India is already one of the most colourful and vibrant destinations on the planet and Gujurat is no exception to that rule. Already one of India’s most diverse and culturally rich states, the festival of Navratri turns Gujurat into one long, extravagant, over the top and dizzying celebration, and visiting Gujurat during Navratri will be one of the most lively and sensory overloading experiences you will ever have, even if you don’t get to play the Garba yourself!
Gujurat is truly the home of the Hindu festival of Navratri. The festival of course is celebrated in many parts of India but nowhere else erupts into a ten day, nine night festival filled with song, dance, food, drink and brightly coloured decorations everywhere you look, overloading your senses with bright lights, loud music and a joyous sense of celebration.
What is Navratri?
Navratri is a Hindu festival meaning ‘nine nights’, starting on the first day of the Hindu month Ashwin, or the end of September or beginning of October in the Gregorian calendar, where people dance and celebrate for nine nights straight.
Concentrated in Vadodara, the cultural heart of Gujurat, Navratri is celebrated throughout all the cities and villages of the state to a greater or lesser degree and the preparations leading up to playing the Garba leave a palpable state of excitement in the air no matter where you are.
The Garba, the dance of Navratri and a living euphemism for the womb and the centre of the universe, is a celebration of fertility and rebirth, and dancers who play the Garba move in ever increasing circles around a central point – often a lit lamp or even a picture of the Goddess Shakti – to celebrate new birth and the beginning of new life.
A female celebration.
Navratri is a festival that unashamedly and unabashedly celebrates feminine divinity. The womb in this context is literally considered the center of the universe and those who play the Garba dance around it. It celebrates the nine forms of the Goddess Shakti and is seen by locals as a time of fertility and new harvest, of new life and birth and of course the female divine.
As the legend goes, the demon Mahishasur went on a reign of terror and destruction, but couldn’t be harmed by weapons made or borne by men, so Lord Shiva, with the strength of all the Gods behind him, bore the Goddess Adhya Shakti from his own heart. The Gods gifted Adhya Shakti with armour, weapons and a grand lion on which she could ride into battle. She fought the demon for nine nights straight, finally beheading him on the tenth. These nine nights of epic combat came to be known as Navratri, and the triumph of good over evil and the feminine divinity is celebrated with nine nights of song and dance.
Arriving for the preparations.
I arrived in Ahmedabad a week before Navratri actually started, and there was already a palpable buzz in the air. Markets such as those at Law Garden were flooded with Navratri paraphanalia, street vendors couldn’t restock chaniya choli’s and kediyus fast enough and people were adorning every tiny corner with bright festival lights.
Spending a day at the market was an insane endeavor as the normally already busy crowds swelled to biblical proportions and I had to fight just to be able to move in between the hordes of teenage girls excitedly trying on new jewelry, women buying up colourful dresses and garments and even worse, the street vendors trying to shove their wares into everyone’s faces!
The whole market was an explosion of colour and excited faces, and the excitement in the air was as palpable as the humidity left behind by the rain.
Even on normal weekday nights out conversations inevitably turned toward Navratri, and at every meal, in every conversation, young eyes lit up at the mere mention of playing the Garba.
I felt privileged as an outsider to be able to get just a glimpse inside the window of a deep and rich cultural heritage through these preparations, and it allowed me to gain just a little more understanding of what it was I had came to see.
The opening night of Navratri was a spectacular, dazzling affair. Huge stages were being prepared all over Gujurat, and Ahmedebad – where I found myself for the celebration – was no exception.
The GMDC ground in Ahmedabad, a vast public space used for huge events, had been decorated with a dazzling array of lights and colours, and even had a (small) red carpet, an apt concession given the political dignitaries and world ambassadors in attendance. The stage itself, with large screens, production values and film crews usually reserved for the largest of A list concerts, seemed to pulse with light and sound, just waiting for the spectacle to begin.
If this was just the opening ceremony, then I could not wait to experience the rest of the festival itself! But then the weather had other ideas.
It had been touch and go for a few day on whether the rain gods would come and ruin everyones fun or not, and on the very first day of Navratri, it finally happened.
The rains came with a vengeance and the Indian weather went and lost its damn mind!
Venues were forced to close due to flooding, events were cancelled at the last minute and preparations months in the making were left in ruins, but this didn’t dampen the spirits of those waiting to play the garba as events were simply put on hold. There was still an excitement in the air, there was still a wide eyed excitement in every young man and woman and smiles on the faces of complete strangers.
Because Navratri may be a specific celebration to worship the nine forms of the Goddess Shakti, but what fuels that celebration is the underlying passion and love for life in Indian culture that few outside India get to see.
The rain didn’t dampen anyone’s spirit in the slightest! It just made them wait a little longer and built the tension up even more!
Time to dance!
It may have been a few days late, but eventually the stages were opened up, the decorations dried out and the lights put back up as I headed to one of the largest Navratri festivals in the state, the United Way Garba in Vadodara.
Even though I arrived a little early the place was already packed with revellers, dressed to the nines in extravagant costume and vivid colours, each one excitedly getting ready to play the garba, taking selfies on their phones or excitedly chatting amongst themselves.
It seemed to take an age for the vast grounds to fill up, the tension and excitement just palpable as the crowds never seemed to stop growing as everyone milled about, preparing for what was to come, and then I saw it.
Right at the back of the crowd, almost so far back I wasn’t sure I was actually seeing what I was seeing at first, the throng started to move. The sea of people slowly started to undulate to the rising beat of the music, and like a tidal wave in slow motion the movement began to grow and swell, swallowing up more and more people as it drew toward the front.
What started as what seemed like a thousand or so people ended up with more than 40,000 people of all ages and abilities dancing together in unison, all people from all backgrounds coming together to celebrate as one. And it was a beautiful thing to experience.
The only regret I have as a first time visitor to Gujurat during Navratri is that I wasn’t dressed for the occasion. To actually get down and play the Garba you have to actually be wearing the right clothes, which is obvious in hindsight but I just didn’t know at the time. But at least I got to experience it!
Gujurat has given me one of the best times I have ever had in India, but being here for Navratri has taken it to a spectacular level! I will definitely be back next year, and next time I will make sure I am wearing the right gear and I will be down on the grounds playing the Garba with everyone else!
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This article was written in partnership with Gujurat Tourism. The views and opinions expressed are entirely the authors own based on personal experiences when travelling and are honest and factual without any bias.