Ruprecht-Karls-Universität Heidelberg
Individual projects and contributions
The king, the goddess, and politics of ritual innovation: Āśvina Navarātri in Benares - Silje Lyngar Einarsen, PhD researcher, Aarhus University
The Gender of Navarātri - Ute Hüsken, Professor, Cultural and Religious History of South Asia (Classical Indology), Heidelberg University
“Cash in on the clay doll season:” Sharad kalam and Sundal-kalam Navaratri among Tamil people - Vasudha Narayanan, Distinguished Professor, Department of Religion, at the University of Florida
Politics, Religion, Art in the Durga Puja of Bengal - Moumita Sen, PhD, Postdoctoral Fellow, Oslo University
Divine Rites of Kings: The Constitution of Kingship through the Celebration of Dasara in Mysore - Caleb Simmons, Assistant Professor, Religious Studies Program, The University of Arizona
The Internal Navaratri: The Goddess Within - Jishnu Shankar, Senior Lecturer, University of Texas at Austin
Dasara and Durga Puja - Uwe Skoda, Associate Professor, Department of Culture and Society - The Department for Indology, Aarhus University
The goddess festival Navaratri and the agency of things - Annette Wilke, Professor, Religious Studies, Muenster University
Self-Fashining and the Celebration of Navarāttiri in Contemporary Tamil Nadu - Nicole Wilson, PhD researcher, cultural anthropology, Syracuse University

Navarātri, Navarātra and Durgāpūjā in South Asia and beyond

About the working group

Today a festival called alternatively Navarātri / Navarātra / Durgāpūjā / Dusshera / Dassain is celebrated all over South Asia, often with great fervor and massive public participation. The festival lasts for nine nights and ends with a celebration called Vijayadaśami ("the tenth (day) of victory"). We find such Navarātri celebrations all over South Asia and worldwide, wherever South Asians settle. While in some traditions several Navarātris are celebrated, the most widely known and publicly celebrated Navarātri festival takes place in the month of Āśvina (September-October). There exist many descriptions and historical accounts for the locally different celebrations, and there are also detailed analyses of individual texts or text groups pertaining to this festival. All these scholarly presentations show that there is a great diversity wherever one looks. Accordingly, the festival has been interpreted as 'counterpart of Holi', 'autumnal equinox', harvest festival, prime festival of the Kṣatriyas, the celebration of the victory of good over evil, the temporary return of the married daughter in her paternal home, as the start of the season for warfare, the celebration of the female divine power - depending on what the investigator chose to look at (e.g. the classical Sanskrit sources, local enactments, historical accounts, or the interpretations of the diverse celebrants, etc.). While there are many recurring elements (the goddess, royal power, weapons, the killing of a demon, young girls and married women, a Shami tree, communal dancing, etc.), the arrangement and performance as well as the interpretation of these elements and the festival as a whole varies greatly. Most likely this has always been the case, although the Brahmanical prescriptive texts suggest uniformity. The Navarātri working group brings together scholars who specialize on different aspects, different historical periods, different textual accounts, and different regional celebrations of Navarātri. Instead of starting from an assumed but misleading "common source", and instead of trying to find a "core" of this festival, the members of the working group thus look deeper into the diversity one detects when dealing with this festival in its different manifestations in South Asia. What does the festival mean to those who celebrate (or refuse to celebrate) it? Do the textual accounts inform a shared cultural memory, and if so, in what way and for whom? What is the wider socio-political context of specific textual accounts or actual celebrations?

The examples are from different places in South Asia and beyond, and the settings are contemporary and historical, from the domestic and the public spheres (household, temple, palace, and art gallery). The material that informs the case studies are ritual texts in Sanskrit or in local languages, historical accounts, and contemporary enactments of the festival. We are looking into the celebrations of different segments of society (caste, gender, sectarian celebrations). The individual members of this working group pay attention to the fact that there are not only marked differences between regional celebrations, but also between the ways women and men celebrate this festival. There are huge differences in the way of celebration depending on caste and class affiliation of the celebrants, and also the festivals of the proponents of the sectarian groups vary greatly. The festival is celebrated differently in the towns and in the villages, in the houses, palaces temples and in other areas of the public sphere. As a festival, Durgāpūjā encompasses rubbing shoulders and social closeness, the temporary loosening of boundaries that are strictly adhered to during everyday interactions. Such celebrations thus open a window with possibilities and dangers that usually is closed. As with all festivals, it is not just "one event" - it is neither entirely religious, nor entirely secular. It strengthens existing ties, but is also an occasion to create new connections. Through looking at details, we will address a larger question: How is this celebration one festival and many different festivals at the same time?

In common annual workshops and conference presentations (2014 in San Diego and Madison, 2015 in Paris, 2016 in Austin and San Antonio) we address and discuss the larger questions differences and commonalities, without neglecting the particularities of each festival event or text. From 2017 to 2022 we will run a Navaratri Seminar during the Annual meetings of the AAR. Two volumes by the working group (1: “Nine Nights of the Goddess: The celebration of the Navarātri festival in South Asia and Beyond, ed. by Rodrigues, Sen, and Simmons, 2: Nine Nights of Power: Durgā, Dolls and Darbars, ed. by Hüsken and Narayanan) are accepted for publication (1) under review (2) by SUNY.


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Mother of Power, Mother of Kings: The Safeguard of Sovereignty in the Devī Māhātmya

Raj Balkaran, PhD, University of Toronto

Drawing upon both its frame narrative (a forest conversation between a deposed king and a learned ascetic) and the larger mythological work in which it is couched (the Mārkaṇḍeya Purāṇa), this project employs a synchronic methodology in analyzing the themes of Sanskrit text Devī Māhātmya, “The Greatness of the Goddess”.  This research queries the extent to which the text extols in tandem the vying duties of both the necessarily-nonviolent ascetic and necessarily-violent king, probing its inclination to legitimize the latter.  In prioritizing the sanguinary business of the king, the Devī Māhātmya subordinates the ethical imperative of nonviolence to the social imperative of justified violence. This project explores in tandem the extent to which the aforementioned frame narrative purposefully points to this central function of the Goddess of our text: violent protection in the face of adversity, following the duty of the Indian king. In so doing, this research demonstrates the utility of taking seriously the (seemingly haphazard) layers of enframement abounding throughout purāṇic lore.


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Photography: Silje Einarsen

The king, the goddess, and politics of ritual innovation: Āśvina Navarātri in Benares

Silje Lyngar Einarsen, PhD researcher, Aarhus University

Silje Einarsen’s project inquires into the relationship between the Rāmlīlā and Durgāpūjā traditions of Benares. Of particular concern are the concepts of power expressed in the respective festivals' narratives and realized in the public festival arrangements. A central focus is on the locally arranged Durgāpūjā celebrations, which are increasing in scope and popularity while the number of attendants to the royal Rāmlīlā arrangements has been decreasing over the past few decades.


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The Gender of Navarātri

Ute Hüsken, Professor, Cultural and Religious History of South Asia (Classical Indology), Heidelberg University

Navarātri is celebrated in all the temples in the South Indian town Kānchipuram – yet these celebrations take very different forms. The focus of this project is on the vastly different representations of the Goddess’ and the king’s role, which reflect different outlooks on the role and potential of women (human and divine) within the diverse temple communities.


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The Mahārājā, the Goddess Aparājitā, and the Śamī tree. On the Spatial Structure of a Royal Ritual in Jaipur

Jörg Gengnagel (Würzburg University)

I look at a sequence of rituals and ceremonies carried out on Vijayadaśamī at Jaipur. The ritual performances and textual prescriptions are analyzed in the larger context of the specific spatial setting in Jaipur that is characterized by the interrelation of the old and new residence of the Kachwaha dynasty in Amber and Jaipur and the creation of a new spatial configuration at the beginning of the 18th century. By focusing on visual sources like historical images and maps I show how spatial practices interact with ritual prescriptions. By combining a visual with a textual perspective I suggest that the annual performance of Navarātri can be seen as one element that was instrumental in creating a new power center that still exists as the capital of Rajasthan.


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Photography: Ina Ilkama

Variations on Killing a Demon – ritual enactments of the Goddess’ fight with the demon

Ina Marie Lunde Ilkama, PhD researcher, Oslo University

Ina Ilkama’s project addresses the differences of the ritual enactment of the Goddess’ fight with the demon as celebrated in Brahmin and non-Brahmin goddess temples in Kanchipuram, dealing with the question of meanings attributed to this mythological event, and probing into the separation and connections of caste specific performances. Also the question of royal power in relation to the power of the goddess will be addressed by looking into sponsorship and other relevant political aspects of the contemporary festival within this small temple town.


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Worshipping the Devī at home and in temples. Navarātri celebrations in Southern Himachal Pradesh

Brigitte Luchesi (Berlin)

The Navarātri festivals in spring and fall are highly important religious occasions in Himachal Pradesh, with devotional acts and practices performed in private homes and in temples. The domestic forms of worship, mostly organized by women, may comprise a preparatory part (e.g. setting up of the pūjā place, installing a depiction of the goddess), daily duties (regular worship, fasts, drawing of designs in the courtyard) and the worship of girls (kanyā pūjā) on the last day. Although all these activities are time-consuming, exhausting and not without costs, devotees consider them imperative. They are understood as necessary contributions on the devotees’ part to make the festival happen in an adequate and fruitful way. A less invested way to celebrate Navarātri consists of visiting a Goddess temple and to perform kanyā pūjā there instead of the laborious and time consuming rituals at home. Here the degree of “work” invested to guarantee the success of the festival is less, as the temple provide all the facilities for worship including kanyās waiting for devotees. This contribution probes into the reasons for choosing temples as the preferred location to perform kanyā pūjā. Particular attention will be given to the question whether television and other modern media and the changing living conditions in parts of Himachal Pradesh are playing a part in the decision-making.


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Photography: Vasudha Narayanan

“Cash in on the clay doll season:” Sharad kalam and Sundal-kalam Navaratri among Tamil people

Vasudha Narayanan, Distinguished Professor, Department of Religion, at the University of Florida

The Sharad kalam Navaratri is the most important of the cycle of four navaratris and one of the most popular women’s festivals in Tamilnadu. While the form of celebration – the kolu – is well known and possibly has its origins in Karnataka, and also in Andhra Pradesh, its continued presence in the Tamil region and among Tamil people in the diaspora is remarkable. This project looks briefly on the possible origins of the kolu; the production of the dolls in Panrutti (one of the three major doll producing places in Tamilnadu); and discusses the ways in which the festival has been celebrated by Tamil people in the last fifty years. From traditional displays of Ambal and Dasavataram, the kolus have moved on to those based on feature stories and news items. Prize winning displays in the last few years in Chennai included themes on Katrina, Kiran Bedi Police training camp, Abdul Kalam Science Center, and organ donation. Kolu competitions sponsored by the Adyar Times and the Mylapore Times together receive more than two hundred entries every year. Apart from showing the shifts in social consciousness seen through the festival among Tamil people in Chennai and in the United States, this project explores how the season, time, and festival connect and highlight distinctions between what are perceived as Tamil and Sanskrit cultural streams; bring together various sectarian communities and ethnic language groups in India; as well as create and rupture notions of pan-Indian identities.


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Photography: Jennifer D. Ortegren

"Going Home for Navratri" Negotiating Caste, Class and Gender Between Rural and Urban Rajasthan

Jennifer D. Ortegren, Ph.D., Middlebury

This project examines shifts in Navratri ritual practices among upwardly mobile Hindu women who relocated from rural areas of Rajasthan to the urban neighborhoods of Udaipur. It forms one part of a broader project analyzing the relationships between emerging religious and class identities among members of what I call the “aspirational middle classes.” In Udaipur, neighbors from different caste, geographic, and religious backgrounds celebrate Navaratri together in shared, urban spaces. They dance dandiya before large, communally-purchased murtis of Durga Mata in her pan-North Indian form. The celebrations are not just about religious devotion; they become valuable public performances of middle class religiosity, wherein individual and neighborhoods display their relative wealth and knowledge of middle class aesthetics and “morality.” Yet, Navratri is also a time when many families return to rural homes to worship local goddesses within caste-homogenous communities. Urbanized women say they feel more “comfortable” celebrating Navratri in rural areas, even though they must abide by stricter gender norms, because ritual aspects that become privatized and domesticated in the city, namely puja to local goddesses, remain public, social events in the village. Thus, while Navratri celebrations are an important means of establishing and displaying “modern” middle class identities in urban neighborhoods, they also function to reinforce the more “traditional” caste and gender values of rural communities. In analyzing differences in the narrative, aesthetic and community dynamics of Navaratri celebrations among women in their urban and rural homes, this project seeks to understand the role of religious practices in negotiating the co-existing, and sometimes competing, values of caste, class, and gender in the shifting socio-economic and cultural landscapes of contemporary India.


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Ritual of revitalization: The transformative power of the Bengali Durgā Pūjā

Hillary Rodrigues (University of Lethbridge)

Among Bengali Hindus, the term Durgā Pūjā is often used as a synonym for the autumn Navarātra celebrations. Few would disagree that it is the most important religious celebration in Bengal. In this paper, I focus less on the Durgā Pūjā as Navarātra, the great annual festival, and more on its nature as pūjā, the ritual of worshipping the Hindu Great Goddess, Durgā. I argue that its Tantric underpinnings reveal that it serves not only as an expression of devotional reverence, but as a rite of transformative empowerment. I examine how the Durgā Pūjā functions to rejuvenate and revitalize nothing less than the entire creation, at personal, communal, and cosmic levels.


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Photography: Moumita Sen

Politics, Religion, Art in the Durga Puja of Bengal

Moumita Sen, PhD, Postdoctoral Fellow, Oslo University

Moumita Sen’s project looks at the network of politics, popular religiosity and the ‘high’ culture of the liberal arts, exploring the strategic and creative aspects of the annual re-actualization of the relationship between political parties and the festival culture of West Bengal in the form of indirect patronage of the Durgāpūjā.


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Straddling the Sacred and the Secular: Goddess Ambikā and Her Friends in Gujarat’s Navarātrī

Neelima Shukla-Bhatt (Wellesley College)

The region of Gujarat is well-known in India and beyond it for its Navarātrī festivities. At the core of these festivities is garbo (plu. garbā), a dance traditionally performed in the honor of the great goddess with many forms. It is a circular dance, which, for centuries, has been performed by women during Navarātri at night in open spaces around a festival image of the goddess. The image is also called garbo, a term that is generally thought to have been derived from the word garbha (fetus /womb). It is believed that the goddess herself dances along with the women in a garbo. The songs for the dance refer to the dancing women as the friends of the goddess Ambikā and her various manifestations. The songs and the dance are upbeat and have long provided women with a beloved medium of self-expression in the sacred context. In more recent times however, this ritual dance has overflowed into secular spaces as well. While the ritual dance continues to be performed, for some decades, huge crowds of women and men in Gujarat’s cities and towns have been dancing garbā in commercially organized events. In these events, there is a courteous bow to the goddess with props emulating traditional garbā spaces and a large number of songs played on the microphone refer to her. The dancers also wear colorful traditional attires as in the ritual space. Yet the festivities have hardly the spirit of a ritual in its strict sense. They are more like big dance parties taking place during a traditional festival time. Such large dancing events with traditional garbā songs are now being duplicated in other parts of India and in diasporic communities as well. How do we understand this overflowing of a regional Navarātri ritual into broader secular spaces? My essay will explore this question looking closely at the intersection of religious belief, aesthetic expression, performance of cultural identity (especially in diasporic contexts), and business in contemporary garbā dancing in Gujarat and in the United States.


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Photography: Caleb Simmons

Divine Rites of Kings: The Constitution of Kingship through the Celebration of Dasara in Mysore

Caleb Simmons, Assistant Professor, Religious Studies Program, The University of Arizona

Caleb Simmons’ project examines the role of Dasara within the processes of king-fashioning in medieval and contemporary Mysore through textual analysis and ethnography. Of particular interest is the way that kingship and divinity were constituted through the celebration of the festival as the center of the royal ritual calendar. At the core of this practice was the implicit connection between the Woḍeyar kings of Mysore and the former rulers of Vijayanagara as the medieval Mysore court constituted themselves as the proper successors of their imperial predecessors. To do this, the Woḍeyar court mimicked the Vijayanagara empire’s military and ritual apparatus continually adapting the practices of the remembered kingdom. With the dissolution of the kingdoms and princely states, this process continued to adapt as a new vision of the goddess and the king emerged. Therefore, the final portion of this project will examine the relationship between the medieval expressions of the ritual and the celebration of Dasara in 2013—the final Dasara of the Mysore line of Śrīkaṇṭhadatta Narasiṃharāja Woḍeyar. Through this comparison, we can see the evolution of the concept of kingship and the nature of the goddess within contemporary national context.


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The Internal Navaratri: The Goddess Within

Jishnu Shankar, Senior Lecturer, University of Texas at Austin

Navaratri celebrations have a whole range of expressions in India, culminating in joyous festivities which include food, fairs, and a sense of rejuvenation. The practices followed during these nine nights, however, can differ according to geographical location, as well as the perspective which informs what Navaratri is.  My project endeavors to look at the interpretation of Navaratri that Aghoreshwar Mahaprabhu Baba Bhagwan Ram Ji gave to his audiences in Banaras, India, and also while travelling abroad.  It sheds some light on what Navaratri means to an ascetic tradition, how the goddess is visualized during these nine nights, and how observance of Navaratri can be related to social issues.


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Dasara and Durga Puja

Uwe Skoda, Associate Professor, Department of Culture and Society - The Department for Indology, Aarhus University

The project looks at two by and large simultaneously performed rituals, namely Durga Puja and Dasara, in the former princely state of Bonai (nowadays a sub-district in northwestern Odisha). It compares these two rituals on two levels: a) historically (i.e. late 1930s versus present day practices), and b) as contemporary performances in different locations (i.e. palace rituals versus market rituals). An album of photographs commissioned by the last ruling chief and subsequent interviews forms the basis of an analysis of pre-merger rituals, while observations in the palace as well as of the relatively newly introduced Durga Puja rituals performed in the market reveal a substantial change. In contrast to the 1930s palace rituals have been either abolished or considerably reduced, but the present Raja still sponsors a number of rituals for various deities and maintains links to certain Adivasi communities. However, in the wake of a recent industrialisation in Odisha the initially small Durga Puja, introduced in Bonai in 1948 by an “outsider”, increasingly overshadows palace rituals and - being generously funded by industrialists - attracts larger crowds. Thus, rituals around goddess Durga in all her manifestions encountered in Bonai may be considered a social prism to understand a local socio-cultural configuration and its transformations, yet for a comprehensive deeper understanding synchronic and diachronic approaches involving various research techniques and sources are required.


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The goddess festival Navaratri and the agency of things

Annette Wilke, Professor, Religious Studies, Muenster University

Navaratri – also known as Durgapuja – is one of the most important yearly Hindu festivals and the longest one. It takes place every autumn for at least for nine or ten days all over India in great regional variety. It celebrates the victory of the Great Goddess over the demons who threaten the world. Besides many ritual elements and paraphernalia, it includes a large number of objects embodying the goddess – to name just a few most important ones: pots with sprouting seeds in all households and goddess temples; icons of the goddess fashioned only for the festival and newly established colourful pavilions (pandals) serving as homes for the goddess’ nine day ascent to earth (typical in Calcutta and other north Indian cities like Varanasi and Delhi.); “deity mountains” with clay figures of beings of the whole cosmos (kolu) (prevailing in South India), pilgrimages sites of the goddess and festival pilgrimage routes (e.g. of the nine Durgas in Varanasi and Bhaktapur); traditional goddess temples all over India and specific texts that are recited – particularly the Devimahatmya (in the North) and the Lalitasahasranama (in the South). Typical is also the veneration of girls before puberty (kumari) and of married women (sumangali) as forms of the goddess. In non-brahmin milieus, males and females may get possessed by her and act as media and oracles. Often, the fight of the goddess with the demon and her glorious victory is acted out, for instance, in such possession rites. In village India from high North to deep South buffalos and goats are sacrificed. On the tenth day weapons – and nowadays also cars and any working instruments – are worshiped. Navaratri has been a special festivals of kings and soldiers in the past, but it is also a festival of women and all stratas of society.  The project builds on existing research on Navaratri, which was devoted to specific places, agents and aspects (e.g. the royal nature of the festival or aspects of empowerment, fertility or fight), and intends to supplement it with new field material, for instance, on Sringeri (South India) and Hamm-Uentrop (Northrhine Westphalia) which both have varying relations – be it rival or mimetic – to Kanchipuram (well-researched presently in Oslo). The objective is, however, not only to produce additional data for regional variety and localized religion. The project’s aim is rather a more encompassing analysis. Although a number of studies exist devoted to specific places, no large-scale comparison exists between the celebration in different regions. The project attempts such a comparison by looking at the festival’s material culture and the various ”agencies” of things. 

Why do so many embodiments of the goddess exist? What “do” the different objects to different persons in different places? Is it possible to raise typologies of objects regarding space, social strata, processes of semiosis etc.? May different objects have similar functions and purposes? Or do they necessarily have each their own reach, ideology and function? Where and why do specific objects and their use enhance boundary-work, e.g. between caste-groups or gender, and where and why cross-overs? Where and why do they become the locus of shifts and breaks of tradition? – historically, for instance, by the change of sponsorship from royal milieus to neighbourhood communities and youth clubs, or by export to diaspora countries; socially, by wandering from Brahmin to non-Brahmin strata of society; semiotically, by being charged with different, possibly opposing meanings and perspectives, or witnessing loss of sense, new encoding or secularization. 

This kind of questions are going to be tackled in a comparative and multimethodical approach. Theories of material culture/aesthetics of religion shall be combined with theories of performance, agency, and imagination.


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Self-Fashining and the Celebration of Navarāttiri in Contemporary Tamil Nadu

Nicole Wilson, PhD researcher, cultural anthropology, Syracuse University

Nicole Wilson is interested in the celebration of Navaratri by middle-class Hindu women in urban Tamil Nadu. She is examining the intersections of caste and class identity with respect to the festival, as well as how a regionally-specific Navaratri practice, the construction of a kolu, provides a mode for self- expression and social commentary in contemporary south India.


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Mediatized Durgāpūjās: Transformed Organization Structures, Identity Negotiations and Authority Patterns of Durgāpūjā Committees

Xenia Zeiler, Department of World Cultures, Helsinki University

Elaborate Durgāpūjā celebrations involving complex organization have been part of the Hindu festival calendar since the c. 14th to 16th centuries. In its historical development, the Hindu festival outgrew being mainly a status marker for rich festival patronizing landlords, to become a popular mass event by the 19th century. Then initiated trends to emphasis community involvement in the yearly festival organization and participation still underwent another massive transformation in the 20th century, i.e. with emerging processes of mediatization. Today, all aspects of Durgāpūjā are highly mediatized. Not only is Durgāpūjā a common theme in modern mass media, as in Bollywood and regional cinemas, press releases, popular music and Internet blogs, forums etc., but also is the festival increasingly organized, participated and negotiated via and in a variety of media.

The project seeks to highlight transformations in Durgāpūjās’ organisational structures and the implicit identity and authority negotiations which are explicitly brought about by mediatization processes. For this, it takes a closer look at the mediatized activities of “Durgāpūjā Committees”, groups appointed by local communities (villages, city quarters etc.) to organise the festival’s most popular feature, artistic arrangements of scenarios depicting Durgā's defeat of Mahiṣa, in so-called paṇḑals). Durgāpūjā committees today strongly compete and massively communicate, organize and negotiate via cell phones, emails, Facebook groups etc., in order to create outstanding paṇḑals, which then serve as identity markers for their respective communities and support both, the committees’ and community’s religious authority.


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The King and the Sword – Materialization, Adaptation, and Challenge of Goddess(es) in Royal Nepalese Navarātra Rituals

Astrid Zotter, Research Fellow, Heidelberg Academy of Science and Humanities

Astrid Zotter’s project concentrates on the royal Nepalese Durgāpūjā rituals, and specifically focuses on those elements and related narratives that focus on the sword, a highly charged ritual implement - representing the king and at the same time embodying the Goddess. By doing so, one focus will be to sketch how in Navarātra rituals the relationship of the king and his śakti was conceived, reshaped, and celebrated, especially at times of political change.


(Email:)   Seitenbearbeiter, Studienberater,
Im Neuenheimer Feld 330, D-69120 Heidelberg
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