It used to be Navratri but now because of the Punjabi refugee influx the nomenclature has become Navratra, which seems to gain more popularity with each passing year, probably because of increasing prosperity. Like Ramzan, which has gradually acquired the reputation of being a feast and fast period, the two Navratras of spring and autumn also merge history and legend with special food intake and “vrat”. Fruits and vegetables are aplenty and even the salt used is not the ordinary iodate, one but Lohari Namak.

Delving into the history of the Navratras is an interesting exercise. When Taimur the Lame invaded Delhi in September 1398, it was time for the Navratras preceding Dussehra. How these were affected is not known, but presumably restraint was observed. In those days the Kalkaji mandir and the one at the other end of the city Jhandewalan ~ were among the two highly venerated centres.

While the Kalkaji mandir’s history goes back to dim antiquity Jhandewalan is said to have come into prominence during the region of Prithviraj Chauhan in the last quarter of the 12th century. His daughter Bela is believed to have built a temple in this area. Taimur arrived 200 years later. Nadir Shah’s invasion took place on 9 March, 1739, almost 341 years after that of Taimur’s and the Vasanthik Navratras were due to be held. Mohammad Shah Rangila, the Mughal emperor, was quite secular in his approach and celebrated festivals like Basant, Holi and Diwali. Bahadur Shah Zafar, who came to the throne about 100 years after Nadir Shah’s invasion was fond of eating the dal and rassa (with puris) sent by the seths of Chandni Chowk during the Navratras.

Historical evidence of Mughal participation (besides the stories of Akbar and his Rajput queens) in Delhi dates back to the time of Shah Alam, who helped in the reconstruction of the Kalkaji temple the biggest venue then for the two Navratras. Akbar Shah, his successor, continued his patronage and so did his son, Zafar. After that it was British Raj.

The Navratras seem to have acquired more zealous participation in recent years, especially in the post-Partition colonies. Earlier, people used to offer their prayers at the ancient temples, but now because of the population explosion they prefer to worship in their own localities and feed not only the devotees but also passersby in accordance with puranic traditions. At the bhandaras, which are actually community feeding occasions, the piety, zeal and devotion of those preparing the langar makes the food taste better-or so it seems. Surprisingly enough, hardly any cases of food poisoning are reported.

The Chahattarpur mela held during the Navratras in Delhi is famous for its langar and people stand in long queues to taste the food distributed free to all. The temple at Chhattarpur now boasts of a golden idol of the Devi. But there is another temple, a little distance away, which is much older and, according to some, marks the site of the mandir that existed in the pre-Sultanate days. The Kalkaji mandir, near Okhla station, is believed to have been built in pre-historic times though the oldest portions of the present building were constructed between 1764 and 1771. Besides the Navratra mahotsava, a fair is held there every Tuesday in honour of the goddess Kali. In Jhandewalan there are many temples, including an ancient one of the Devi, which draws big crowds during the Navratras. One afternoon 60,000 people came for darshan, of whom 12,000 ate at the bhandara.

Hanuman Mandir, near Connaught Place, also draws big crowds on Tuesdays and Saturdays, more so during the Navratras. These days are a godsend for halwais, fruit sellers and grocers, Rock salt, commonly known as Lahori Namak, is in great demand. The paradox is that it mostly comes from Pakistan, where Navratras are not observed.

In Subhash Nagar the Arya Samaj mandir is the focus of attention as much as the Santoshi Mata temple in Harinagar, which though not very old, was built by Shamsher Bahadur Saxena after the Devi appeared to him in a dream. First started in a little room (Kothari), it is now a huge building with queues sometimes more than a mile long.

In Chandni Chowk are some of the finest temples in the Capital, including the Gauri Shankar mandir and Dauji-ka-mandir, which also draw huge crowds. Dauji-ka-mandir is a nondescript building, which looks like an ordinary house from outside. But it’s the interior that holds all the attraction. Situated in Esplanade Road, it is the focal point for most Hindu religious processions as they start and end at it. But not during the Navratras.

In Uttar Pradesh they date back to the age of Lord Rama himself and later Sri Krishna.

The Navratras in Rajasthan, however, go back to the time of Raja Dulhai Rai, when the Katchwa Rajputs from Ayodhya left the Gwalior region and captured the hilly valley of Amber in the 11th century. It was then that the tradition of holding the Navratras started here and the gorge of Galta, with its Sun temple, and the Shitla Mata mandir became the centres of worship for nine days.

Coinciding with the Navratras is the Koela Mata fair, part of which is held in April, both in Rajasthan and U.P. areas. Incidentally, Nadir Shah’s invasion in March 1739 took place four years before the death of Sawai Jai Singh, the builder of the Jantar Mantars, one of them in Delhi. Soon after Nadir left, the Maharaja rushed to sympathise with the emperor, Mohammad Shah Rangila, who had lost most of the fabulous treasure of the Mughals, including the Kohinoor and the Peacock Throne.

During the heyday of the Jaipur Raj, a special feature after the autumn Navratras was the offering of human sacrifice at Dussehra at the idol of the Devi in Amber fort, brought during his Bengal campaign by Maharaja Man Singh.

But with the advent of modern times condemned prisoners ceased to the offered as bhog and a buffalo sacrificed instead. The Devi is said to have made her displeasure known by turning her face away. Even now one can see that it is tilted sideways. Earlier the Navratras were mainly observed in the Walled City. Like in Delhi, they seem to have acquired more participation after 1947 in the new colonies, where more people make their devotions in local temples, instead of the ancient ones.