October 05, 2008

Welcoming Navratri


I stopped to one side of the railway footbridge and squatting in front of the empty plastic bag that once held ‘Watana’ (lentil) flour and which the old lady had now laid out on the floor I pointed to one of the seven small piles of grains she had arranged in two neat rows on the plastic before asking her, “How much is this for?”

She looked at me before answering, “Five rupees,” smiling and arranging her sari over her head. The Sun had broken through the Dadar skyline, bathing early morning travelers in warm sunshine. After months of rain I luxuriated in the warmth of the September Sun.

Ganesh Chaturthi had drawn to a close a fortnight ago and the city after sending off the elephant-headed god in a tumultuous wave of celebrations spanning twelve devout days now prepared to welcome the next festival in the Hindu calendar, Navratri, literally meaning ‘nine nights’.


And it was on the first day of Navratri, 30th September that I chanced upon Kadubai Borade on the railway footbridge selling an assortment of grains for use in the festival rituals. She sat with other women vendors hawking varied wares.

Actually I was surprised to find her that day because being the opening day of the festival I reckoned households celebrating the auspicious day would have already made preparations a day before the start of the festival, buying handful of grains and scooping mud from flowerbeds in the neighbourhood to fill small clay pots usually placed beside a representation of Goddess Durga. And the next day after sowing grains of jowar in the clay pots on the morning of the festival, followed by religious rituals marking the start of Navratri, they would’ve gone their merry way.

Much traditional dancing and festivities marks Navratri and people turn out in large numbers to dance the night away, night after night until the tenth day, Dussehra (Dasara), marking the day Goddess Durga vanquishes the demon Mahishasura. Until then, dancers in traditional dresses swirl night after night to the beats of traditional music featuring the dhol and the dholak and tabla among others. The dance forms Garba and Dandiya have come to symbolize the fervour of Navratri.

Navratri or ‘Nine Nights’ is a celebration of the nine avatars (forms) the Goddess took to vanquish the evil. On each of the ‘Nine Nights’ devotees worship one of her nine avatars (forms), namely Shailputri, Brahmacharini, Chandraghanta, Kushmanda, Skanda Mata, Katyayani, Kalratri, Maha Gauri, and Siddhidatri. In her Kushmanda form she is depicted with eight arms and riding a tiger. The number of arms varies with the forms she took.


Posters of political parties wishing people on Navratri have come up all over the city and adjoining suburbs. Typically the posters depict an image of Goddess Durga astride a tiger and pictures of political functionaries arranged around the deity.

Kadubai was alone in her choice of wares that Navratri day. It was hardly surprising because I found it unlikely anyone would’ve waited to buy grains and a bed of soil until the opening day of Navratri. So I doubted if Kadubai would’ve any takers for the assortment of grains she was hawking and as also the mound of mud she had stacked to one side unless someone had missed preparing for the festival until the morning of Navratri and came hurrying over looking for grains and soil in which to sow them before it got too late. Most Hindu religious rituals need to be completed before the clock strikes noon on the day of the festival, the understanding being all rituals need to be completed in the morning, preferably early morning and 11.59 am is technically still a morning. It was only half past nine on the festival day when I stopped by her side. The Sun was just about beginning to warm up the day.

“And how much is the soil for,” I asked her, pointing to the small mound of soil the colour of coffee.

“Five rupees,” she answered, cupping her palms together to indicate the quantity I can expect for five rupees.

I gathered a handful of grains in my palm and tried identifying the grain varieties, asking her of the varieties she had mixed together in each lot on display on the empty plastic sack. Sifting through the mixture Kadubai Borade pointed to each grain type and identified it for me in a Marathi dialect peculiar to Solapur, the district bordering the state of Karnataka. Solapur is known for Sugarcane barons and the influence they wield in political circles in the state of Maharashtra.

The other day when he was talking of state subsidies for sugarcane factories that the Govt. of Maharashtra passes on to ‘those of their own kind’ (read caste) my uncle happened to mention that come weekend it is almost impossible to get bookings for AC Three Tier seats on the Siddeshwar Express connecting Mumbai to Solapur unless booked well in advance. Apparently the sugarcane factory lobby, largely made up of the politically powerful Marathas, the caste that dominates Maharashtra’s political scene, travels to Solapur on weekends. Since I mostly travel by Second Class with few exceptions I haven’t had much difficulty in getting tickets for the run to Solapur on the Siddeshwar Express. It leaves Mumbai in the night and reaches Solapur fairly early in the morning, at the break of dawn. I take the Udyan Express for the return journey from Solapur.


The grains (seeds) Kadubai sold were an assortment of corn, wheat, jowar, rice, and one other variety that I could not identify positively. Husk covered the rice seeds in the lot. Initially I had expected to find only jowar seeds since traditionally it is jowar seeds that are planted in an earthen pot and placed beside a representation of the Goddess, the seeds then bear shoots over the duration of the festival. The tender jowar shoots having sprouted by a few inches over nine days are then given away to devotees on the tenth day after performing puja (a religious ritual). The seedlings are symbolically considered to be blessings of the goddess, Durga.

“Pack this lot for me,” I tell Kadubai, pointing to two piles of assorted grains.

“I’ll give you one for free,” she said. I nodded as I reached for money to pay her.

Back home we had already planted jowar seeds early that morning, marking the start of the festival and had no need for grains anymore but I went ahead and bought the lot from Kadubai, just in case the jowar seeds that we had planted in the tulsi vrindavan (a clay construction with images of deities on its four sides and used to plant tulsi. Tulsi is Indian for basil) fail to sprout. As I was to find out later, my fears were unfounded and the jowar seeds have sprouted a robust growth, considered to be a good omen for the family. The picture adjacent shows the growth as of today, the sixth day of the festival. There are three more days to go.


We used the tulsi vrindavan to plant the jowar seeds because I failed to bring home a clay pot for the purpose though I came upon a youth selling small clay pots and mud on the railway footbridge at Dadar the day before Navratri kicked off.


The same day several women too sat to the side of the railings selling assorted grains piled neatly on plastic. Like Kadubai they too had piled up soil in small mounds. They had many takers that day as devotees went about preparing for Navratri the next day. I had hurried past the vendors to be in time for the office and ended up without a clay pot on the morning of the festival. The tulsi vrindavan came to our rescue.

It helped that the vrindavan, filled with soil, was lying unused around the house since the time sparrows repeatedly frustrated our efforts in planting tulsi (basil), stripping the plant of its leaves when no one was looking. Tulsi has medicinal value though it is another story how the sparrows came around to discovering its healing powers.

I’d preferred an alternative to planting jowar in a tulsi vrindavan and I blame the elephant that I came upon for forgetting to get a clay pot home on the eve of Navratri. My spirits had lifted on seeing the elephant again. The last time I saw the elephant I blogged about it in my previous post. I believe it is a ‘he’ for there’s just a hint of a tusk to be seen.


This time around a youth who was taking bananas home stopped by the elephant and fed it the entire lot one by one. I’m not sure if he bought more bananas to take home now that the elephant had gratefully accepted the whole lot. I doubt if elephants ever refuse any offerings, moreover there’s a certain pleasure to be had in feeding animals. I wonder if it because that’s the only way we can get the animal to accept us.


Unlike the last time I had a five rupee coin ready this time around as the trunk came seeking money at my shirt pocket. People stopped by to offer more money that the elephant expertly accepted where the snout curved by a wee bit before curling its trunk up and handing it to the mahout riding on its back.

Note: My follow-up post will feature more on Navratri.

48 comments:

kenju said...

You teach us so much and do it so well! The red coloration on the elephant - is that natural or painted on?

ugich konitari said...

This is such a wonderful post on how a normal person in Mumbai looks at Navratri. I enjoyed all the details , and your nice pictures. I will wait for your next post .

Sarah Laurence said...

Kadubai has such an interesting face. How nice that the sun is back! It must be special to see an elephant on the street.

Lakshmi said...

A human touch to a festival..very nice perspective. We celebrate golu or kolu (as its ref to in Tamil) and I had posted my personal collection..pls do take a look

N said...

come to gujarat for the colourful pics :)
i remember dancing all of those 9 nights away.....now im just too caught up with the grown up concerns of work the next morning, etc.

Cuckoo said...

Very human post. :-)

Ordinary looking things portray something different.

P.S.- Why don't you give full feeds to your posts ? Many times it is difficult to come here.

Anil P said...

Kenju: Thank you. The words 'Om Namah Shiva' are painted on the forehead of the elephant. It is an invocation to Lord Shiva, the destroyer, and the trident that you see painted below the invocation is used by Lord Shiva.

Ugich Konitari: Thank you. Yes, it's a view from the street. Hopefully, I can get the next post read quickly.

Sarah Laurence: Yes, she has an interesting face, a face that I think belongs to the muslim community from the Deccan. I could be wrong with my assessment. She said she is from Solapur. Folks from that region are very hardworking.

Lakshmi: Thank you. I hope I can visit Tamil Nadu sometime and see the place. I'll surely check your collection.

N: I can imagine how it must feel to not be able to swing all Navratri now. Grown-up concerns can weigh one down vis-a-vis memories.

Hopefully I can visit Gujarat sometime soon. I was in Ahemdabad last August, but only for a day.

Cuckoo: Thank you. Very true, ordinary things are sometimes extraordinary when seen close-up.

Maybe it's got to do with the way I think. I always felt I needed to host the reader on my blog, a pleasant feeling akin to having someone visit your house. You could put it down to sentiment :)

Apologies for any inconvenience this might've caused.

rayshma said...

going along with the commercialization, i had come to associate navratri only with the dandiya and garba nights...
love the different perspective :)
nice space u have here.

marja-leena said...

What an interesting and handsome face Kadubai has, and such rich beautiful colours she wears. For a Westerner like me, It's fascinating to learn about your ancient traditions. To me, it's sad that so much of these different ethnic customs are lost in modern cultures.

Sucharita Sarkar said...

I am completely overwhelmed by your blog...both by your interesting, slice-of-life pictures and by your in-depth yet anecdotal writing style.
Thank you for educating me on various unknown (to me, as I'm a Bengali) aspects of Navratri, and entertaining me with the amusing asides about the elephant.

The previous post was also very very readable and memorable.

bhumika said...

Lovely post anil. Good to see how these little things touch your soul. Though i am from Gujarat, i have no idea about this ritual of sowing seeds during Navratri. Thanks to your post, i got a wonderful insight :)

Arun said...

So Sparrows still dwell in Mumbai? They have moved away from most of the city in search of quieter environs(and where there is good food).

Somehow I have never got around to giving money to elephants. But giving them Bananas, I never forget. Its a pleasure to watch them eat, and then in the ensuing offer of friendliness by them, get to rub and pat the trunk. I need an elephant right now :)

Judy said...

I loved reading about Navratri. I find it so interesting to learn more about the customs there. The pictures are just wonderful and that is one smart elephant but the trainer is even smarter to teach him to get money from the crowd.

Nancy said...

Very interesting. The seeds sprouting like mad are especially cheery. What is jowar, exactly?

EP said...

I absolutely ADORE the first photo of her. Seriously, it's nice.

bluehues said...

i am so glad you bought something from india. those women on the photos look such strong women and god knows how much of difficulty they've been through.

i had no idea that seeds were sown for navratri? is that a practice only in mumbai? i dont remember delhi people doing that.

glad for your family taht the seeds sprouted :)

and you make me miss india so much more with this blog.

alice said...

I'm so happy to now know your blog, there are so many things I'd want to know about your huge country...
My English is not good enough to allow me to read easily all your posts, so I'll have to come back for it and for enjoying your words as they deserve it.

Jeanne said...

I love reading your words. You highlight them with such perfect pictures but the details you share make me feel I'm standing there with you as you choose the grains. I also am interested in the colorations on the elephant. They are more obvious than the previous post photos show. So intricate, are they for Navratri or because he is special in his abilities?

Serendipity said...

I walk past Dadar station everyday... and at some point or the other have noticed the things you've spoken about.. but to read it and see your pictures was like describing another place altogether.

I cringe at walking through this particular patch where Kadubai sits, its particularly difficult to walk through.. im sure u know. But to have written this post and not mention all the filth and dirt that surrounds this area is a task, and hats off to you for that!

Will watch this space!

megha punater said...

what a lovely post anil,with such lovely details about the navaratri.the best navaratri's i had were in ahmedabad.
thank you for sharing :)

Suma Rajesh said...

thnks for visitng my blog...ur blog is soo fantastic...loved reading the description and also the pic..

A_N_Nanda said...

Hi Anil,

There is something captivating about ur post; one cannot stop reading till the end. Maybe it is the tone you gracefully set at the beginning. Plus the pictures--they're all framed well. Yeah, you've planted elements of extra-ordinariness into banal objects.

Thanx.

Nanda

http://ramblingnanda.blogspot.com
http://remixoforchid.blogspot.com

Anil P said...

Rayshma: Thanks. The commercialisation is rampant unless you're attending the one in your building complex. With politicians stepping into the arena a new dimension got added to the festivities, maybe not as welcome as some others.

Marja-leena: Yes, she does. The colours on her sari, the pattern itself, are common to folks from the Deccan Plateau.

Ethnic customs keep us in touch with the intangibles and for that reason alone they need to be preserved by practicing them, else they'll get relegated to the museum (of curiosities).

Sucharita Sarkar: Thank you.

It's indeed a pleasure to know you enjoyed reading the post. Navratri is celebrated with equal fervour across communities and certain customs are peculiar to certain regions.

The elephant is a quiet fella :)

Bhumika: Thank you.

The little things leave ripples behind while the big things make a splash and sink, so I'll go with the little things :)

Arun: Yes, they do. I suppose it helps that it rains here so much, ensuring a steady supply of insects they need to feed their young. It's only later that the sparrows include grains in their diet.

In the 16 days they take to grow up and fly away after emerging from their eggs it is insect diet that their parents feed them.

The elephant gets its share of apples and bananas. The mahout needs his share as well hence the money :)

Judy: Thank you. I agree. The trainer needs to be smarter.

Many of these elephants were domesticated for reasons other than for living on the benevolence of others. They serve in temples during procession time. Elsewhere, as in the jungles, they help with chores around the place.

Nancy: Thank you. Jowar is a type of sorghum (a genus of several species of grasses). Some of these grasses, like jowar, are raised for the grain they produce. In the Deccan Plateau jowar is a staple diet. The jowar seeds have sprouted exceptionally well.

EP: Thank you. It's a face that has seen hard times.

Bluehues: It's a pleasure to take the essence of India to faraway shores. The women in the pictures are hardy no doubt, more as a consequence of the life they've led and the struggles they've to overcome, possibly on a daily basis.

Having said that there's a certain simplicity to their lives that we can only see from the outside, much less understand it.

Visit India to renew the ties with the soil :)

Alice: Thank you. Your English is just fine.

I'm touched by your curiosity about my country. You're most welcome here to partake of the slices of Indian life I hope to bring here from time to time.

Do visit again.

Jeanne: Thank you. It's a pleasure to have you read my posts.

The colorations are an invocation to Lord Shiva whose trishul (trident) that he carries always is painted on the elephant's forehead below the invocation 'Om Namah Shivai'.

Serendipity: Yes, it is a difficult stretch to pass even in the best of times let alone in the rush-hour.

It's a pleasure indeed to know you could identify with the post and enjoyed reading it :)

Megha Punater: Thank you. I'm sure the Navratri in Ahmedabad is unparalleled for the riot of Garba and the Dandiya Raas.

You're most welcome :)

Suma Rajesh: Thank you :)

A N Nanda: Thank you.

I'm so glad there were elements in the post that held your attention. Like I saw on a button on a blog not long ago 'nothing is ordinary' :)

n33ma said...

Thanks for visiting my blog.I like this article and especially the photos.

Wayfaring Wanderer said...

Very interesting information you have shared here. Thanks for taking the time!

Bee said...

I'm ashamed to know so little about India . . . but you are such a good emissary! I would like to know more about the nine avatars of the goddess.

I'm curious, also, to know which holiday is the most special or meaningful to you.

Ramya Vijaykumar said...

Hey, first time past your blog its very interesting and I just love the way the jowars had sprouted... I am kinda bringing stuff from India to make an Indian Ethinic kitchen, shall mark this in my list... Wonderful to get a glimpse of our festivs... Lovely blog

Shantanu said...

Very interesting! Completely different from what Bengalis (and even other North Indians) do during this festivals. But I do recollect some of these from my childhood days at Mysore. Thanks for the details and the great pictures.

D said...

OH, Anil!
I will surly swoon. You visited my blog! MINE.
I love your blog so much, the wonderous pictures, the lovely, descriptive words you use paints a picture of a land I can only dream of seeing one day!
I do believe this is equel to seeing Brad Pitt! Your are my blog-celebrity.
Desi

Lucy said...

As ever, you spirit us away. Interesting how it's not only people from quite other parts of the world who are surprised by your blog, but even those from other parts of India who clearly don't have the same customs.

All the details are wonderful, but the elephants are always special!

dharmabum said...

this post, is much like bathing in the september sunshine that you've mentioned.

and yes, i know about the joy of being accepted by animals. to me, it is more because i feel my race has done their race much harm, and yet, sometimes, they only accept more of us...

Merisi said...

The jowar plants really seem to have taken good roots in your tulsi vrindavan! Did you plant they other seeds too? What became of them?

These elephants are really well trained! :-)

Ravi Kumar said...

You shud become brand ambassador of Indian culture. The generation today knows so less about its tradition. Keep it up!
I am busy writing stories of my Himalayan trip. Please do visit. I shall be obliged!

heidi said...

what a great face she has!

Linda said...

I saw some elephants while in Thailand. There something wonderful about them--and they certainly do love bananas.

Blognote said...

I am so pleased that I discovered your blog through you visiting mine! I have read with great interest what you have described to us so well. Thank you so much for sharing!

worldphotos4 said...

Anil, your story is facinating. Thanks for posting it and stopping by my site.

Coffee Messiah said...

What amazing sights and sounds there are in your country.

Real people, selling real food, unpackaged and unprocessed.

A plus on all counts!

Thanks for sharing the depth and photos!

I'm not sure I can ever save enough money to travel ever again what with the state of our country, but if I did, I'd surely ask you to be my guide! ; )

Cheers!

Anil P said...

N33ma: Thanks.

Wayfaring Wanderer: Thank you.

Bee: Thank you. At times geography (as in distance) extends to news coverage as well, and there's so much happening in the world as well to cover them all.

All festival holidays are equally important, but if I were to narrow it down then the Diwali and Ugadi (the Hindu new year) holidays are important.

The nine days of Navaratri are celebrated to acknowledge the nine nights and days that Goddess Durga fought the demon 'Mahishasura', killing him on the tenth day. After Navaratri ends, the tenth day is celebrated as Dussehra (or Dusshera), the day good won over evil.

Nine forms of Durga are worshipped over nine days, one each day. Each form (avatar) has its own unique significance.

Ramya Vijaykumar: Thank you. They spouted very well.

Shantanu: Yes, customs differ for sure, even though the festival is the same. The Mysore Dussehra festival is renowned for its grandeur.

D: Thanks. It's a pleasure to know that the posts are readable. You must visit India. It can thrill and occasionally exasperate :-) but I suppose that's a part of visiting another country.

Thanks for your kind words, and it's a great feeling to be appreciated so.

Lucy: Thank you. The customs differ to a certain extent from region to region. Since each major Indian state has its own predominant language, and culture, there are certain variations to the celebrations though the deities remain the same.

The elephants are indeed special.

Dharmabum: Thanks. Yes, the human race has done more than its share of harm to the rest. I couldn't agree wit you more.

Merisi: Yes, they grew well, considered a good sign :)

The other seeds - the birds partook of them :) Since the jowar seeds originally planted took root well I didn't have to use the others.

On the tenth day (Dussera day) the shoots are offered in the temple.

The elephants are indeed well trained or shall I say are intelligent enough to now what is wanted of them.

Ravi Kumar: Thanks for the faith :) Wish I could. I shall visit and read them.

Heidi: Yes, she does. A face that appears to have seen a lot!

Linda: They sure do. I doubt if there's anything that wouldn't interest them :)

Blognote: Thanks.

Worldphotos4: Thank you.

Coffee Messiah: Yes, many sights and sounds in India, actually countless. I've barely scratched the surface myself.

There's so much life on the streets that one could walk all day long and not feel the strain.

Unlike other destinations India is not costly as a destination. The American dollar still has some muscle to make the trip feasible.

Sure I can always pitch in with the Dos and Donts like a good guide is supposed to do :)

sidhubaba said...

So many faces that we tend to miss. Thanks.

Gauri said...

Interesting insights !! :)

unpretentious said...

very few people can observe simple day to day nuances and be inspired enough to write about it. your post is an example of that. beautiful:)

and yes, feeding animals seems to be our only way of reaching out to them. wish we knew other ways.

please sir said...

Wow - looks like such an interesting place to be!

Anil P said...

Sidhubaba: Yes, in our hurry to be some place that is.

Gauri: Thank you :)

Unpretentious: Thank you. It's a pleasure to know that. Wish we indeed did!

Please Sir: Yes, it is an interesting place to be.

bobbie said...

You are a wonderful teacher. I love reading about the customs of your country, and your photos are just beautiful.

CoyoteFe said...

Excellent post yet again. You guide through your experiences in such an acessible manner, and the descriptions are filled with light. Wish I was there!

Anil P said...

Bobbie: Thank you. I derive as much pleasure in sharing these stories.

Coyotefe: Thank you. It's a pleasure to know you enjoy these posts.

rahul jain said...

hey thanks for giving all the information as its remind me about the Dandiya night which is the best part of this festival !!