Gujarat is a blur of colour and movement during Navratri festival, India’s carnevale with a Hindu heart. By Karen Halabi.

Nine days of dance at India’s Navrati festival

A dancer leaps during Navratri celebrations in Ahmedabad.
A dancer leaps during Navratri celebrations in Ahmedabad.

I’m in a dizzying spin as everything rushes past me in a heady, hypnotic mix of colour and music. It’s nearly midnight but the streets of Ahmedabad are filled with revellers, many of them schoolchildren as young as five who should probably be tucked up in bed. But not during Navratri. It’s nine nonstop nights of intoxicating fun.

I’m at the world’s oldest, biggest and longest dance festival – no, not in Rio, but in the former Gujarati capital. Navratri is India’s version of Rio de Janeiro’s Carnevale or New Orleans’ Mardi Gras. It’s surely a contender for the world’s most colourful event.

So you think you can dance? You haven’t been to Gujarat. A “circle of ecstasy”, Navratri, meaning “nine nights”, sees millions of fantastically costumed devotees swaying in a colourful fusion of dance and devotion dedicated to Shakti or Divine Mother Goddess (also known as Durga, Devi and Lakshmi). She occupies a special place in the Hindu pantheon. The dates vary each year according to the lunar calendar, but it coincides with harvest time. This year it will run from October 13-22. 

Although celebrated throughout the country, nowhere is it performed with more fervour than in Gujarat, India’s colourful westernmost state. The biggest and brightest celebrations take place here with nonstop dancing, singing and music in the streets. They say Gujaratis don’t sleep during this festival, and that’s probably true. With nine consecutive nights of dance on the agenda, how could you? There’s precious little chance of shut-eye.

The whole state comes alive with celebration in every city, town and village square. To keep up with the revelry that extends into the wee hours, I’m finding that I need some stamina and staying power. Where’s the coffee or Red Bull? How the Gujaratis manage it, I don’t know. And, even more amazingly, they fast all day while going about their normal business, then dance all night.

Both men and women dress in traditional high-waisted tops and circular skirts made from impossibly colourful embroidered cloth that swirls as they dance in circles. It’s not unlike looking through a kaleidoscope at a multifaceted display of colours.

Acrobats clamber over each other to create human pyramids four-, five- and sometimes eight-storeys high. Drummers whip their sticks with a frenzy, performers twirl and hurl themselves across the stage, and women whirl in a nonstop rhythmic dance. It’s hard to know where to look and so dizzying even to witness I feel as though I need to say, “Stop, I want to get off.”

Young girls dressed in skirts and chaniya cholis – colourful hand-embroidered mirror-worked blouses – wait in line at the steps of stages in each village town and city square. They’re excited more than tired, their faces serious with intent as they wait their turn, their moment in the spotlight. Children across Gujarat have rehearsed for weeks and their mothers have sewn intricate glass-beaded costumes for them to wear so they’ll sparkle like jewels.

The main Navratri dance is the garba, performed by women who whirl around a pot, clapping in a steady rhythm, accompanied by dholak drummers and singers. The dance starts slowly but gets faster and faster, whips to a frenzy, then comes to an abrupt halt. Then it starts all over again.

The other main dance, the dandiya raas or rhythmic “stick” dance, is performed by both men and women using wooden clap sticks that they wave above their heads. Then they clap and jump over these dandiya as they hold them low. When they whirl in a circle they strike the sticks together. It’s a wonder that at this time of night they don’t miss from exhaustion.

So popular are the garba and the dandiya raas that prizes are given to those judged the best, hence the eagerness and intensity of the young girls waiting on the sidelines.

This scene is re-enacted across Gujarat in every town square, village and street. The mood, the attire and the music are so upbeat and vibrant that Navratri attracts travellers like me from India and abroad every year, with the biggest celebrations held in the new capital, Gandhinagar.

Navratri is a great time to see Gujarat’s rich folk-cultural traditions on display. Visitors are welcomed as special guests and invited to join in. Invariably my hand is taken by some friendly Gujarati who draws me into the circle and offers to show me the steps.

Gujarat could well be termed the land of festivals and fairs, with almost 3500 of them celebrated in the state every year. Traditionally, Navratri was a religious agrarian festival when farmers thanked the goddess for her blessings and prayed for better yields. In ancient times, it was associated with the fertility of Mother Earth. Sweetmeats were prepared and everyone dressed up in new brightly coloured dresses for the night performances. With commercialisation, it has become more of a social festival.

These days, particularly in Ahmedabad and Gandhinagar, the fusion of modern music, bright lights and loudspeakers into the celebrations means that even teenagers love it. It’s a popular time for courting, engagements, and an opportunity for young people to escape their parents and hook up.

By the end of the festival nine nights later, I’m passed out in bed, while those schoolgirls are still as relentlessly bright-eyed and bushy-tailed as they were on day one.

When I recover, I check out what else Gujarat has to offer. A relatively under-visited and little-known area of India, it is away from the tourist throngs of the more popular states, such as Rajasthan and Kerala.

Stretching out into the Arabian Sea, like an open jaw of a lion, the Saurashtra peninsula and the Kutch desert mark Gujarat’s mid-western border. It’s also known for the Gir Forest (Sasan Gir), one of the world’s best free-range game parks outside Africa and the only place on Earth where you can see the Asiatic lion outside a zoo. I spy several lions with cubs from an open vehicle.

I also visit the Sun Temple at Modhera and Adalaj ni Vav, one of the unique stepwells of Gujarat. These architectural marvels – multilevel subterranean water reservoirs – are virtual reverse temples with intricate carvings.

There are about 120 stepwells or water temples (vavs) spread across Gujarat. The oldest and largest in India is Rani ni Vav, or the Queen’s Stepwell, at Patan near Ahmedabad, which dates back to the 11th century. This elaborate maze-like structure is seven-storeys high, elaborately carved and World Heritage-listed. The construction and architecture of these water temples amazes many experts. As with Egypt’s pyramids, there is much speculation as to how these architectural marvels were built.

Gujarat is also the birthplace of Mahatma Gandhi. In Ahmedabad, the place from which he left on his long 385-kilometre protest March to Dandi, I visit Gandhi’s ashram and the simple room in which he lived. Now a virtual museum, it contains his spinning wheel and the mattress on which he slept on the floor.

The Gandhi Smarak Sangrahalaya, another small museum that documents his life, contains an immense archive of his letters, all written on the back of used paper. The grounds are open from sunrise to sunset, but the best time to visit is early morning. As the sun rises over the river, many people gather here to meditate.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 25, 2015 as "Jumping the Shakti".

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Karen Halabi is the editor of The Luxe Traveller.

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