Durgapuja, over the years, has outgrown its religious connotations
to a large extent as people all over the India celebrate it with a gusto.
There are various ways in which Ma Durga is worshiped. The rituals and
customs vary due to vast difference in the culture of Indian States. But,
all these follow the century old tradition and practice that intermingle
with historical ethos.
In Maharashtra, Durga Puja is a fun occasion. Puja is performed each day and devotees don't remove the flower garland that is put each day on the idol or image of the deity. After nine days all nine are removed together. Young girls who have not attained maturity are invited to eat, play games, dance and sing. An elephant is drawn with rangoli and the girls play guessing games. Then they are fed a meal of their choice.
In West Bengal, Durga Puja is five days of festivity. It hinges around Mahalaya day, a week before the actual celebrations begin. It was on this day that Durga was assigned the task of eliminating evil. So the familiar pose of Durga unleashing her wrath on an out powered assura (demon). Legend goes that Ram wanted to invoke the blessings of Durga before his great war with Ravan. He performed the Durga Puja despite the time of year not being right. That is why the puja is also known as Akal Bodhon, or untimely invocation.
People of Punjab strictly observes Navratri. Some Punjabus have only milk for seven days before breaking the fast on ashtami or navami. They worship Durga Ma and do the aarti at home. Some of them have fruit or a complete meal once a day and intoxicating drinks or meat and other form of entertainment is completely avoided. At the end of the fast devotees feed beggars or worship little girls who spell the Shakti of the Mother Goddess.
Navratri is devoted to Amba mataji. In some homes, images of mataji are worshiped in accordance with accepted practice. This is also true of the temples, which usually have a constant stream of visitors from morning to night. The most common form of public celebration is the performance of garba or dandia-ras, Gujarat's popular folk-dance, late throughout the nights of these nine days in public squares, open grounds and streets.
In Kerala, Durga Puja signifies the beginning of formal education for every child aged 3-5 years. While puja goes on in the temple for all ten days, it is only the concluding three days which are really important. Ashtami is the day of Ayudya Puja, when all the tools at home are worshiped. Custom dictates that no tools be used on this day. On navami, day, Goddess Saraswati is honored by worshiping the books and records at home.
Thousands throng the Saraswati temple at Kottayam during this period to take a dip in the mysterious holy pond whose source is yet unknown. Large gatherings are also seen at the famous temples at Thekkegram (Palghat), in which there are no idols -- only huge mirrors. A devotee finds himself bowing before his own reflection which indicates that God is within us.
Hindus are a minority in Jammu and Kashmir but they celebrate their festivals with pomp and show. These days, festivities are subdued, though. The favorite deities of Kashmir are Lord Shiva and Serawali Ma Durga, the one who rides the tiger. Pundits and Muslims alike vouch that Navratri is important. No big pandals here, each Hindi house-hold does the pooja at home. All the adult members of the household fast on water. In the evenings, fruit may be taken. As elsewhere, Kashmiris grow barley in earthen pots. They believe that if the growth in this pot is good, there is prosperity all year.
The most important ritual for Kashmiri Pandits is to visit the temple of guardian goddess Kheer Bhawani on all nine days. On the last day of Navratri, an aarti is held at the temple after which people break their fast. On Dussehra day, Ravana's effigy is burnt. Devotees also visit the Hari Parbat temple.