“Maha-navami, known also under the name of Dasara, [is] specially dedicated to the memory of ancestors. This feast is considered to be so obligatory that it has become a proverb that anybody who has not the means of celebrating it should sell one of his children in order to do so.”
Okay—celebrants don’t actually sell off the kids to honor to celebrate, but the holiday is a big deal in India (especially Bengal) as well as parts of Nepal, Bhutan, and other countries with Bengal populations.
Also, Maha-navami isn’t the name of the whole celebration. Navami means ninth day, and refers to the ninth and penultimate day of the Durga Puja festival. It’s observed in different ways throughout the subcontinent.
Maha-navami falls right after Maha-ashtami (eighth day) and opens with Sandhi Puja, the ritual that recalls Durga’s defeat over Mahishasura’s two generals, Mundo and Chando.
The following day, Dashami, is a sadder occasion, as worshippers of Durga try to postpone the inevitable.
Dashami is the day when Goddess Durga accompaning her children sets for Kailash, her husband’s abode. With a heavy heart the Bengalis immerse the clay idol of Durga in the sacred Ganges bidding her goodbye and earnestly waiting to see her again the next year…
The morning of maha saptami (seventh day) is taken up with the worship of the deity, followed by anjali when a devotee offers prayers and flowers on an empty stomach, amidst the chanting of mantras to the Goddess. Only then can one make a beeline for the prasad (sweetmeat offered to the deity).
The lunchtime meal is called Bhog. By evening, the streets pulse with the sounds of the dhaki drums and the pandals buzz with anticipation of Maha Ashtami.
The eighth day of Durga Puja actually begins at 8:30 tonight. On this day the priest (purahi) offers prayers (aradhana) and breathes life into the idol of the goddess Durga’s.
During the Puja week, the entire state of West Bengal as well as in large societies of Bengalis everywhere, life comes to a complete standstill. In traffic circles, playgrounds, ponds, wherever space is available — elaborate structures called Pandals ‘are set up, many with nearly a year’s worth of planning behind them.
These pandals aren’t tents. They can be massive and ornate structures, and come in all varieties. Recently, a legal furor arose over one such pandal that bore an uncanny resemblance to Harry Potter’s Alma Mater, Hogwarts:
Maha Ashtami is the most venerated day of the festival because it celebrates the victory of Durga over the demon Mahishasura. (See Durga Puja.)