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Navaratha: Newari Bhawani Puja in Sikkim

Navaratha: Newari Bhawani Puja in Sikkim

Bhawani Puja

In Sikkim villages, the Newari community worship Devi Bhawani, but in a very unique way, with more dissimilarities than otherwise with the rest of the east

We Newaris have a long tradition of Durga Pujain in our villages, which is unique in many ways, and hascome down the ages to us in Sikkim from the time we were the original inhabitants of Kathmandu Valley in Nepal.

Essentially, the mythology is the same, of how Mahisashura, the demon-king, having caused havoc in all three parts of the universe, forced the Gods to seek the help of Goddess Durga to defeat him and salvage the world.

The unique differences are in the details, as I have observed in my village since early childhood.

For instance, we also address Durgaas Maa Bhawani, which name I guess must have come down from the time when the Rajput Thakuri dynasty came to rule over vast swathes of this country in the 11th-12th century.

The Rajputs worship Durga as Maa Bhawani. However, much work has been done on the historicity of this origin and yet, much more needs to be done.

The battle raged for nine days (Navaratha), and on the tenth day is VijayaDashami, the day of victory, when tika (smearing of rice, curd and colours) is observed.

This is also termed Dasainin Nepal, Sikkim and its neighbouring Nepali-speaking regions, meaning ‘the tenth’.

Dussehra is a time when men and women are attired in their best clothes. The houses are painted and it is the time for family feast.

However, let us get back to the start of the puja as practiced by us Newars.

Navaratha is celebrated for nine days, where people pay homage to the goddess.

Lessons on Chandi, Durga Kavach and Durga Mahatmya are recited at homes and temples.

Navaratha starts on Ashwin Sukla, when the idol of Devi Bhawani is established with the idols of Ganesha and Devi Laxmi on the right, while the idols of Kartik and Devi Bharati(Saraswati) are placed on the left of Maa Bhawani.

Jamara (barley seeds that give green grass) is sowed on top of cow dung, mud and sand, and is placed in a tappara (a small bowl made of leaves of Newara, banana, etc.)

This day is also known as Ghatasthapana and symbolises the start of the festival.

Holy water is collected in a kalash (water vessel) and offered to the Devi; and this is believed to gratify her.

For the nine days thereafter, the head of the family sprinkles the holy water on the seeds of Jamara.

It is believed that Lord Rama received blessings from Devi Bhawani in the form of Jamara, and was thus victorious against Ravana. Thus, Jamara plays a key role in Newari Puja.

On each day, Navaratha, different forms of the Goddess are worshipped: Shailaputri, Brahmacharini, Chandra Ghanta, Chashmanda, Rukundamata, Katyayani, KaalRatri, Mahagauri and Siddhidatri.

The seventh day is known as Saptami and also the day of Phulpati (literally, flowers and leaves). Till this day actually the Devi had not arrived at the puja ghar, and only the religious texts were being recited.

The Phulpati Procession
The Phulpati Procession

It is on this day of Pulphati that the Devi is invited. This day is celebrated with gaiety, and large numbers of devotees follow a long procession.

People in traditional dresses and costumes carry the flowers and the kalash. Everyone dances all the way through the road chanting religious hymns.

While moving along the marketplace, they stop at one place where they assume that Bhawani Devi has arrived in their flowers.

The flowers are then worshiped, and water and rice grains sprinkled. The procession is then taken back and the Devi is placed in the puja ghar.

This puja ghar is often the altar of individual families. By the way, we do see a lot of photographs of Devi Durga from other parts of India. However, in the Newari tradition, it is forbidden to take and share pictures of the family idol, which is said to bring ill-luck.

The eighth day is the Maha Ashtami, when animal sacrifices are performed.

There is a tradition of making these sacrifices to propitiate Goddess Mahakali and awakening Devi KaalRatri.

MahaAsthami starts the stage for the bhoj, the traditional meal of the Newars.

For the last three days of the Puja, the family members will not use eat rice in their meals.

The bhoj mainly consists of mutton, eggs, soy bean, beaten rice, garlic, ginger, sidra (dried fish that is served after frying), curd, and teen pani (‘three waters’), the local liquor.

According to original customs, these food items are still served in banana leaves.

Curd at the beginning of traditional bhoj
Curd at the beginning of traditional bhoj

Before the bhoj is performed, sota– the ceremonial presentation of these items in the tappara‑ and a cup of curd is served. While serving, the hands of one who is serving are crossed such that the person receiving this takes the cup in his right hand.

He needs to lick the egg and drink the curd at least three times, and each time, some curd is added to his cup.

The family members sit on gundri, or a mat, which was originally made of straw, but now is made of cloth.

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The family members have to sit on the floor, but in accordance with their order of precedence.

The younger ones have to bow at the feet of all the seniors in the assembled room and sit in their respective places.

Interestingly, tradition is that the room is first swept at one go, without lifting the broom even once.

Then the water is brought in a container along with a bowl to wash the hands and the mouths of those sitting for the meal.

After cleaning the mouth, the water is sprinkled three times on them in order to purify them. The ritual is also repeated after the end of the bhoj.

After bowing to the seniors, the bhoj ends for the day, but bhoj continues for the next two days.

Ashtami is also known as the maar ceremony because of the tradition of animal sacrifice. The animals are sacrificed to please the goddess. And the sacrifice follows an elaborate system

The sacrificial goats, hens, and others are first worshiped and tika applied on their foreheads. It is believed that if the animal is not killed in one hack, the Devi is displeased.

These activities continue till naumi, the ninth day of Navaratha. This is the main puja. It is on this day that the Chandi recitation comes to an end.

On this day, the Bhimsen puja is performed. A goat and a cock are sacrificed in order to please the kuldevta, or the family deity. It is also believed that if one can please Bhimsen, one can attain eternal life.

Jamara on a tappara
Jamara on a tappara

The heads of the goat and the cock are offered at the feet of the idol. Nowadays, keeping in mind all sorts issues of prevention of animal cruelty, some families sacrifice only flowers and fruits.

After naumi, it is Vijaya Dashami. This day is the actual dasain that the Nepali people observe. Everyone celebrates the victory of goddess Durga.

On this day, the elders put the tika on the foreheads of the younger ones and blessthem for eternity.

A sacred string (kokha) in red and white is tied to their necks, wherein red symbolises victory and white represents purity. The Jamara seeds are then placed behind the ears of the young ones.

I remember seeing all this since I was small. And it is a delight that COVID and lockdown notwithstanding, if one can visit a Newari village during Navaratha, it is the season of both merry-making as spiritual bliss!


All photographs by Shital Pradhan

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