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World’s Biggest Dance Festival: India’s Most Famous Carnival

Published by Jeffry Vinion

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India is a land of festivals, and Navratri is celebrated in different ways nationwide. Besides the customs and rituals, there are dances which are associated with the festival.


Navratri is associated with certain legends in Hindu scriptures. Mahishasura, the mighty demon who had obtained the power of eternity, started killing innocent people. All the heavenly gods appealed to Lord Shiva to protect the world. So Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva united their powers and created a divine female warrior known as Goddess Durga. Mahishasura desired to marry her; she agreed but with a condition that he should win over her in a battle. For nine nights there was a battle and at the end of the ninth night, Mahishasura was defeated and his head cut off.

In another legend, Lord Rama wanted to liberate his wife Sita from the demon king Ravana who had abducted her. He worshipped nine forms of Goddess Durga and killed Ravana. In both cases, the nine nights is known as Navratri, and the tenth day is called Dussera or Vijayadashami, victory of good over evil.

Thanks Giving

In order to thank and please Goddess Durga, during Navratri earthen pots with attractive designs are made and kept one on top of another in front of the Goddess on the first night. A lamp with four lit wicks is kept in first pot and lit. The first three days are dedicated to Goddess Durga, the next three days to the Goddess Lakshmi, and the last three days to Goddess Saraswati.


Navratri is considered auspicious and associated with the sowing of seeds. People sow seeds on the first day, consecrate the planets, watch the sprouting and worship Goddess Durga during this festival. Throughout this period, fasts, vegetarian diet, meditation, chanting of mantras, hymns, and prayers form part of the observation of the Navratri. Women come out into the open with perforated earthen pots holding lighted lamps poised on the head.

Dances‘Garba’ and ‘Dandiya Raas’ dances are performed with great fanfare, more so in Gujarat, where the entire state doesn’t sleep. Dancing on the streets to the heavy beating of drums, songs sung by women, and loud music from sso’clock at night till the wee hours of the morning for nine nights, is India’s version of a Carnival.

‘Garba’ originated as devotional dance in honor of Goddess Durga and ‘Dandiya’ is performed after it, as a part of the merriment. The songs are melodious and have been handed down through generations. The dances seem to be tribal, later transformed into an agricultural ritual, and today into a social one – all dedicated to the Goddess.

‘Garbi’ & ‘Garba’

The dance is performed only by males standing in a circle, singing and clapping with simple feet movements, is called as ‘Garbi’; while the dance performed by females with delicate body gesticulations is called as ‘Garba’. ‘Garbi’ dance is complex with circular formations to represent designs of lotus and other things, and is considered auspicious, magical and religious.

The choreographic pattern of the dance with the floor designs made by the dancers invokes the spirits. In the ‘Garba’ dance, ladies have involved their own style and steps, and this is a popular folk dance of Gujarat. The basics of the dance are singing and clapping rhythmically while going round the goddess in circles. An idol or photograph of the goddess is kept in the centre and oil lamps are lit.

‘Dandiya Raas’

The ‘Dandiya Raas’ is of ancient origin and of ritual significance, while being impressive and a counterpart of the ‘Garba’ dance. It is dramatization of a mock fight between the Goddess and Mahishasura. The dancers use sticks at the end of which are tiny bells which jingle when they are struck. The dance has a very complicated rhythmic pattern. The dance begins in slow tempo, but as it proceeds the beat and tempo of music is heightened.

The dance develops in such manner that each person in the circle not only performs a solo dance with his own sticks, but also has a complex multiple relationship with both his partners on either side as also with his partners opposite him in the circles. The circle keeps breaking into two concentric circles. One of the circles revolves clockwise, while the other revolves anti clockwise.

The dancers of each concentric circle weave patterns with each other and with members of the other circles. Sometimes the circles break into even three or four small circles within the orbit of the larger circle. There is a great deal of freedom in the movements and sticks are beaten in standing, sitting or lying position.


Men and women wear colorful folk costumes during ‘Garba’ and ‘Dandiya’. The women folk wear ghaghra choli – a three-piece dress with choli on top and ghaghra as bottom, made of cotton with beads, embroidery, mirrors, and shells. They adorn themselves with bajubandh, bindi, jhumkas, kamarbandh, kangans, necklaces, payal, with mojiris on their feet, and dupatta tucked in Gujarati style. The men folk wear kafni pajamas with a kediyu which is short with tight sleeves and embroidered borders. They also wear a colorful turban, kada and mojiris.

Instruments Used

The instruments used during the dance are the damru, tabla, nagara, pot drum, percussion, ektaro, ravan hattho, jantar, pavo, shehani, murli, turi, and yaturi.

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