Garba is a traditional form of Hindu dance that hails from India’s westernmost state of Gujarat. Most commonly associated with the festival of Navratri, it was traditionally performed only by women. In recent times however, the Garba has transcended the religious arena and is now a popular form of entertainment among both genders with classes and even regular competitions being held in several different countries.
While the Garba has managed to seep its way into popular culture, its primary significance however is still that of religious worship. During Navratri it is performed as a means of worshipping Shakti, which is the Hindu concept of female divinity. Shakti is expressed in nine forms, each of which is embodied by a different Devi or Goddess. And so the festival of Navratri, taken from the Sanskrit word “Navaratri” (translated as “nine nights”) takes place over the course of nine nights in order to accommodate a period of worship for each Goddess.
It is on each of these nine nights that the Garba is performed. Carried out by large groups of people dancing in concentric circles around a central figure of worship, it starts off slow and then gradually speeds up as the tempo of the music increases.
Participants will spin, clap and undulate as they orbit around a figure of the Goddess being worshipped that night. It is a rather joyous dance and people will dress quite ornately to reflect this. Women will wear heavily embroidered three piece dresses and accessorize themselves with extravagant necklaces, bindis and dupatta scarves. Men on the other hand will wear kafni pajamas with a kurta, which is a type of shirt that is common in the region. The kurta is rather loose and long and falls near the knees. Traditionally it is white or gray, but for the Garba men will often be seen wearing very vibrant colors. Dupatta scarves will sometimes be worn by them as well.
The history of the Garba can be traced back to an old Hindu legend that tells of Lord Krishna’s granddaughter in law, Usha, and how she danced and popularized a precursor to the Garba known as Lasya Nritya. Usha would place a lit lamp inside a perforated clay pot known as a garba and then place the pot on her head as she danced. The lamp represented embryonic life and quite often a coconut would be placed atop the pot to give it the appearance of the sacred Kumbh.
Even today a similar form of the old dance can still be found in Gujarat. In it women will place a lamp inside a pot, lay it on a stool and dance around it as a means of worshipping Jagadamba, the Mother of the Universe