Navaratri and Dussehra/Dassera are long festivals celebrated over a period of ten days. The first nine days constitute the Navaratri festival. Navaratri itself means nine nights (Nava = nine, ratri = night).The term "Dussehra" or "Vijayadashmi" which is the last and tenth day are derived from the word for number ten i.e. Das (in Hindi) or Dasha (in Sanskrit).
Navaratri is a joyous festival which is celebrated every year by followers of Hinduism, during early fall season (occurs during late September and early October). The Goddesses in the form of the Universal Mother is worshiped for nine nights and hence the name nava-ratri.' On the tenth day, the festival comes to an end with a special puja called Vijaya Dasami. During the ten days of the Dasara festival (ten days and nine nights), it is common for Hindus to read and recite slokas on the greatness of Mother Durga, Lakshmi and Saraswati. Mother Durga symbolizes the power of purposeful action (Kriya Sakti). Lakshmi represents the will power (Itchaa Sakti) and Saraswati stands for the power of knowledge (Jnana Sakti).
In the first three days, Goddess Durga is invoked in order to destroy all our impurities, vices and defects. The next three days Goddess Lakshmi is adored as a giver of spiritual wealth. The final three days is is spent in worshipping as the goddess of knowledge, Saraswati. In order to have all-round success in life, believers seek the blessings of all three aspects of the divine femininity, hence the nine nights of worship. During Navratri, some devotees of Durga observe a fast and prayers are offered for the protection of health and property. A period of introspection and purification, Navratri is traditionally an auspicious time for starting new ventures.
In West Bengal, it takes the form of Durga Puja, an occasion to celebrate the Triumph of Good over Evil. According to legend, a vicious buffalo headed-demon, Mahishasura, had raised hell at the gates of heaven, causing widespread terror. The Goddess Durga was actualised by the combined efforts of all the deities to slay him. Thus, Durga astride a lion, with an assortment of weapons in her 10 hands, slayed Mahishasura. Durga is also worshipped as Shakti, and beautiful idols of the Mother Goddess adorn elaborate pandals (small tents) for five days (starting from the fifth day of Navratri). On the tenth day of the celebrations, the idols are carried out in colourful processions to be immersed (visarjan) in a river or a pond.
In the state of Punjab, people usually fast during this period, for seven days, and on Ashtami, the eighth day, devotees break their fast by worshipping young girls who are supposed to be representatives of the Goddess herself by offering them the traditional puris (sort of deep-fried Indian bread), halwa (a dessert primarily made of flour and sugar), chanas (Bengal gram) and red chunnis (long scarves). In this region, the festival is predominantly linked with harvest. This is the time of the khetri, (wheat grown in pots in the urban context) that is worshipped in homes, and whose seedlings are given to devotees as blessings from God.
In the state of Gujarat, The Garbha dance is performed around a pot containing a lamp. The word "Garbha" by which the pot as well as the dance is known is etymologically close to the word Garbha meaning womb. In this context the lamp in the pot, symbolically represent life within a womb. Another prevalent practice is of sowing pulses, cereals and other seeds on the first day of this festival in a pot, which is watered for nine days at the end of which the seeds sprout. This pot is worshipped throughout the nine days. This custom is also indicative of fertility worship.
In the South Indian states of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, the festival of Navratri is celebrated in a different manner. Women adorn their houses with dolls (Bommai Kolu), draw traditional designs or rangolis (patterns made on the floor by using various coloured powders and flowers), and light lamps. During this festival (also known as Kolu in the state of Tamil Nadu), families proudly display traditional wooden dolls and gather to sing songs and depict scenes from the various epics, for a period of ten days. Another runaway hit is the sundal, a special sweet made from lentil and brown sugar. Families and friends exchange the traditional gifts of coconuts, clothes and sweets on this occasion.
The ninth day is also the day of the Ayudha Puja. The Ayudha Puja is a worship of whatever implements one may use in one's livelihood. On the preceding evening, it is traditional to place these implements on an altar to the Divine. If one can make a conscious effort to see the divine in the tools and objects one uses each day, it will help one to see one's work as an offering to God. It will also help one to maintain constant remembrance of the divine. (In India it is customary for one to prostrate before the tools one will use before starting one's work each day; this is an expression of gratitude to God for helping one to fulfil one's duties.) This is also a day of rest for the machines or tools. Children traditionally place their study books and writing implements on the altar. On this day, no work or study is done, that one might spend the day in contemplation of the Divine.
Hindus consider knowledge to be sacred and consider knowledge to be bestowed by Goddess Saraswati. The ceremony of Vidyarambham (Vidya means "knowledge" , arambham means "beginning') for the children is held on Vijayadashami (the last day of Navaratri) day. Initiation into the world of alphabets usually begins with the writing of the mantra "Om hari sri ganapataye namah" Hari refers to the Lord, sri, to prosperity. Initially, the mantra is written on sand or in a tray of rice grains. Then, the master/teacher/elder would write the mantra on the child's tongue with gold. Writing on sand denotes practice. Writing on grains denotes the acquisition of knowledge, which leads to prosperity. Writing on the tongue with gold invokes the grace of the Goddess of Learning, by which one attains the wealth of true knowledge.