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Ratan Mandal of Tea2You on the foods and traditions of Hindu festival, Navratri

Navratri is a Hindu festival symbolising the triumph of the god Durga over Evil, and it is celebrated four times a year: magh (winter) Navratri in January/ February; vasant (spring) Navratri in March/ April; ashad (rainy season) Navratri in June/ July, and shardiya Navratri or maha Navratri (September/ October). ‘Nava’ means ‘nine’ and ‘ratri’ means night—literally, the festival of nine nights.

The date Navratri begins is determined by the lunar calendar. Maha Navratri or ‘great Navratri’ is the most important and most widely celebrated Navratri of the year. The festival is marked in different ways all over India, but it is a particularly jubilant time in West Bengal, east India.

“I am from the capital of West Bengal, Kolkata (Calcutta), and for Hindus there maha Navratri is massive,” beams Ratan, owner of Tea2You. “It’s a festival that dates back more than 300 years. It’s like Christmas: we buy new things and give them to our elders, everybody is laughing, dancing, hugging and enjoying themselves. From the 13th, nobody will work, everything is closed.”

Creation, preservation and destruction
Navratri is dedicated to the god Durga—the mother of the universe and its creation, preservation and destruction. She has 10 hands, “four on each side and two of her own”, which represent the eight directions of Hinduism and symbolise the protection of her devotees.

“Each hand bears a different weapon to fight with, and each has a different power,” Ratan explains. “In Indian mythology, the gods lent Durga these weapons to fight Evil.”

During this time, men and women worship a life-sized Durga statue made of clay from the Ganga River in Kolkata. “It is treated as a real woman. We can’t touch it, or do anything wrong in front of her,” he continues.

Incredible structures
 It is kept in a wooden structure made in the local community called a pandal, which is made by hand using bamboo. “They are incredible structures, sometimes of the Taj Mahal, of London Bridge—they are huge.”

Throughout the celebrations it is common to distribute milk-based sweets and eat sweet dishes such as sandesh, “a sweet made of milk, sugar and paneer” decorated with almonds and pistachios; rasgulla, “a golf ball-sized sweet that’s tough to make. It’s water, sugar, mixed together with fruit. The English cricket team are obsessed with rosogolla! Kolkata is famous for it”; and kola (banana) bora, “very ripe bananas, coconut, sugar and maida (wheat flour) fried in oil.”

Everything is homemade. “We all sit down together as a family to eat, put on our best, traditional dress, and wear a red tilak on our foreheads. We drink the local drinks like siddhi, which is again made with milk and it’s very strong! I remember drinking it with my father and falling flat. But it is a very good, sweet drink.”

The Himalayas
On the 10th day, there is a procession culminating in the immersion of the Durga statue in the Ganga—a symbol of the departure of Durga to her husband in the Himalayas.

“We will be dancing while beating the traditional dhak drum, which is quite difficult! The priest will then throw the water from the river, which is considered to be very religious, up into the air to sprinkle it over our heads to end the celebrations. The whole community comes together, it’s really great.”