The Spiritual History & Cultural Significance Of Garba

Garba is a traditional dance that celebrates the feminine aspect of divinity.
Garba is a traditional dance that celebrates the feminine aspect of divinity. Mary Evans / Grenville Collins Postcard Collection

The beloved Indian dance form, Garba has found renewed global appreciation in recent times when UNESCO inscribed it as an intangible cultural heritage that belongs to humanity. Most of us know Garba as a deeply religious community circle dance that originated in rural Gujarat and is performed on Navratri. Navratri, meaning 'nine nights' in English, is a Hindu festival that honors Durga, the female embodiment of divinity, and her nine manifestations, ranging from the fierce Kaalratri, brandishing a sword, to the joyful Kushmanda, who is considered the creator of the universe. However, the widely popular dance form is not only restricted to Navratri but is also an integral part of weddings and social events all over our nation. It not only holds religious connotations but has cultural significance, themes of social unity, and strong spiritual motifs.

Garba is a traditional dance that celebrates the feminine aspect of divinity.
Karnataka's 'Huli Vesha' Is A Janmashtami Ritual Of Catharsis & Spiritual Reverence

Beginning in the evening of Navratri, both men and women engage in late-night dancing to pay homage to Durga. This tradition spans nine consecutive days and nights. The practice originated in the villages of Gujarat, where it was and still is carried out in communal spaces at the heart of the village, involving the entire community. This origin idea ushers with it a strong sense of community participation and social dilution. People from various classes, castes and genders participate together without paying heed to their differences and instead, celebrating their unity and devotion.

Now, let us look at the spiritual themes governing the longest and largest dance festival in the world. Garba is a traditional dance that celebrates the feminine aspect of divinity. The term 'garba' originates from the Sanskrit word 'garbha', which means 'womb.' Typically, women form a circle and perform this dance around a clay lantern containing a light, known as a Garbha deep ('womb lamp'). The Garbha deep holds a symbolic significance as it represents the body, wherein the divine energy of the Goddess or Devi resides. Through the dance, individuals honor the presence of universal feminine energy within themselves. In contemporary practice, it is common to place images of Durga at the center of the circle instead of the Garbha deep.

Garba is traditionally performed within a circular formation, with the possibility of multiple concentric circles when the number of participants is high. This circular arrangement is emblematic of the Hindu concept of time, which is perceived as cyclical in nature. Within Hinduism, time is viewed as a continuous cycle encompassing birth, life, death, and rebirth. Throughout this perpetual and boundless motion, the sole constant is represented by the Goddess, an immobile symbol at the center. The dance communicates the idea that God, depicted in a feminine manifestation in this instance, is the singular element that remains unwavering within an ever-changing universe (jagat).

Like other Hindu rituals and worship, Garba is performed without shoes, regardless of the surface. This act of going barefoot symbolizes reverence for the earth, which is considered the sacred mother of all, as the foot is the part of the body that comes into direct contact with it. The earth is believed to possess generative powers, and the foot is seen as the channel through which the vital energy of the earth flows into humans. Dancing barefoot is seen as another means of connecting with Devi.

The beauty of several festivals or arts practices often gets engulfed by ingrained ritualistic traditions and interpretations, obscuring the unifying philosophy and deep spiritual connections it embodies. When we cease to look at such practices having a monolithic religious identity, we can truly appreciate it, both aesthetically and spiritually.