Navaratri Festival in Singapore
Navaratri, meaning nine (nava) nights (ratri), is a festival celebrating the Hindu goddess Shakti, in all her different manifestations and glory. It is a popular festival that originated from India and is celebrated by Indians all over the world. In Singapore, though not as widely celebrated as Deepavali, Navaratri is an integral part of the Hindu calendar and is celebrated in many homes and temples.
Navaratri is celebrated for nine days around September or October every year. It commences on the day of the new moon (Mahalaya Amavasya) of the Tamil month of Purattasi and continues for nine days. The 10th day is called Vijayadasami.1
Origin of Navaratri
During the nine days of Navaratri, devotees worship goddess Shakti, the divine mother (or Mother Goddess).2 The most important manifestation of goddess Shakti is Durga, the warrior goddess who vanquished the buffalo demon Mahishasura.3 According to the legend of Navaratri, Mahishasura waged war in heaven, imprisoned the gods and created havoc on earth. The gods enlisted the help of goddess Durga who was full of voracious strength and power and rode a lion with a trident in her hand. The battle to kill Mahishasura went on for nine days and at midnight on the 10th day, goddess Durga pierced her trident into his chest and beheaded him.4 Thus, Navaratri commemorates the victory of goddess Durga over Mahishasura and the triumph of good over evil. On a universal level, Mahishasura represents ignorance, egotism and might and the battle between goddess and demon symbolises the fight between the forces of good and evil.5
Celebrations at Home
Goddess Shakti is worshipped during Navaratri through meditation, prayer, fasting, devotional music and much festivity.6 In South Indian homes in Singapore, an integral part of the Navaratri is the kolu or display of dolls on multi-tiered platforms. The kolu features clay, wooden, stone or brass dolls of various shapes and sizes and figures dressed in a variety of costumes. Images of gods and goddesses, figures of animals and birds, as well as curios and trinkets, are arranged in tiers and displayed in a prominent part of the house such as the living room. The women of the household then invite their relatives and friends to view the kolu and partake in celebrations that are often accompanied by singing devotional songs praising goddess Shakti.7
Celebrated on the ninth day of Navaratri, Saraswati Puja is a day of thanksgiving to Saraswati, the goddess of wisdom and knowledge, for all the skills and knowledge gifted to mankind. Books used by children in the house for their studies, as well as religious and music books, are arranged before the altar or prayer area in the home. Students, as well as those learning music and other fine arts, offer special prayers and gratitude to goddess Saraswati, asking her to bless them with skills and knowledge.8
Vijayadasami occurs after the nine days of Navaratri. Vijaya means victory and dasami means 10th day. Hence, Vijayadasami means victorious 10th day.9 It is the day marking goddess Durga’s victory over Mahishasura to help restore dharma, or justice, in the world. Vijayadasami is also considered an auspicious day to learn something new. Young children are initiated into learning on this day in a ceremony known as Vidya Aarambam, meaning “initiation into knowledge”. Music students learn new songs and practise the ones they already learned from their masters or gurus. Vijayadasami is also a day to appreciate one’s teachers, craftsmen and gurus, who have passed on their skills and contributed to their social well-being. Students and disciples present their teachers and gurus with dakshina (cash gift) and other presents.10
Celebrations at the Temples
Navaratri is an integral part of the Hindu temple calendar in Singapore. Devotees visit temples to get the darshan (blessed vision) of goddess Shakti and participate in special prayers.
The festival is celebrated grandly at many of the temples, most notably at the Sri Mariamman Temple, Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple, Sri Vadapathrakaliamman Temple, Sri Vairavimada Kaliamman temple, Sri Thendayuthapani Temple and Sri Senpaga Vinayagar Temple.11
Goddess Shakti takes on different forms as Durga, Lakshmi or Saraswati, on each of the nine nights.12 The statue of Shakti is adorned elaborately in resplendent sarees, jewellery and flower garlands and brought on a procession around the temple accompanied by festive beats of live drums played by temple musicians. Many temples also feature the Navaratri kolu. On Vijaya Dasami, the Ambu Viduthal or arrow ceremony, takes place in the temples where the deity (the Mother Goddess) is taken on a procession around the temple and wooden arrows are shot in various directions to symbolise the destruction of evil by the goddess.13
Music and dance programmes that showcase local singers, musicians and dancers are an integral part of festivities at the temples during the nine days. Classical dance performances as well as vocal and instrumental devotional music recitals are staged in special concert areas in the temples. Besides paying homage to the deity, these cultural programmes give artistes the opportunity to display their talents.14
Bengali and Gujarati Community Celebrations
Apart from the South Indian community, Navaratri is also of importance to the Bengali and Gujarati communities in Singapore. The Bengalis refer to it as Durga Puja and the Bengali Association of Singapore celebrates it on a grand scale yearly. The religious ceremonies take place with the installation and invocation of goddess Durga, who is worshipped by the Bengalis as the slayer of the demon Mahishasura. For the Bengalis, Durga Puja is an occasion for community worship as well as a time to fulfil all social and familial obligations.15
Navaratri is also celebrated by the Gujarati community in Singapore. While the religious basis remains the worship of the Mother Goddess, festivities take on a different form. For the Gujaratis, Navaratri is a time to dance raas-garba, a folk dance where both male and female dancers move around in a circle to the rhythmic beat of a pair of dandiya sticks that each dancer holds in their hands.16 The Singapore Gujarati Society celebrates Navaratri annually with much colour, festivity, music and dance.17
1. Maithily Jagannathan, South Indian Hindu Festivals and Traditions (New Delhi: Abhinav Publications, 2005), 111. (Call no. R 294.536 MAI); S. V. Krishnan, “Nine Days in Honour of a Brave Goddess,” Straits Times, 21 October 1988, 9. (From NewspaperSG)
2. Gavin Flood D., An Introduction to Hinduism (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 174–75, 177–78. (Call no. R 294.5 FLO); Om Lata Bahadur, The Book of Hindu Festivals and Ceremonies (New Delhi: UBS Publishers, 1997), 158. (Call no.:R 294.536 BAH)
3. Flood, An Introduction to Hinduism, 174–75, 177–78.
4. Jagannathan, South Indian Hindu Festivals and Traditions, 111.
5. “The Different Ways of Celebrating Navarathri,” Straits Times, 29 September 1989, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
6. Jagannathan, South Indian Hindu Festivals and Traditions, 115.
7. A. P. Raman and S. V. Krishnan, “Festival in Honour of Goddess-Shakti,” Straits Times, 7 October 1983, 4; Prabhavathi Nair, “Nine Nights of Excitement Honour the Goddess Devi,” Straits Times, 3 October 1997, 17; Krishnan, “Nine Days in Honour of a Brave Goddess.”
8. Jagannathan, South Indian Hindu Festivals and Traditions, 115; Mangala, “Navarathri,” Straits Times, 16 October 1981, 4; Krishnan, “Nine Days in Honour of a Brave Goddess.”
9. “Different Ways of Celebrating Navarathri.”
10. Jagannathan, South Indian Hindu Festivals and Traditions, 115; Mangala, "Navarathri.”
11. Raman and Krishnan, “Festival in Honour of Goddess-Shakti”; Mangala, "Navarathri.”
12. Mangala, "Navarathri.”
13. Raman and Krishnan, “Festival in Honour of Goddess-Shakti”; Nair, “Nine Nights of Excitement.”
14. Nair, “Nine Nights of Excitement.”
15. Sumathi Vaidyanathan, “A Nine-Day Festival in Memory of a Brave Goddess,” Straits Times, 29 September 1989, 4. (From NewspaperSG); “Past Events,” Bengali Association of Singapore, last retrieved 4 September 2018.
16. Vaidyanathan, “Nine-Day Festival in Memory of a Brave Goddess.”
17. “Navratri 2017,” Singapore Gujarati Society, last retrieved 14 September 2018.
The information in this article is valid as at September 2018 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.