The word ‘Garba’ is derived from the Sanskrit word ‘Garbha’ meaning ‘womb’ or ‘deep’. Garba is a form of Gujarati folk dance, performed during the nine nights of Navratri in honour of the Goddess Durga. The dance worships and celebrates the feminine form of divinity. It celebrates fertility and is performed as a tribute to womanhood. The dance depicts a fight between the Goddess and Mahishsura, the mighty-demon king.
The first Garba was held in Vadodara, a city that due to its strong religious influence, is now regarded as the cultural capital of Gujarat. Gujarat follows the tradition of performing the Garba dance every night during Navratri, but it has also become a tradition to perform it at special events, for example, weddings, parties, and social events.
It was originally and still is performed in the centre of a village. Traditionally, women dance in a circle around a clay lantern known as the ‘Garbha Deep’, meaning ‘womb lamp’. The lamp represents the human body carrying the soul within, and the circle represents the Hindu view that time is cyclical, birth to life, death to rebirth. The only thing that is unmoving and thus unchanging is God, in this case, presented in feminine form.
Nowadays the dance includes the participation of the whole community, men and women dance late into the night. The dancing is done barefoot, signifying respect for the earth and it is also seen as another way to connect with Durga. The dance follows a snap, clap, twirl cycle. Moving in an anticlockwise direction, dancers move round in groups of concentric circles, with each circle moving in the opposite direction. The dance gradually speeds up and has very easy steps meaning anyone can join in!
The music played at the Garba is led by strong percussion, including traditional Indian instruments such as the dholak, dhol and table. More recently, the Octopad (an electric drum set) is used, and it is not uncommon to hear the bongos played.