Today is Vijaya Dashami, otherwise known as Dussehra or Victory Day, which comes at the end of Navaratri. The story behind Navaratri comes from the Puranas. There are actually several versions, but the most popular one is from the Markandeya Purana.
There was an immensely powerful demon known as Mahishasura. He performed the most extreme austerities for countless years, eventually gaining a book from Lord Shiva that no man or God would ever defeat him. In his extreme pride and arrogance he began to wreak havoc everywhere, feeling that no one could vanquish him. All the devas became alarmed as they could do nothing to stop him. However, they soon found the flaw in the boon. It said nothing about being vanquished by a goddess. So The three most powerful manifestations of the Divine Mother, Laskhmi, Saraswati and Parvati, combined their power into one fierce aspect of Shakti from which Durga came into existence.
Durga, having received the most powerful weapons, set out to vanquish Mahishasura. For nine nights, Durga battled with Mahishasura. For nine nights, Durga and Mahishasura battled. Feeling that he had met his match, Mahishasura tried to trick Durga by transforming himself into a lion, then a man, and finally, a buffalo. But Durga was relentless and on the tenth day, she killed him, while he was still in the form of a buffalo. Mahishasura is seen as the embodiment of ignorance and evil, so there is a great rejoicing.
The celebration of Dussehra, however, comes from the Ramayana. All during Navaratri, it’s traditional to hold Ram Lila plays, telling the story of the Ramayana. The demon whose effigy is burnt is Ravana, but he also represents all that is demonic in the world. So again, it’s about the triumph of good over evil that is being celebrated.
During Navaratri, you see people everywhere building giant effigies of Ravana that will be burnt on Dussehra (which is tonight) in big bonfires. There’s a bit of a competition to make the biggest, fiercest-looking Ravana. In one small town I visited last week, I noticed no less than five of them under construction within the space of a few blocks. Ravana’s brothers, Kumbhakarna and Meghnad, are also burnt in many of the larger venues.
All over India, yagyas are performed during Navaratri. These pandits and some young pandits-in training are reciting the Devi Mahatmya (also known as the Chandi or Durga Saptashati) in the traditional manner with offerings in the fire. The whole performance takes about six or seven hours. Even though the text itself isn’t so long, there are other verses that are traditionally recited in between each of its verses.