Navratri Festival: Indian communities gather for a musical celebration

From Voices, 7:00 am on 15 October 2018

The lively Hindu festival of Navratri – in which worshippers celebrate the Hindu warrior goddess, Durga – has been drawing bigger and bigger Kiwi crowds in the last couple of decades.

People dress up for Navratri at Auckland's Mahatma Gandhi Centre.

People dress up for Navratri at Auckland's Mahatma Gandhi Centre. Photo: RNZ / Sara Vui-Talitu

Navratri is a nine-day festival celebrating the victory of Durga – an eight-armed Hindu deity who defeats an evil demon intent on destroying the earth while carrying eight different weapons and riding a tiger.

Navratri is celebrated everywhere, but each community and each caste of religion has their own way and their own story - Ritesh Vaghela

Devotee Ritesh Vaghela, who is is Hindu, shows me around The Mahatma Gandhi Centre in central Auckland, where the Navratri celebrations will take place.


Ritesh migrated to New Zealand from India when he was just 17 and resides in the city with his immediate family.


He has taken time out of his very busy schedule to attend this festival along with other devotees to worship the Goddess Durga with prayers, songs and traditional dances.


Navratri is an opportunity to reconnect with people from different Indian ethnic groups, he says.


Ritesh Vaghela enjoys Navratri, or Nine Nights, Festival in New Zealand.

Ritesh Vaghela enjoys Navratri, or Nine Nights, Festival in New Zealand. Photo: Supplied


Over the weekend, the festival always jam-packed and one of the draw cards is the dancing.


Some nights, hundreds of people end up doing the exact same moves at the same time, Ritesh says.


"You don't need to know how to dance.

"You just come and bust out the moves. It's all about the dancing as it's not for fun – but people do do it for fun as it is actually a form of worshipping the god."


Ritesh is an actor in Indian theatre productions and a member of an Indian dance group. He's also a musician in a band and a radio jockey (RJ) for Auckland's Bollywood radio station HummFM.


Despite being so busy, Ritesh says the Navratri celebration is important to him because it's about cleansing oneself of evil.


"We all have different religions and different gods but we (are) all heading towards the same light. Hindu, I believe, is more of a concept where everyone can join in."


Preparations for the festival started a couple of weeks prior and lots of yummy delicious Indian food is on the menu.


The food is a big attraction, with many volunteers working hard in the kitchen to get it ready.  

Volunteers in the kitchen preparing for Navratri crowds

Volunteers in the kitchen preparing for Navratri crowds Photo: RNZ / Sara Vui-Talitu

It's the biggest religious dancing festival that happens around October but does depend on the Indian calendar. So a lot of people do make the effort to come here - Ravin​

Ravin, a volunteer who only gave me his first name, says that back in India the dance festival is held outdoors because it always draws huge crowds.


Here in central Auckland, there is a limit to the number of people allowed in the Mahatma Gandhi Centre and with nearby neighbours, there are issues of noise control to consider.


The festival only happens once a year so many people come from all over Auckland to join in, he says.


Initially, the festival was strictly religious, Ravin says, but now it's more relaxed, which is appealing to the younger generation.

Many people at this festival are fasting, including Ritesh, who will eat one small meal during daylight hours then won't eat again until after sunset. 

Here in New Zealand, we use it to we use it to get together with family and friends, extend our networks and make our bonds stronger - Narendrabhai Bhana, president of Auckland's Indian Association.

Ritesh Vaghela dancing at Navratri Festival in Auckland.

Ritesh Vaghela dancing at Navratri Festival in Auckland. Photo: Supplied

Navratri has many different meanings for different people, says Narendrabhai Bhana, who has lived in New Zealand for three decades.

"Obviously, India is a large country with different cultures and every city and culture has its own meaning," Narendrabhai says.


"But it's also the end of monsoon season back in India and the time where we traditionally harvest all our crops and after all our hard work, people were tired and it's one way where they can all get together to celebrate their hard work. So this is what it means back home."

Ritesh says he will enjoy the dancing and attend the festival every night until it ends on October 18.

"It's a lot of celebration and dancing. Trust me, you will see people going out at night with blisters. But the next day you will see those same people in here, dancing hard out."  


The Navratri festival precedes Diwali, the festival of lights, which takes place in Auckland from the 20-21 October this year.


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