Dance With the Song, Nine Nights Long
It is that time of the year again, when the excitement of the festive season descends on us with a flurry of celebrations dedicated to various deities and rishis. People run about the house cleaning it up, decorating while the heavenly smell of festive cooking fills the air. Mmmmmm…
Central to the season is the celebration of Ashada Navarathri (See also Vasantha Navarathri), or the Autumnal Invocation of the Mother Goddess for nine long nights, praying for her blessings and grace which is the sole reason of our very existence. The legend of Ashada Navarathri is told in the Markandeya Purana and is much elaborated in the second and third chapters of the Devi Mahatmya.
The narration starts with the penance of Rambha and Karambha, two asura brothers. The penance was no ordinary one, but was directed towards the Trimurthis themselves to get a boon and rule over the three worlds. So severe was the penance that smoke and fire issued from the meditating brothers as a result of the Tapagni. Now, seeing the severe penance, Indra, the king of devas, got the jitters and afraid that he might lose his kingly position, took the form of a crocodile and killed Karambha when he was involved in the deepest of meditations.
Rambha was furious to see his brother get killed in such a cowardly way. However, he controlled his anger and focused it onto his penance. His efforts at calmness paid off. Finally the Trimurthis appeared before Rambha and asked in their bored tones, “Rambha, ask what you please.” Rambha was very much pleased with the appearance of the Trimurthis and bowed before them, “I ask the same wish as my ancestors, My lords, that I cannot be killed by any human, deva or asura.” Sick and tired of granting equally similar boons they agreed to it, “Thathastu, So be it.”
Rambha was ecstatic about the boon and started on his way back. It was then that he saw a she-buffalo grazing in the field nearby. And all of a sudden, he fell in love with the she-buffalo. Unexplained are the strange desires of the asuras. Rambha immediately assumed the form of a male buffalo and started flirting with the she-buffalo. He made love to the buffalo and was about to get back to his normal form, when a real male buffalo came in and gored him to death. In his moment of triumph, he had not asked for invincibility against animals, and I am sure the Trimurthis did not remind him to do so.
As he lay on the field, his soul gone, the she buffalo, distraught at the death of her lover, built a pyre to cremate Rambha and jumped into it too, committing sati. It was from the pyre that a baby was born, the result of the union of Rambha and the buffalo. The baby could turn into a buffalo and back at will. He was named Mahishasura (Mahisha- Buffalo) and happens to be the villain of our story.
Mahishasura was no less ambitious than his father. He too wanted to rule the three worlds and subject everyone to his reign. He undertook tapas towards Brahma seeking absolute immoryality, tapas that shook the earth and sent out clouds of fire, tapas that created torrential rains and severe cyclones. Brahma appeared before him, drawn by his intense devotion.ab
“Oh, Brahma, make me invincible. Let no one be able to kill me. I should live beyond this universe and the next”
On hearing the request for immortality, the creator was appalled. “Everything that is created should be destroyed Mahisha, I cannot grant you total immortality. Ask something else”, said Brahma, smiling sheepishly.
Mahisha was sorely dejected. He went into a state of deep thought and slowly, an evil grin spread on his face. “Then, Oh Brahmadeva”, said Mahisha, “if death should come to me, let it come to me through a woman. This is my request.” Brahma, who was relieved at this, gave the boon and hopped back onto his swan to fly away.
Armed with the boon and confident that he could not be killed by a person of the fairer sex, Mahisha went about wrecking havoc. He brought the three worlds under his control and tortured the devas and rishis to no end. He established a capital in the south of Bharathakanda and named it Mahishur, after himself. Such was his self-conceit. From the seat of power at Mahishur, he shook the entire world with his atrocious activities.
Slowly, the unbearable tortures of Mahisha reached the ears of the Trimurthis. Unable to see the devas suffer anymore, the supreme godheads decided to bring an end to this nuisance. When the Trimurthis themselves were helpless, there was little that they could do than to turn to their progenitor, the Mother of All, Adi Shakthi. They sat down together, to meditate upon She who reigns over all.
Suddenly, from Vishnu emerged a brilliant ball of flame, shining with the power of a thousand suns. Into this ball merged a lustrous flame that had simultaneously originated from the third eye of Shiva. At the same moment, similar flames rose up from the bodies of Brahma and all the assembled devas and merged into the great fireball which was spreading its light in all the eight directions. Glowing brightly, the flame took the form of a graceful lady, whose brilliance blinded everyone. All of the devas shielded their eyes from the source of light. Surya himself couldn’t stand the brightness of the Goddess. Slowly, the brilliance dimmed and before them stood Adi Shakthi herself, incarnated as Durga to win over the evil demon.
Her face was as white as Shiva, her hair as black as Yama and her arms the deep blue of Vishnu. Her two busts were shining like Chandra and her hips reflected Indra’s glory. From the power of Varuna were formed her thighs, from the Earth her back, from Brahma came her feet and from Surya were formed her toes. The Ashta Vasus were her fingers, from Kubera came her nose, Prajapathi formed her teeth and Agni shone in her three eyes. The Sandhyas (Dawn and Dusk) became her eyebrows and Vayu formed her ears. No poet could sing enough of her beauty and no artist could draw it to perfection. So beautiful was she that she put the Apsaras, the heavenly damsels, to shame.
The devas were extremely pleased to see her and worshipped her time and again. Shiva gave her his trident, Pinaka, and Vishnu lent her his Sudarshana and his mace, Kaumodaki. Varuna gifted her a conch, Vayu, a quiver of ever replenishing arrows and Agni, a spear. From Indra she obtained the Vajrayudha, from Airavatha, a bell, while Brahma gave her a rosary and a kamandala. Surya gifted her his eternal brilliance and Kala gave her a sword and a shining shield. Draped in brilliant clothes gifted by the Milk Ocean, the Nagabaranas of Anantha, the many-many shimmering jewels gifted by Vishwakarma and wearing the never fading garlands sent by Samudra Rajan, Durga shone with divine splendor that captured everyone’s devotion. Finally she accepted a goblet of nectar gifted by Kubera and laughed. Yes, she laughed and the laugh shook the very foundations of Mahishur.
Mahisha was shocked by the sound of the feminine yet powerful laughter. It had produced an effect that he had never felt before in his life, one of Fear. He at once gave out orders to his commanders to keep his armies at ready and immediately set out to meet his enemy. At the boundary of Mahishur stood the armies of Chandika, lead by Durga herself, seated on a golden lion gifted by Himavan.
One look at the extremely beautiful form of the Goddess was enough to infuse lust into the base heart of Mahisha. He shouted across the battlefield, “Oh Lady of extreme beauty, I will fight you not, for I want to marry you. Let us stop this war and be happy. I will make you the queen of all creations for I am the master of the universe.”
He then sent two of his most powerful demons Chanda and Munda to take across his proposal to the supreme Goddess. Chanda and Munda walked across the field, confident and proud, and placed Mahisha’s proposal before Durga. She, but smiled. “But I am already the queen of all creations, inclusive of your conceited king.” she said.
“Vain woman, if you do not agree to this proposal, we are afraid you will be facing very grave consequences.” threatened Chanda. And that was it, with one sweep of her sword, she beheaded the asuras. The whole of Mahisha’s army trembled in fear. Mahisha shook with wrath and sent forth his men to attack the Goddess, “Grab her and produce her before me in chains. I will show her who I am.”
The armies of the demon king rushed towards the army of Durga. But with a wave of her arms, she vanquished them all. More forces were sent to attack her, led by the demons Camara, Hala, Chiksura and many more. They all fell before the power of the Goddess, helpless against the greater power.
Humiliated by the defeat, Mahisha himself went before the Mother and asked her hand in marriage.
Durga laughed again, “Ah, but I will only marry the man who defeats me in a battle. Will you? I think not.” She taunted him.
“Then fight we will”, shouted Mahisha.
A great battle followed between two equally matched contestants. Time and again Mahisha attacked the Goddess, as a buffalo, a loin, an elephant, a goat and many other forms. And every time Durga managed to break through the maya of the Asura’s power. The very worlds shook with the vibrations of the great war. The Goddess too repeatedly attacked him with her paraphernalia of weapons. But the demon seemed to be invanquishable, and he rose back again and again to battle against her.
Realizing that her weapons indeed had no effect on Mahisha, Durga jumped of her lion onto the buffalo-headed Asura. She kicked his head with her tender feet and stomped him down. Mahisha, who had been immune to all weapons, fell senseless at the touch of her divine feet. Then with one plunge of her trident she stabbed the breast of Mahisha, killing him immediately and granting him instant liberation. Such is the sanctity of her holy feet. Mahisha was dead.
The heavens immediately resounded with the blowing of conches, trumpets and the beating of drums. The gods descended onto earth venerating the Goddess with verses and hymns. From the earth came the yakshas, kinnaras and many spirits. The sages worshipped her with flowers and lamps, all very happy with the death of Mahisha. She was praised as Mahishasura Mardhini, the Vanquisher of Mahishasura, and Chamunda, the killer of Chanda and Munda.
“Stay with us, Oh Shakthi, and protect us forever”, they prayed.
Said the Goddess,
“I am always with you. I am the mother who feeds you, the sister who supports you, the daughter who charms you, and the nymph who enchants you.
I am Saraswati who bestows upon Brahma the knowledge to create the world; I am Lakshmi who gives Vishnu the wherewithal to preserve the cosmic order; I am Parvati who allures the ascetic Shiva into worldly life.
I am the heat of fire, the movement of wind, the moisture of water, the radiance of sun, the luster of moons, the sparkle of stars, the fecundity of soil, the sovereignty of Kings.
I am Prithvi, the sacred earth, bringing forth life, nurturing all plants and animals. I am Grama-Devi, the village Goddess, on whose body man builds houses and grows crops.
My essence is present in every woman. They, like me, are vessels of fertility, sources of love and life.”
– The Devi Mahatmya
Thus saying and promising that she would be there for them whenever they needed her help, she disappeared.
The battle had lasted for nine long days, with Durga killing Mahishasura on the tenth day. The devas decided to celebrate it time and again in memory of the great war and the victory that the Goddess had obtained for them. Thus came about the first Navarathri celebrations, which were observed by the devas themselves. They worshipped the Goddess for nine nights and held a grand festival in her honour. The Goddess, extremely pleased with their devotion, promised them eternal protection and happiness. She also asked them to hold this celebration year and again for the benefit of humanity as such. And so came about the custom of observing Navarathri every year, invoking the Goddess for the good of all.
Navarathri traditionally begins on the Prathama following Mahalaya Amavasya and continues on until the Dasami thithi which is celebrated as Vijayadasami (Vijaya-Victory, Since Durga had triumphed over Mahisha on Dasami, it is named so). Lalitha panchami, Maha Sapthami, Durgashtami, and Maha Navami along with Vijayadasami form the five days of traditional worship during Navarathri. The goddess is invoked every day in a different form and worshipped along with a suitable naivedhya. Maha Navami is also observed as Saraswathi Pooja/Ayudha pooja when one worships his books, stationeries and tools of work. Vijayadasami is considered to be the apt day to start any new venture or join kids into schools. Vidhyarambam (The beginning of education) is usually held on Vijayadasami in a number of places.
In the Southern portions of India, Navarathri is synonymous with the Kolu. This refers to a display of beautiful dolls, artistically arranged on rows of steps that are put up in some households as a part of the celebrations. Dolls of gods, goddesses, devas, rishis, men and animals are placed on the steps and worshipped every day. Guests are invited to view the Kolu and are often entertained and provided with prasad. Women and young girls are given trays containing Kumkum, combs, mirror, turmeric and other auspicious items. After keeping the Kolu for nine days, the dolls are taken down on the day following Vijayadasami.
The North of India, however, celebrates Dusshera to commemorate the victory of Rama over Ravana in the battle of Lanka. It is believed that Sri Rama obtained the blessings of the Supreme Mother by observing this autumnal worship of the Goddess and was thus successful in the war. Cities in the North hold Ram-lila on large scales over the ten days and gigantic effigies of Ravana are burnt by people enacting as Rama on the Dasami night, celebrating the victory of good over evil. Dandiya, Garba and Raas gatherings are held all through the nine days where people get to dance and enjoy a lot. In the North, it is more of a community festival as opposed to the private worship done in the south.
But nowhere is the festival celebrated as grandly as in the Eastern states. West Bengal particularly, accounts for some of the largest Durga Puja celebrations in the country. Every home has a gigantic idol of the Goddess installed in its shrine of worship. Huge community Puja Pandals are also set up and for the whole ten days, it is sheer joy and madness wherever you go. It is believed to be that time of the year when Uma, the wife of Shiva, comes down to visit her parents at Yajnodaka Desha ( See Daksha Yagna) in the plains, along with Ganesha and Skandha. The people consider Uma to be their own daughter and welcome her into their homes. They pamper her for ten days with food, dance and games. On the tenth day, the idols are taken out and dissolved into the sea with tearful farewells.
However, the grandest of the Dusshera celebrations take place at the very site where the battle between Durga and Mahisha was fought, Mahishur, or as we know it today, Mysore. The present descendents of the king of Mysore host the Dussera festival to worship Chamundeshwari, their royal deity. The hilltop temple dedicated to the goddess wears a festival look all day long and special poojas are performed. The palace is also kept at its very best, twinkling with lights and fireworks. On the Dusshera day, hundreds and thousands of bejeweled elephants, horses and liveried men parade before the grand palace at Mysore. A golden image of Chamundeshwari, gifted by the erstwhile Maharajas of Mysore, is taken on a procession over an elephant from the palace to the hill top shrine. The whole procession lasts for several hours and is attended by several thousands of spectators. It is indeed a sight to behold.
With Navarathri beginning today, the 19th of November 2009, I am in full spirit to observe the celebrations for the ten days. Here in the US, we have to keep it down and be satisfied with small pujas and simple Naivedyas. However, I intend to celebrate it my style. For every day of Navarathri I will publish a post on different temples dedicated to Shakthi here @ kshetrapuranas (not necessarily within the nine days). This will be my offering for the Goddess this Navarathri. So keep checking this page.