October 23, 2008

Goddess Durga Rides Tiger on Dussehra

The rickshaw paused for a moment to let a jeep pass before taking the turn and accelerating down the slope. To our right, set back from the road lay residential housing societies, their gates opening into short driveways that led to squat buildings arranged around a central space where children played in the evenings. At each of the gates a lone security guard or two sat on makeshift stools by the gatepost or lolled around, watching traffic and people on the road, their uniforms having dulled from long hours in the heat.

Before long the Sun would begin its descent behind the hills and Dussehra, having marked the end of nine days and nine nights of Navratri, would now draw to a close. Devotees who had installed the idol of Goddess Durga in their homes or in a community pandal on the sixth day of Navratri would now bear her away in a colourful procession for immersion in a river or a stream, marking the end of Dussehra, the tenth day that had concluded the nine-day long Navratri festival the day before.

As the rickshaw gathered speed on the slope faint drumbeats from a few moments ago grew louder and in the time it took me to realize what the commotion was about the rickshaw had passed a small procession in the opposite direction bearing Goddess Durga for immersion.

“Stop, stop, stop,” I half-shouted, tapping the driver on his shoulder. It took him a moment or two to register my urgent plea before he slowed down to the side of the road. Leaping out I half-sprinted back to where the procession was making its way up the gentle incline. By now pedestrians had slowed down to keep pace with the procession. Security guards stood outside the gates they guarded, watching the three drummers coax beats out of their drums.

Behind them in a wooden cart that street vendors use to hawk varied wares on regular days an idol of Goddess Durga astride a tiger was placed in the centre with religious paraphernalia arranged around her; coconuts, incense sticks, vermillion powder, and holy water (tirtha) among other things. Unlike the ferocious image of the deity one would normally see in the various representations of Goddess Durga, here her face exuded a serenity that contrasted with the occasion. It was on the tenth day, after nine days and nine nights of titanic struggle, that she vanquished the demon, Mahishasura. So the nine days and nine nights came to be celebrated as Navratri, and the tenth day as Dussehra (Dussera) or Vijayadashami, marking the triumph of good over evil. It is considered an auspicious day in the Hindu calendar for beginning new ventures.

Garlanded with flowers she sat on the tiger, a trident in the left hand while the right was raised in blessing. The men who accompanied the procession pushed the cart along while women and children in bright clothes walked behind the cart. Celebratory colours marked their shirts, and faces. Having taken a few pictures I offered a quick prayer to the deity and was handed prasad (offerings blessed by the deity), usually sugar based. Behind me the drummers sounded their drums, drowning the sound of garlanded vehicles plying on the road.

From as far back as I can remember I’ve always looked forward to Dussehra. There was a time when I would wait for Navaratri to end so that on Dussehra day, a school holiday, I could garland my bicycle, say a small prayer and ride it all day with my friends. At first when I was too young to understand why folks cleaned their vehicles and garlanded it on Dussehra I used to derive a sense of anticipation and purpose from seeing brightly coloured garlands, usually marigolds strung together with twine, adorning vehicles, working implements and other items of household utility. Needless to say they lent the environs a festive air and I was more than happy to rejoice in it.

It was only later that I came to learn the significance of the day and so also the ‘why’ behind the ritual.

On Dussehra day (October 9) I woke up to the Sun slanting rays through cracks in the curtain. Looking out the window on a footpath across the street from where we stay I saw a lady ensconced against the retaining wall with a basketful of marigolds, coloured a deep saffron and yellow, resting at her feet where she sat on the footpath. Even as early morning customers, folks who hadn’t got around to purchasing flowers the previous day, began trickling in she continued stitching the flowers into garlands of varying sizes, only pausing to effect a sale. Her young daughter, not older than eight, sat alongside and helped her with stitching the flowers into garlands. Sales were brisk, and before I got ready to venture out after a quick bath and prayers she had shifted from the footpath to the side of the road shaded by a tree. The Sun was gathering strength.

The road outside was awash with shiny vehicles, helped no doubt from early morning washing, followed by puja (a hindu ritual) before being adorned with colourful garlands. Stepping out of the building I saw in a corner of the parking space a small bicycle with a tiny garland adorning the handle bar. I could imagine the surprise awaiting the kid on discovering the garland gracing his bicycle. A few feet away a car was decorated similarly. There was no one about.

Most of the rickshaws on the road had garlands affixed to the front. So when we got into a rickshaw that didn’t have one it almost seemed odd. The driver, a Hindu, who had rented the rickshaw for a daily fee told me that it belonged to a Muslim. “That’s why there’s no garland on it.” Though it made eminent sense not to garland the rickshaw I knew how it must feel not to for, all implements of daily use, particularly those which help earn a living, are considered sacred and treated as such. In celebrating them as in offering prayers and decorating them on Dussera they’re elevated from being mere implements to that which sustains life. It matters little if they belong to you or not so long as you use them to earn your livelihood.

So a municipality worker will garland his broom and the hand cart like the one I came upon on Dussera day. Worn from use on the streets the broom might as well have been invested with life as it lay in the hand cart, flowers adorning the two extremities. It’s a humbling experience to see a rusting hand cart and a broom accorded respect and worshipped not so much for its utility on the streets as for its significance to the person wielding them. It is a matter of livelihood. Sometimes it is difficult to understand the importance that the seemingly ‘unimportant’ holds in the overall scheme of things unless confronted with the evidence like I was that day.

Stopping by a newspaper vendor to buy a newspaper I took care not to brush my knees against the garland adorning the wooden platform he had fashioned out to display newspapers.

To my right a motorcyclist stopped by a handcart to buy a length of garland for his motorcycle even as a little girl, her skirt mirroring the colours of flowers in the garland that the vendor held up for the motorcyclist to see, passed by. For a moment I wondered if her choice of dress was deliberate, celebrating the marigolds that abound on Dussehra. It could have been a coincidence for all I know, more so considering that India, for the most part, is as much a land of coincidences as it is a land of colours, flowers or otherwise.

Flowers must necessarily invest life in all that they grace, and nothing is so insignificant as to be unimportant to flowers.

Returning from work on the last day of the nine-day Navratri festival I ran into a thick wall of people in the small flower market in Dadar where tiny hole-in-the-wall shops line one side of the walking path that exits the station in the direction of Parel. To the other side, vendors sit with their backs to the bridge, their baskets of flowers in front, narrowing the path even further. Between these two rows commuters exiting the station in the direction of Parel have to make their way past a steady stream of customers come to buy flowers.

On normal days a bit of twisting and turning gets me through. But this was not a normal day. The next day was Dussehra and demand for flowers as well as the number of people come to buy them was large. Squeezed for space in the best of times, the passage now seemed more like a dam near bursting.

Men, women and children crowded the space. Above the din rose voices from hole-in-the-wall shops with vendors calling out prices for their wares. I’ve rarely seen so many flowers in so small a space. Wherever they could make some space women spread out worn jute sacks and set about stitching flowers into garlands while their children looked on.

“Ten rupees for a metre (of garland),” one lady called out to me when I turned to look in her direction. Across from where she sat with two other women helping with her task a man caught my attention and pointing to garlands he had hung from a makeshift wooden T, he said, “Thirty rupees a metre.” I moved on, dazzled in part from seeing the riot of colours and delighting in the activity occasioned by the festive occasion.

On the retaining wall of the bridge that enclosed the path at one end, vendors had stuck various posters of Hindu deities, depending on the gods they worshipped and under whose benign eye they carried out their business. So posters of Goddess Durga riding the Tiger, of Lord Shiva, of Lord Krishna and others from the famed pantheon of Hindu gods graced the wall.

I was barely making a metre a minute along the path, such was the pre-Dussera rush. A youth stopped by to check a pretty garland of flowers. A rucksack hung from his back. The shopkeeper emerged from the hole-in-the-wall room and said, “Eighty-five for it.” Two men sat to the side stitching more garlands. I seriously doubted if they could supply the demand. Some vendors were selling loose marigolds at rupees thirty a kilo. In the rush it was difficult to pin a voice to the basket, voices floating like erratic moths around a bright flame.

On the bridge passing overhead, a cameraman, most likely from a local news channel, rested his camera on the parapet of the bridge and aimed it at the crowd of festive shoppers below. Behind him trucks and taxis made their way in the direction of Parel.

As I took the steps up the public footbridge to make my way to the railway platform the rush of similar activity on the bridge overtook the one I had just passed in the narrow lane (gulli). Vendors lined the bridge on either side, and unlike on other days when they call out to passing commuters to press their sales they had little or no time today.

Heaps of leaves from the Shami tree (Prosopis spicigera) were going at five rupees a bunch. Commuters on their way home stopped by the vendors to buy them for use on Dussera the next day when Hindus exchange Shami leaves (known as Banni in Kannada) to wish each other ‘victory’ with their ventures and the like.

The leaves of the Shami tree have come to symbolize success and wealth, drawing their significance from the Mahabharata thousands of years ago. Exiled for fourteen years from their kingdom and in disguise for one year when they had to travel incognito, the Pandavas hid their divine weapons in a Shami tree as they went their way. On returning after a year of traveling incognito they found their weapons intact. In gratitude they offered their prayers and thanksgiving to the Shami (Banni) tree and to Goddess Durga for strength and victory as they prepared to battle the Kauravas. In the ensuing battle they emerged victorious (‘Vijaya’ in Sanskrit) and made a triumphant return from their exile. Since then the leaves of the Shami (known as Banni in Kannada) are exchanged between worshippers on Vijayadashami (Dussera), wishing each other ‘victory’ in their efforts with their ventures, not necessarily business ventures.

The heaps of Banni leaves on the bridge brought a welter of memories rushing in, for, exchanging leaves of the Banni is among my earliest Dussera memories. On Dussehra day Dad would send me along to our neighbours to wish them well and exchange Banni leaves with them. What made it even more memorable was the fact that exchanging Banni leaves was not restricted to people we knew, we exchanged them with strangers as well, in turn spreading good wishes around even as we partook of it ourselves, in large quantities I must add.

As I descended the steps to the platform and waited for the train that would take me home I watched trains pass adjoining platforms, delighting in the colourful garlands adorning the massive engines on the eve of Dussehra. Some trains had their windows garlanded, in effect framing passengers as they looked out the windows.

In a coach of an Asangaon-bound train I found a garlanded poster of Goddess Durga riding a tiger, and the day she destroyed the demon Mahishasura came to be celebrated as Dussehra, marking the triumph of good over evil. While posters advertising sundry services crowded Goddess Durga her image radiated strongly the symbolism marking the celebrations. Standing there I could not help but reflect on the deadly Bombay train bombings carried out by Islamic extremists in July 2006 that left over 200 dead and scores injured. On that fateful day I was delayed at the office by an impending delivery, and chances are I probably missed being on one of the seven trains that was bombed that day.

There’s much evil that still exists and maybe that’s one reason why some of India’s festivals bring alive the context even though the events they celebrate occurred thousands of years ago.

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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.