Navarathri, the festival of nine nights, is a vibrant and colorful Indian harvest festival beginning on the first day after the new moon in the seventh month of the Hindu lunar calendar, usually in September or October. This year it begins Oct. 16. It is a time for prayers, austerities, gatherings, festivities, feasting, music and dance, all honoring the Mother Goddess and the victory of goodness over evil.
In most parts of India, Navarathri celebrates the three aspects of the Mother Goddess: Durga, the divine protector; Lakshmi, who bestows peace and prosperity; and Saraswathi who blesses with knowledge.
Navarathri celebrations are a medley of traditions in communities in India. It is celebrated with great enthusiasm as Durga Puja in West Bengal. In Punjab, Navarathri is a period of fasting. Gujarat celebrates with fascinating folk dances Garba and dandia-ras. In northern India, the festival wears the colorful attire of Ramlila. The Dassera of Mysore is famous for its caparisoned elephants that lead a colorful procession through the streets of the city.
Pageantry and ritual of Indian harvest festival
Kerala celebrates the last three days and pays homage to Saraswathi, the goddess of learning. The 10th day, Vijaya Dasami, is considered the most auspicious day for all new ventures. It commemorates the victory of knowledge over ignorance, and young children are initiated into the world of letters.
In temples dedicated to the divine mother, on this day, children are seated on the laps of their fathers, who write the auspicious words “hari sri” on the child’s tongue with a gold ring, praying for the divine mother to bless them with the skills for reading and writing. Then the fathers hold the child’s fingers and helps them write the same words on raw rice.
In Tamil Nadu and to a lesser extent in Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Kerala, it is the tradition is to set up kolu, beautiful and elaborate displays of colorful dolls in the shapes of the many gods and goddesses of the Hindu pantheon, at home.
Beans take center stage
Harvests are always celebrated with pageantry and ritual in India, and at Navarathri, south India thanks the Mother Goddess for the bounty of a rich harvest of pulse vegetables. Chickpeas, black-eyed peas, urad beans, tuvar beans and mung beans are the major source of protein in the Indian vegetarian diet. For the holiday celebration, grain and pulse seeds are sown in mud spread in a pot at the bottom tier of the kolu display and watered daily. In a few days, the pulses sprout and form a miniature garden.
The nine days of celebration feature traditional festive foods. Various sweet and savory dishes are prepared every day as nivedyam, or offerings. Most important among these is sundal, a delicious cooked bean salad seasoned with mustard seeds and curry leaves. It is often prepared with a different kind of beans, peas or peanuts, which are also legumes. Friends and neighbors are invited to the homes for viewing the kolu display, and everyone returns home with little packets of snacks and sweets.
Sundal with chickpeas
Traditionally this recipe is prepared with Indian chickpeas, which have a brown skin and are smaller than other types more familiar in the United States. This dish may also be prepared with canned chickpeas. Open the can and wash the beans under running water, and drain well. Sprinkle with salt and turmeric, and proceed.
2 cups chickpeas
½ teaspoon of turmeric powder
salt to taste
1 tablespoon of vegetable, corn or canola oil
1 teaspoon mustard seeds
2 hot red chili peppers, broken into pieces or ½ teaspoon crushed red pepper (less for milder taste)
¼ teaspoon asafetida powder (optional)
a few fresh curry leaves
¼ cup freshly grated coconut
1. Wash the chickpeas and soak them overnight. Rinse them in several changes of water until the water runs clear. Place them in a saucepan, and add water to cover. Sprinkle them with turmeric, and cook over medium heat until they are very soft (or cook in a pressure cooker for six minutes or so, following the manufacturer’s directions). Drain well, sprinkle with salt, and set aside. Or drain canned chickpeas, wash in running cold water and drain again. Add salt and turmeric and stir well.
2. Heat the oil in a large skillet, and add the mustard seeds. When the mustard seeds start sputtering, add the halved red peppers, asafetida powder and curry leaves, and sauté for a minute. Add the drained chickpeas to the pan, and mix well. Pan-fry while stirring continuously for a minute or two.
3. Sprinkle grated coconut and mix gently. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Thenga Manga Sundal (Sundal with Mango and Coconut)
A tasty variation of this recipe is to add raw mango slices to the salad. For this recipe, cut a medium-size raw mango into small cubes. After seasoning the oil with spices, along with the drained chickpeas add the mango pieces to the skillet and sauté for a minute or two. Stir gently to mix. Remove from the stove and stir in two teaspoons fresh lemon juice. Garnish with fresh cilantro leaves. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Photo: Sundal with chickpeas. Credit: R.V. Ramachandran