For the second year the festivities associated with the Hindu festival of Navratri, which comes with nine nights of fasting and dancing to honour the triumph of good over evil, have been scaled down in Saskatchewan due to rising COVID-19 case numbers.
For Leela Sharma, a member of the Hindu Society of Saskatchewan, the celebrations have been an uninterrupted tradition for the past 40 years since she moved to Saskatoon in 1982.
"We are mothers, sisters and daughters. And when you see goddess Durga, it gives you a lot of courage and confidence. I enjoy it because I like the good food, I like to dance, and I like the spiritual part of it," Sharma said.
The festival, which started last Thursday, is dedicated to the nine forms of the Hindu goddess Durga. Each day represents a different form of the goddess. Navratri — derived from "nav" meaning nine and "ratri" meaning nights — is most widely celebrated in autumn, although it also comes again in the spring.
"Navratri gives me a lot of spiritual power to worship goddess Durga. We worship Durga for the first three days, goddess Lakshmi for the next three days and then we worship goddess Saraswati for the last three days," she said.
Hindus from different parts of India celebrate the festival differently, but share a common history. Some regions celebrate male Gods while others celebrate the nine forms of the goddess Durga.
The months in the Hindu calendar are based on the lunar phases of the moon, with the 15th day being a new moon or "Amavasya" and the 30th day being a full moon or "Purnima." According to that calendar, the fourth and fifth day of Navratri have coincided on the same day, making it an eight day festival this year.
Some fast during the festival while others don't.
Sharma has been fasting for the past eight days. Only vegetarian meals without onions and garlic were prepared during the period of fasting, she said.
On the last day of Navratri, devotees break their fast by holding "hawan pujan," a purification ritual performed by chanting mantras around fire, and "kanya pujan," where households invite nine young girls and revere them.
"Because there are nine goddesses, we call nine kanyas, who are girls 11 and younger, and we treat them as goddesses coming into our homes. We wash their feet and apply the auspicious kumkum powder. We prepare many meals for them and serve them nice gifts," Sharma said.
Once the girls have eaten, devotees break their fast.
Many also participate in Garba, a traditional dance with origins in the Indian province of Gujarat that involves large groups of people dancing in circles around a statue of Durga clad in cultural clothing. Many also perform Dandiya, a form of dance using sticks to represent the swords of Durga.
Sharma said Garba is one of the key highlights for her, but the pandemic meant scaling the traditional dances down to fit in household spaces.
Missing out on community
The feelings of community and togetherness are integral to the festival. For Richa Prakash Khurana, who very recently immigrated to Canada from New Delhi, Navratri was supposed to help her acclimatize in Saskatoon.
"Navratri is very important because I believe in woman power. In these nine days, we pay respect to the role of the woman in the society. This festival has been important to me since my childhood," Khurana said.
"We are missing that sense of community and togetherness due to pandemic."
Her family of three are celebrating Navratri by offering prayers to a picture of the goddess that Khurana's daughter Aadya drew, as the family did not have enough time to find idols for worship.
Khurana said the fasting also has a scientific rationale.
"Navratri always comes at the change of the seasons in India. During the change of the season, it is always good to change the food because it helps in detoxifying the body. Normally we don't eat carbohydrates and the heavy pulses during this period," she said.
The festival is known for its delicacies like kheer, a form of rice pudding, and sabudana khichdi, a savoury dish.
The 10th day of the festival is Dussehra, also known as Vijayadashami. According to Ramayana, one of the two major Sanskrit epics of ancient India and important text of Hinduism, Dussehra marks Lord Rama killing the 10-headed demon king Ravana.
Dussehra also marks the day when Durga had slain the demon Mahishasura.
"Navratri is followed by Dussehra, [which] marks the victory of truth over the evil. That was when Rama won the war over Ravana. We celebrate Dussehra by burning an effigy of Ravana. After 21 days of that, we observe another major Hindu festival of Diwali," she said.
According to the Hindu calendar, Dussehra will be observed Friday.
Khurana said she missed out celebrating Navratri with others this year, but nonetheless prepared prasad, a religious food offering, that her daughter took to her school.
"I'm hopeful that I will have many friends next Navratri and then we'll be celebrating together."