, Florida, in 1986, when my younger son was about 1 year old, no one was really observing, so it was pretty small and simple. I just took a couple of boxes, put a white cloth on them, and set up whatever dolls I could find around me.
The first couple of years, two South Indian families came to my home, and that was it. The third year, I invited a few more. And by the fourth year, people all over the state who had heard about it were calling me from Jacksonville, Tampa, Orlanda, Tallahassee, and Fort Lauderdale to see if they could come, and I was delighted. The golu grew in size, as did the food and overall celebrations. At the height, I think there may have been 100 to 110 people coming every year.
Eventually, another family also started hosting a program, and now there are multiple.These days we go to a different house almost every evening of the celebration. So the festival has become very different here to how it was in India.
How has your appreciation for the celebration evolved as you’ve gotten older? What about it, now, resonates with you the most?
To start, the fact that I’ve been able to pass on a little bit of my grandmother’s tradition to my children and grandchildren, has been incredibly fulfilling. I’m grateful that I’ve had the opportunity to do it, and extremely grateful for the friendships, which are reflected in my golu display, as many friends and family members have added to the collection over the decades. They’re all part of the celebration now, and seeing them really makes me happy.
Observing Navaratri in the United States has also taught me that I can celebrate my traditions in multiple ways, not just the South Indian way. When I was growing up in India, I only knew one way of celebrating the festival. But in Gainesville, where the South Indian community was not very large, we had different groups celebrating. In addition to our own programs, for example, Bengali groups started hosting Durga puja, and Gujarati ones had garba [traditional folk dance], which I began attending and thought were fantastic.
I learned that we can be part of a larger community comprising different parts of India with multiple traditions. As such, I now take my students to many of these events today, so they can really get to know the diversity and richness of the Hindu tradition.
What issues have you experienced in observing your celebrations in America?
Timing. No one gives you time off here like you get during Christmas and New Years. For those of us observing Navaratri, we have to balance our work schedule with our nine-day marathon of celebrations. So it can really be a time of exhaustion. I mean, the sheer energy it takes just to set up the golu dolls is immense.
Fortunately, people used to come a weekend in advance to help, and we’d blast songs and eat snacks, having fun taking the dolls down from the attic and setting them all up. Looking back on it, it’s actually been very gratifying. So many friends, family members, and students have come over the years, and though many of them now live somewhere else, they still reach out to me during Navaratri to connect and reminisce. That brings me a great deal of happiness — to think how much it meant to so many different people.
If you enjoyed this piece, then you may also be interested in reading “On celebrating Navaratri and Dussehra: through the lens of Kashmiri Pandit, Shivani Raina“