The nation is celebrating Sharad Navratri 2018. Sharad Navratri and Chaitra Navratri are two Navratris that are celebrated widely by devotees of Goddess Shakti. The nine day festival holds immense importance for Hindus across the world. During these nine auspicious days, devotees pray to nine incarnations of Goddess Durga called Navdurga. Each day of Navratri is dedicated to one form of the Goddess. All nine days, devotees wake up early, have a bath and pray to Goddess with multiple offerings like milk, sugar and fruits. The eight day of Navratri is called Ashtami, and this year Ashtami or Durga Ashtami falls on 17th October 2018. Read to know how Ashtami is celebrated across the country.
In many parts of the country, Hindu households hold 'Kanjak' or Kanya Puja. Nine girls are welcomed into the house by first washing their feet and then tying moli (red thread) around their wrists. These girls are seated in a line and served a delicious bhog of halwa, poori and chole. They are also given gifts like pencils, tiffin boxes and hairclips. These young girls who have not hit puberty yet are seen as embodiment of Goddess Durga herself. Some observe the ritual of Kanjak on Navami or the ninth day of Navratri too.
For Bengalis, Ashtami or Durga Ashtami is considered to be the most important day of Durga Puja. People dress up in new clothes and hit the pandals early in the morning for pushpanjali. Durga Puja on Maha Ashtami begins with Mahasnaan of the idol. This is followed by the Shodashopachar Puja. In this puja, nine earthern pots are placed in the centre and worshipped. The ritual is said to invoke the nine shaktis of Durga. In afternoons, devotees gather for special 'Ashtami Bhog'. Ashtami bhog usually differs from the bhog on rest of the Pujo days. Instead of khichdi, mixed vegetables and payesh(kheer), pandals usually serve rice, chana dal, a curry of paneer, mixed vegetables, begun bhaja(eggplant fritters), tomato chutney, papad, rajbhog and the ever-so-delectable payesh.
On the day of Ashtami, special pujas like 'Astra Puja' and 'Sandhi Puja' also take place in Puja pandals. As part of Astra Puja, Goddess Durga's weapons with which she defeated the buffalo demon Mahishasura are worshipped with much fervour. It is said that it was on the day of Ashtami, after a long drawn battle between Goddess Durga and Mahishasura, Goddess Kali appeared from Durga's forehead to annihilate Mahishasura's demons - Chando, Munda and Rakthabija. Therefore on this day, Ashta Nayikas, or the eight forms or incarnations of shakti are worshipped in the form of all encompassing Goddess Durga.
The evenings of Durga Ashtami are a sight to behold. One highlight, is of course the grand Aarti, which is accompanied with frenzied beats of dhol with special dhunuchi dance(dancing with earthen pots in which lay flared coconut husks). Another high point of the evening is the Sandhi Puja. This particular puja is performed in an auspicious time called the Sandhi time. The auspicious time often falls in the last 24 minutes of Ashtami or first 24 minutes of Navami. Women and children start preparing for the puja hours in advance. 108 earthen lamps are lit during the Sandhi time as a ritual to invoke the blessings of the goddess. The goddess is also offered 108 lotus flowers and bilwa leaves.