Captivating and rhythmic, Garba, the folk dance of Gujarat is much more than a dance. Like all Indian traditional art forms, it has sacred devotional origins and is a form of Shakti worship.
Garba is performed mainly during the Sharad Navratri which falls during the second part of the year. Ma Ambe Durga had defeated the demon Mahishasur after nine days of battle. And so there are celebrations for nine nights (nav ratras), and on each night, a different avatar of Ma Durga is worshiped.
Like all Hindu festivals, first and foremost it celebrates the victory of good over evil. We pray to Goddess Durga, who is protector of and mother to all. The festival thus celebrates all the forms of Ma Shakti, the feminine divinity, the protector and giver of life.
The word Garba itself is derived from the Sanskrit word Garbha, which means womb. Garba also refers to the devotional hymns which are sung in praise of Ma Durga, celebrating her valour and fierceness. The focal point of the celebration is a murti of Goddess Durga. A beautifully decorated ‘Garba Deep’ (earthen pot), is placed alongside. A diya (lamp) with four batis (wicks) is placed inside the Garba Deep, and when the batis are lit, the light streams out from the numerous perforations in the earthen pot. The pot signifies the Garbh or womb and the Jyot in it represents the life force. This is kept lit for the full nine days and nights.
As this is a sacred ritual, the Garba is always performed barefoot. Joyous devotees dance around the Garba Deep in concentric circles, starting with the slow beats and gradually moving onto extremely fast steps. The key to the various kinds of Garbas are the varying foot movements, taking one back and forth, as one moves along the circle. Every city and village in Gujarat reverberates with the beat of its music and the voices of happy people. Everyone joins in. Even those with aching joints make sure they dance to at least the initial slow beats. With every passing Garba, the drum beats get faster and faster and towards the end, it appears that one is flying with the energy, going round and round and back and forth. In a sense, it is a replication of the universe on the Garba grounds, rotating and revolving like the planets around their life force.
Both men and women dress up painstakingly for these nine nights. The women are attired in chania-choli with heavy jewellery while the men wear kediyu or kurtas. It is an endorphin inducing occasion allowing the community to come together to worship, celebrate and socialise. Those who participate would tell you playing Garba nonstop for hours among thousands and thousands is nothing less than a vigorous cardio but this one leaves one more rejuvenated and fresh. And yes, Garba is played. If you visit Gujarat during Navratra, you will be asked, ‘Garba khela’?
So often, beautiful Hindu rituals are corrupted and get far removed from their spiritual roots. The Garba too, is sometimes played to unrelated film songs, for mere entertainment and without an element of devotion. But there are many who do know and understand the sacred practise for its spiritual content and thus the tradition carries on with deep love, devotion and respect. In Vadodara, the cultural capital of Gujarat, United Way organises the largest Garba in the world and almost 90,000 enthused Garba aficionados match their steps together. The energy there is electrifying, often leaving people in a hypnotic trance and a natural high! It appears that there is a secret language in the air of Garba grounds that everyone present understands; as the Garbas change from one to another, everyone changes their moves…from ek taali to do taali to daudio to another. To see such rhythm and coordination in the sea of humanity is to witness a sublime miracle. Today, Garba is played by Indians in many parts of the country and indeed, across the world. It remains one of those Hindu traditions that are irresistible to children, young and old alike!
Traditionally, the Garbas in Gujarat start in the night at eleven pm. After their work, people head home to freshen up and perform Puja Aarti with their families. This is followed by ‘prashad' and dinner and then the families all head towards the Garba grounds, where they dance joyously, all night. After all Navratri comes but once a year!
With the rising sun, people then head home, having for company the numerous milkmen and newspaper vendors who’d be out on their daily routes. Some years ago, there was a cacophony around noise pollution and since then the new timings were enforced upon devotees. Now the Garbas start at seven pm and are wrapped up by eleven pm. With the Garba grounds closed so early, the people then head with family and friends for some freshly made chai and nashtas!
The Garba is experienced by the fortunate; those who have not had the experience, must partake in the festival at least once in their life time. It is a celebration of abundance and joy. A time when the community comes together to celebrate and share happiness. The Navratras are an extremely auspicious time of prayer and the Garba is an expression of gratitude to the ever giving and protecting Mother Goddess.