Navaratri, nine nights in a year when the women of India celebrate. They celebrate the Goddess, the feminine principle; the Shakti, womanpower and most enjoyably, they celebrate themselves and each other. On no other occasion have I ever come across so many women with smiles on their faces. This is the given, allowed, and codified opportunity for a woman to be completely free, express her style with abandon and indulge in a social whirl that could leave one breathless.
Navaratri is not a casual affair. Invitations are printed and formally sent. It is always a well-planned event at home in the midst of an efficiently charted series of visits to those from whom one has received an invitation. Invitations for Navaratri “Golu” or “Kolu”, the display of dolls, range from the predictably expected ones from family and close friends where a visit is mandatory, to those from larger and ever widening rings of acquaintances where greater discretion is applied based on time, distance, inclination and convenience. Most women try to make it to every house they are invited to. To visit is to show solidarity, support and love to those we are connected to. Also, the courteous and gracious gesture conveys unspoken goodwill towards those we hope to get to know better.
Women meet lots of other women in the course of each evening over the nine nights. The ripple effect of this is reciprocity results in a widened social network and often, new friendships and relationships are forged. With every day and every visit, women band, disband and regroup at different places depending on the way each woman has planned her evenings.
Great care is taken to attend to the needs of those who are expected to visit in the evening. Delicious snacks are made, especially the particularly nutritious Sundal, a specialty for this event. Sundal, a high protein, low oil dish is made with steamed or boiled whole peas and gram seasoned delicately and garnished with grated coconut, chopped pieces of mango and curry leaves, is significant as it represents the essence of woman. Whole peas and gram sprout easily and are extremely enriching. This very fecund property of the legume makes it a symbol of fertility for the celebration of the Goddess during Navaratri. These grams and peas sprout easily and replenish the earth with essential nutrients the way a woman recharges her family and those around her with her loving energy.
Gifts are bought for the expected guests, something small but beautiful images of the goddess or Ganesha, pill boxes, incense holders, lamps, trinkets, personal accessories...the gamut of beautiful objects available at a reasonable price is fabulous. Each gift is carefully bagged with a coconut, betel leaves and nuts, Kunkuma and turmeric, glass bangles and a piece of blouse material. Sweets and munchies are packed carefully and added to this gift bag. All the bags are arranged nearly for the guests, waiting to be handed to each woman as she leaves after her visit.
In every house, groups of women meet, laugh, sing and chat, reveling in feminist camaraderie, exchanging in between all this deep moments of empathy, sympathy and reinforcing connections. Most of all, they admire each other's handiwork in setting up the festive Golu decorations: the collection of dolls that each family has and the artistic way in which they have been displayed.
The very word Golu brings to mind several images from my childhood. I remember visiting a family where a corner room was devoted to the Golu display. My mother and I entered and my awed eyes silently took in the multitude of dolls arranged on 13, draped, semicircular steps that spanned the entire room. Even sized icons of the Hindu Pantheon stood shoulder to shoulder along every row. With the dim light form the colored bulbs on the display, the whole arrangement looked like a high school assembly of strangely colored and ornamented people all standing in attention, arranged by "height order " with "one arms length (dolls arm of course) apart in neat rows. I was awed by the number but unimpressed by the display.
There was always great anticipation that accompanied each visit. One always wonders, “What would this golu be like?” We walked into a very beautiful cream-colored art deco house that belonged to a very old and traditional family in Chennai: Old money disappearing fast. The women were dressed splendidly, wearing simple, elegant but incredibly beautiful jewelry. The children, like me, were in their silk skirts and braids. I shyly said hello to an older girl who offered me flowers and sprinkled me with some sweet smelling rose water from an ornate silver dispenser. She had long hair braided tightly and at the end of this swishing black whip hung an ornate tassel. She very sweetly took me through her Golu, explaining things in detail and showed me her contribution to their display. It was beautiful. I admired the way she had sprouted mustard seeds and made large miniature fields for her toy farmers and created a stream running through it. There were little clay images of people; a potter making his pots, a snake charmer piping his sleepy snake awake, the inevitable sadhu and his disciples. There were also several of the usual images of our deities, Shiva and Parvati, Vishnu and Lakshmi , Radha and Krishna, Krishna with his gopikas, the Dasa Avataras of Vishnu, Rama and his family, Ganesha and Muruga and several others placed aesthetically on five tiers. We were served delicious Sundal, some badusha and juice. Many of the women visiting were coaxed to sing and once they began dulcet voices poured out melodies to the Goddess. Their renditions of divine love were greatly appreciated. The women were modest and self-effacing but one could tell that the vehemence of appreciation pleased them immensely. The atmosphere of acceptance, appreciation and encouragement seems so much like that of an affirming support group. Navaratri is certainly a time when women get an ego boost, a chance to be publicly acknowledged for their creative and artistic skills and to reciprocate in kind.
While the women socialize and have fun in front of the Golu, the men who dutifully chauffeur them around, hold umbrellas to shelter their beautiful loved ones from the rain and patiently accede to the agenda set for once by their wives, enjoy a social of their own. They revel in the segregation and congregate and catch up with each other in gregarious groups that ooze chauvinism, all the while tucking in to the delicious snacks and savories made for the occasion. (Their appetites are usually taken into consideration for when guestimating to prepare edibles for the evening!) When the wife emerges, ready to leave, they take their cues with great docility and part with their friends!
The Navaratri Golu is a common experience for the Tamizh and Andhra communities. The Andhra people call this event bommalu golu. They celebrate it in a very similar manner to the Tamizh people. Keralites who live close to the Tamizh Nadu border celebrate the Navaratri festival, especially those from the Palaghat region. In Karnataka, some communities celebrate it in this fashion, others revel in a public pomp and involve themselves in the Dussera celebrations made into a grand tradition by the Wodeyars of Mysore. Still others fast, pray and venerate the Goddess for all nine nights.
Navaratri brings with it an excitement that is shared in every household. There is a lot of preparation involved. The old dolls need to be taken down from storage lofts, cleaned, refurbished and made ready for display. Steps need to be created for the arrangement. Any odd number of tiers would do. Further planning is required depending on the elaborate nature of the display planed. One has to go shopping to buy a new doll each year. Jostling amongst the thronging crowds, people look out for dolls and icons that are unusual and not already represented in the family's collection. Sometimes people search for replacements for broken idols. Depending on the year, trends change. Deities are now available in different shapes, sizes and colors. The iconography is sometimes neither traditional nor true to any authentic symbology. Ganesha uses computers, behaves like Durga and sometimes rides on his brother’s peacock. All this variety from kitsch pop to classical does not seem to matter to the common buyer. Made of plastic, clay, papier-mâché and brass, modern dolls are sold at different price points to suit every pocket.
Decorations are bought; flower markets are filled with truckloads of blossoms to choose from. Garland makers busy their fingers spinning the most fragrant and colorful combinations for the goddess in every house. On Mahalaya Ammavasai, the new moon, each family prepares a Kalasa, a pot filled with water and crowned with a ring of mango leaves secured in place by a coconut. This is representative of the goddess and is placed on the first step along with prayers propitiating Ganesha and the goddess. Then, the other dolls are arranged aesthetically. At the very end, twinkling serial lights installed complete the beautiful picture.
I look at our goddess, our woman that we celebrate and could see her in her different roles. Here she is by her husband, his equal, intellectual and proficient in her own right, his half, his passion. There she is a mother, loving, nurturing compassionate and fiercely protective. She is Durga, Lakshmi and Saraswati, protectress, the giving mother who fulfills our desires and nurturing teacher who guides our potential to its fullest. I see glimpses of Her in the strength of so many women who are a part of my daily life. I see in me the desire to manifest the best of her strengths, to aspire and be the woman I invite to grace our home, this incredible Shakti. I become the rough clay doll with the glimmer of her potential within me. With effort and recognition, Her beauty and strength will shine through from within each one of us women.
Childhood Memories of Navaratri: a personal anecdote
My father and I planned our Navaratri together. He would rouse himself to action one aftgernoon before Navaratri and bring in the large wooden stool that served as a ladder in our house. He would climb up and rummage a little until he found our collection of dolls buried under the excesses accumulated and put away since our last Navaratri. Gingerly, he would lower the boxes one by one to my eager hands. I would open the dusty cartons and we would take out large and heavy objects swathed in old clothes. Unwrapping each one carefully, we'd find our beautiful collection of dolls. We had a unique set. Old clay dolls that were over two to three feet high, they were subtly painted and bore exquisite expressions on their faces. Some of these were my grandmothers. Others, replacing the old ones, were made of papier-mâché lighter but tall and elegant too.
We unwrapped each doll, inspecting it for damage and missing parts. A finger nicked here, a flower missing there. We looked for the small things and made the dolls whole. Krishna got back his feather from Ganesha's box and the fat shopkeeper found his fruits packed separately. All the dolls were cleaned. My father bought some gold paint. It really was some kind of gold powder that he would/mix with some kind of thinner and test, leaving rings of gold on my mother's bench. We would touch up all the jewelry the dolls wore with the paint. As the dolls stood to dry, we would set about re-arranging our lives for nine days. Our living room turned into the choicest area to accommodate our Golu. Chairs were dragged away, and every suitable surface, chests of drawers and low tables were arranged to make the odd numbered tiers to seat our collection of dolls. We would choose this carefully aware that our dolls were tall and large. Ours would not fit in the neat, even sized, iron angle bracket shelves some families used for their display. We needed height and depth.
Pleased after two hours of moving and shifting, we would rest and assess the next step. Our invitations were printed. How proud I was to see my name as the hostess alongside my mothers. WE were inviting people for Navaratri. Lists were made, addresses collated and envelopes filled. I was given the enjoyable task of smearing a vermilion and turmeric dot on the four corners of the invite. We took out lovely fabric and draped it to mask the furniture. Fringes and borders were added accents. My mother placed a beautifully decorated Kalasam as a representation of the goddess we were to invite and venerate for all the nine nights (oh yes! Navaratri has a huge powerful religious element to it that gets obscured to a child in all the excitement)
We had a pair of wooden Marapachi dolls that were to be placed next. They were a simple stiff couple, figures that were made as dolls for girls decades ago. This pair was a great aunts toys. Ganesha went up next. He was always placed front and center. A quirk of my father that somehow stayed with us even after he passed away. This Ganesha never looked comfortable anywhere else. All the other dolls were paced with great aesthetic consideration. My mother brought in lush plants to highlight the decorations and add a delicate touch to- our display. My father and I untangled the serial lights and took them in a dizzying maze in and around the dolls, critically examining the overall effect. Occasionally one of us would get a mild buzz of electric shock, a reminder that we had pulled too much or shorted a bulb in our enthusiasm.
The lights would soon be twinkling around the dolls in broad daylight and we'd settle to the next stage of the preparations: The ground display. This was the most challenging part. We had tried to line the ground with plastic, add a few inches of sand and grow our own mustard seed field once. It was too demanding. We focused on our strengths and pulled out our train sets. I had mine and then there was the heirloom, a "Caledonian". This gleaming set lay in boxes arranged neatly in a battered leather trunk. Each coach was a perfect molded carriage with seats and lettering. There were two heavy iron engines, one for the passenger coaches and one for the goods coaches. There were curved tracks and straight tracks, line switches, gates, lights and the works. I reverently took out the pieces, laying the coaches and engines on their side on a soft cloth so as not to damage the wheels. My father handed me some sand paper and we gently sanded the tracks and fitted them together. We did a test run, the engine would move chugging and picking up speed as my heart raced with it. Suddenly it would stall and strain. We would immediately lift it off the tracks and inspect the connections. A refit, some sanding and she would run again. The train had a restaurant car fancier than any I had seen on Indian trains then. Neat little tables and bench seats on wither side were something straight from the movies. I admired it greatly, wondering what they would serve in restaurant car like that: Sandwiches with tea or samosas and coffee?
The day of our Navaratri evening finally came. My hair was braided into a thick and elaborate “ettukal pinnal” a rarity to see these days. It was similar to the popular “french braid”, only much more complicated. My grandmother then took fragrant blossoms of jasmine, kanakambaram and roses and using a needle and some banana fiber, threaded the flowers and sewed it on to my long braid. My hair smelled sweet and looked gorgeous. I loved swinging the braid to and fro, loved the feel of its decorated weight.
My rumbling stomach responded to the wonderful aromas of the Neivithya for the goddess. She was going to have her hearts content, the choicest sweets made with thickened milk, fresh ghee and cream for the next nine days, and she would not have to worry about her figure after that wither! She would always remain beautiful with her high proud breasts, slim waist and lightly flared hips.
I admired her. She was so confident, so imposing, such a wonderful role model to have.
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