When Taimur the Lame invaded Delhi in September 1398, it was time for the Navaratas preceding Dussehra. How these were affected is not known. 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 Kalakaji mandir’s history goes back to dim antiquity Jhandewalan is said to have come into prominence during the reign of Prithviraj Chauhan in the last quater of the 12th century. His daughter Bela is believed to have built a temple in this area. Taimur arrived 200 years later.
When Nadir Shah’s invasion took place on 9 March,1739, 341 years after that of Taimur’s, the Vasanthik Navratras were due to be held. Mohammad Shah Rangila, then 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 Navaratras, also known as Navratri. The change in nomenclature is of recent origin.
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 Navratris. Akbar Shah Sani, his successor, continued his patronage and so did the latter’s son Zafar. After that it was British Raj but the Navaratras wrere not affected.
The Navratras seem to have acquired more zealous participation in recent years, especially in the post-Partition colonies. Earlier people used to make their devotions 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 passers-by 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, few cases of food poisoning are reported.
The Chattarpur 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 Chattarpur 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 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 the bhandara.
Hanuman Mandir, near Connaught Place, also draws big crowds on Tuesdays and Saturdays, more so during the Navratras. Navratra 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 Shamser 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 Chandani Chowk are some of the oldest 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. 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.
The Pitrpaksha or homage to dead ancestors is also observed around this period. It includes feeding Brahmins and others. There is a belief that once when Lord Rama held a pitrapaksha observance, the Sun and Moon gods, Surya and Soma, came disguised as Brahmins. The amount of food they ate aroused Rama’s suspicions but he thought it better not to disclose their identity. However, when they had finished their meal, he whispered to them that he had recognised who they were and felt honoured that they condescended to participate in the langar soon after his return to Ayodhya.
 The two responded by folding their hands and saying that it was their privilege to pay homage to the god-king’s ancestors, along with his subjects. Later, when one of Rama’s brothers complained that there was hardly any food left he told him what had happened and ordered more to be prepared for the milling crowed. Even now, some householders keep this incident in mind when they organise a pitrapaksha bhoj (meal.) nRVS