This festival commemorates the victory of Goddess Durga over a demon, Mahishasur. Endowed with power by the blessing of Lord Shiva, the demon started destroying innocent people. The gods then invoked Goddess Durga and asked for her help. The goddess, astride a lion, fought with the demon and cut off his head.
According to one hypothesis, in ancient times, this was a festival intended for the Kshatriyas. After the four-month long monsoon when military activity was not possible, this was considered a good time to start afresh on one's conquests. For nine days before starting on the war journey, kings prayed to the nine different aspects of Devi or Adishakti. They also prayed for their arms and ammunition. The tenth day was when the journey for the conquest began.
The origin of this custom can also be traced to the Ramayana. According to it, Rama had to pray to the nine different aspects of Devi to be able to kill Ravana. He then accumulated enough power to kill Ravana on the tenth day, which was called Vijayadashmi or Victory Day. Since then, the tradition of praying to Devi for nine days has continued and was especially pronounced amongst the Kshatriyas who believed that by doing so, they too would be able to defeat the most powerful enemy.
Today, it is celebrated more for its mythological significance and reaffirms the Hindu faith in the triumph of good. Even today, the nine different forms of the goddess are worshipped. Though several communities of Hindus are staunch vegetarians, Navaratri is one exception. On the eighth day, many communities, especially Gurkha and other hill tribes who are believers in the Devi cult sacrifice an animal. This blood sacrifice is a form of thanksgiving to the goddess for a wish that has been granted. People often sacrifice a buffalo symbolic of the killing of Mahishasura by Durga
In Bengal, this period is celebrated as Durga Puja. . Groups and residentsí associations in towns and cities erect beautiful marquees, where they install the idol of the Mother Goddess. In Calcutta, as also other places, there are competitions held and the most beautiful and creatively done marquee gets a prize. For all the nine days, the marquee becomes the center of all activity where cultural events and competitions are organized every day.
In Gujarat, this is the time for the joyous Garba and Dandia dances
and people pour out at night to participate in this community festival.
Women and girls in all their fineries dance around the garb a pot, clapping
their hands in rhythmic movement. The pot is decorated with flowers,
betel leaves, and has its mouth covered with a coconut.
In Tamil Nadu, the first three days of the festival are dedicated to Lakshmi, the next three to Durga and the last three to Sarasvati. The nine-day celebration is compartmentalized in certain parts of the country, dedicating three days each to a trinity of goddesses: to Durga the goddess of valor, to Lakshmi the goddess of wealth and to Saraswati the goddess of knowledge.
The one thing that remains constant in most parts of the country is that daytime is exclusively for prayers, fasting, and solemnity while the nights are spent in joy and revelry. Men, women, and children, who have fasted during the day, have a light repast of fruit or other non-cereals at night before going out to enjoy the festive season.
In Punjab, people organize Jagrans to sing devotional songs all night in praise of the Mother Goddess. Solemnity and piety mark these nine days as even those Punjabis who do not keep a fast, stop eating non-vegetarian and impure food items like onion and garlic.
Another part of the Navratri celebrations is the Ramlila. In places like Delhi and Uttar Pradesh, almost every locality has its own group of actors re-enacting episodes from the life of Lord Rama. This is probably because, the day after Navratri, i.e. on the tenth day of Ashvin called the Vijaya Dashami, it is said that Lord Rama killed Ravana and other demons to rid the earth of evil.