Navratri is celebrated differently in India’s various regions. For many people it is a time of religious reflection and fasting, while for others it is a time for dancing and feasting. Among fasting customs are observing a strict vegetarian diet and abstaining from alcohol and certain spices. Dances performed include Garba, especially in Gujarat. Typically, the festival’s nine nights are dedicated to different aspects of the divine feminine principle, or shakti. While the pattern varies somewhat by region, generally the first third of the festival focuses on aspects of the goddess Durga, the second third on the goddess Lakshmi, and the final third on the goddess Sarasvati. Offerings are often made to the goddesses and their various aspects, and rituals are performed in their honour. One popular ritual is Kanya Puja, which takes place on the eighth or ninth day. In this ritual nine young girls are dressed as the nine goddess aspects celebrated during Navratri and are worshipped with ritual foot washing and given offerings such as food and clothing.
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Among some followers of the goddess Durga, who are particularly predominant in Bengal and Assam, the festival is known as or coincides with the Durga Puja (“Rite of Durga”). Special images of Durga commemorating her victory over the buffalo-headed demon Mahishasura are worshipped daily, and on the 10th day (Dussehra) they are taken in jubilant processions to nearby rivers or reservoirs for immersion in water. In addition to family observances, the puja, or ritual, days are also celebrated with public concerts, recitations, plays, and fairs.
In some regions, Dussehra is collected into Navratri, and the entire 10-day celebration is known by that name. Whether throughout the festival or as the 10th day, Dussehra is a time to celebrate the triumphs of good over evil, such as Durga’s victory over Mahishasura. In some parts of India, Dussehra is associated with the victory of the god Rama over the demon-king Ravana. In northern India the Ram Lila (“Play of Rama”) is the highlight of the festival. On successive nights different episodes of the epic poem the Ramayana are dramatized by young actors elaborately costumed and masked; the pageant is always climaxed by the burning of huge effigies of the demons. Athletic tournaments and hunting expeditions are often organized. Some celebrate by erecting bonfires and burning effigies of Ravana, which are sometimes stuffed with fireworks. In many regions Dussehra is considered an auspicious time to begin educational or artistic pursuits, especially for children.