The day following the new moon in the period from the middle of September to the middle of October (corresponding to a month in the local calendar) marks the beginning of the nine-night or ten-day festival called Navarathri meaning nine nights in Malayalam, the local language of the state of Kerala in the south west of the southern tip of the Indian peninsula. The weather at this time after the first lap of monsoon in the region and before the start of the second lap is agreeable. It marks the auspicious time of the junction between the summer and the winter in the region.
Though the whole of India celebrates this festival, the significance attached to it and the legends and mythological background adopted differ from region to region. This article concerns the way it is observed in Kerala and its significance and meaning.
In the pantheon of the Hindu system of philosophy, the goddess Saraswathy symbolizes the fine arts, especially music and literature. Literature and education are the art and activity that take significance in the celebration of this festival in Kerala. Education right from infancy is the predominant theme of this festival in Kerala. Music and aesthetics have their place too.
Places of worship such as temples have festivities throughout the ten days culminating on the morning of the tenth day. Most of the households observe rituals from the eighth day. At a clean area or room, earmarked for the purpose, a picture or image of Goddess Saraswathy is decoratively installed along with some books of school or college curricula, tastefully arranged. This is known as setting up the pooja (‘pooja’ in Malayalam means worshipping a sacred entity with flowers and other offerings). In Kerala, the festival is also called the pooja festival. The setup is ceremonially worshipped in the mornings and evenings till the morning of the tenth day. On this day the arrangement is ceremonially dismantled. Everyone then rededicates oneself to the continuing effort for acquiring knowledge. Children of age sufficient to be initiated into literacy are auspiciously initiated by elders at home and some eminent scholars and spiritual leaders in places of worship and other places specially organised that day for this ritual. This marks the beginning of their learning the alphabets and the subsequent educational career.
Worshipping books symbolizes the respect for wisdom and the sacredness attributed to it. Students of all educational institutions enthusiastically celebrate this festival at their homes. The festival refreshes their awareness of the importance, grandeur and sublimity of knowledge and the need to put in the effort for gathering it as continuous activity in life.
Classical, Carnatic music finds expression in a big way during this season in places of worship and in the entertainment media. Many annual programs of music in which maestros perform are regularly organised in many places during this festival.
The festival also signifies the victory of good over evil. This aspect is relatively more important in the other states of south India. The legend behind this concept is the destruction of powerful, tyrannical and wicked demoniac characters by the aggressive version of the Goddess. In the northern regions if India, the festival is attributed to Lord Raman, the hero of the epic, Ramayana. The slaying of Ravana, a powerful, wise, but arrogant and lustful demon King symbolizes the triumph of good over evil.
In Kerala, this festival of ten days occurring during a season of balmy weather elevates and refreshes learning, wisdom, literature, music and aesthetics.
Source: Sanjay Kumar: Encyclopedia of Indian Fairs and Festivals, Anmol Publications Pvt. Ltd., New Delhi, India (2007).