Ahmedabad, INDIA — Lifting up my heavily embroidered skirt, I stomp my feet and clap to the rhythms of the dhol and tabla drums. The spectacle of colour and movement wrap around me and I feel like I’m in a vibrant Bollywood dream.
Only it isn’t a dream. I’m actually in India participating in the world’s longest and largest dance festival known as Navratri that’s held annually in this city of scared sites.
This Hindu dance festival is celebrated every fall all across India. The festival honours Durga, the divine feminine and all her nine forms, for nine consecutive nights. Each region celebrates the festival in different ways, and Gujarat is famous for the folkloric garba dance. I didn’t know anything about how to dance garba or the Navratri rituals before I arrived but I quickly found myself thrown into the drama and excitement of Gujarat.
Within a few hours of landing in Ahmedabad, the busting capital of Gujarat, I headed straight to Law Garden Night Market, a sprawling open market lined with bright street lamps. I didn’t know much about Navratri but I knew enough about Indian culture to realize that I needed a blinged out sari for the occasion.
Above: TraveLife's Rosalind Cummings-Yeates is the centre of attention at Navrati dance festival.
So, accompanied by my authoritative guide Sam O’Neil, (not his real name but it’s what he tells clueless foreigners to call him) I dived into the colourful chaos of an Indian market. Crowds of locals milled around stands piled with vibrantly hued clothes, jewellry and wall decorations. Another section displayed an assortment of Indian dishes with spicy aromas that floated through the market.
The anticipation of scoring an authentic chaniya (long full skirt) and choli (cropped blouse) overcame my reservations about tackling the haggling process. Armed with Sam and my keen bargaining skills, I walked away with a bright blue ensemble embroidered with tiny mirrors.
Moving through the crush of people, with the smell of curry mixing with bhangra tunes and women sporting yellow, red or pink saris, I didn’t feel uncomfortable or overwhelmed. Maybe it was my constant diet of Bollywood musicals and chicken tikka masala back in Chicago or just the friendliness of Gujaratis, but I felt right at home in Ahmedabad’s lively streets.
Stepping down the narrow sidewalks to the GMDC Ground amphitheatre in downtown Ahmedabad, it seemed like the entire area was throbbing with energy. For the opening night of Navratri, a red carpet was rolled out at the entrance and big spotlights flashed on the attendees decked out in shimmering kurtas (tunics), phentos (turbans) and saris. I slipped through the gate but before I could reach my seat, a woman approached me and kindly asked if she could adjust the opal head chain I was wearing. I had been wearing it down on my forehead and the proper way is for it to hang right at the tip of the hairline.
A large stage stretched out before me and my mouth dropped as an explosion of videos and a procession of dance troupes marched onto it. Musicians playing tabla and other percussion instruments beat out rhythms as dancers performed variations of raas-garba folk dances.
The videos projected images of Durga and various Indian leaders as group after group twirled, clapped and chanted. The colours, sounds and movement swirled around me and I almost felt dizzy with all the sensory stimulation.
Above: Participants come from far distances to perform in India's spectacular Navrati dance festival.
Traditionally a circle dance, garba represents the cycle of life and feminine divinity. As part of a sacred ritual, garba is performed barefoot, signifying respect for Earth.
Some dancers balanced sparkling Sanskrit symbols on their heads, while others held painted dandiya sticks to tap out rhythms and perform a mock fight between Durga and Lord Krishna.
Despite the fantastic spectacle on stage, locals noticed my traditional dress and I was stopped many times because they wanted to take their picture with me. I didn’t think that I looked that different from the dancers who had travelled from all over the region to perform and, sure enough, two girls in vermillion chaniya cholis pulled me into their circle and taught me the basic garba steps. Demonstrating the spins and claps, they showed me Tran Taali Garba, or three-clap garba. Placing the right foot forward, left foot back, right forward, left in front, I twirled the wrong direction and bumped into a dancer. And that was before we added the claps. But they didn’t seem to mind my clumsiness, we clapped and spun and laughed.
Besides hosting a spectacular Navratri festival, Gujarat is most famous for being the birthplace of Mohandas Gandhi, the father of the Indian nation. There’s an entire Gandhi circuit of sites throughout the state but in Ahmedabad, the Gandhi Ashram is a must see.
Tucked along the banks of the Sabarmati River, the formal name is actually Sabarmati Ashram. A sign with a familiar image of Gandhi with his bare chest and smooth head hovers over the site against lush palm trees.
An air of serenity surrounds the site and as I enter the honking horns and blaring music of Ahmedabad receded into the background.
Shaded by neem trees, the ashram includes the humble room where Gandhi slept and devised India’s independence movement, as well as a museum and photo galleries.
Gandhi founded the ashram in 1917 and it quickly became the centre for the independence movement.
On the verandah, Neema demonstrated weaving techniques on a loom and explained how Gandhiji lived in the ashram.
Gandhiji, which denotes a sign of respect to the famous leader, is how Gandhi is always referred to throughout India.
As I watch her spin (Gujarat is noted for hand looming techniques), I noticed a group forming nearby. I walked out to the neem tree where Gandhi mediated daily and the crowd followed me.
When a teen girl asked me for a selfie, I realized that they were all lined up to take photos with me. Navratri had given me a hint but I was still taken aback by my fame in Gujarat.
The stately white building that houses Kochrab Ashram was the first ashram Gandhi established when he returned from South Africa in 1915. It was here that he laid the foundation for his political movement including satyagraha, or non-violent resistance, self sufficiency and swadeshi, which boycotted British products and revived traditional products like the hand-loomed cloth that Gandhi wore. He also created a scandal by taking in members of the untouchable caste.
Besides Gandhi’s simple room, the ashram features a guesthouse, library and prayer hall.
About the Author
With a love for travel passed down from her globe-trotting granny, Rosalind Cummings-Yeates has spent most of her journalism career exploring cultures and documenting arts history. A Chicago native who escapes the city's six months of cold by specializing in Caribbean and Latin American travel and culture, she loves climbing volcanoes, strolling cobblestone streets and trekking on pink-sand beaches. She's the author of Exploring Chicago Blues: Inside The Scene, Past & Present (History Press) and writes a bi-weekly travel column for Travel Pulse. Follow her adventures on her travel blog, Farsighted Fly Girl and @farsightedgirl on Twitter and Instagram.