MORE than 200 revellers danced and drummed their way through the heart of Wealdstone this morning to celebrate the start of a nine-day Hindu festival.

Paraders marched from the International Siddhashram Shakti Centre, in Palmerston Road, to Byron Hall, in Christ Church Avenue, to herald the first day of Navratri - one of the most celebrated events of the Hindu calendar.

Dressed in colourful Indian costumes, participants sang and banged traditional Naal drums during the hour-long procession, before gathering in Byron Hall to hear readings from the holy book, the Bhagavad Gita.

The festival, which translates as "nine nights", celebrates the triumph of goodness - represented by the nine forms of Goddess Durga - over evil. It culminates each evening in a Garba performance, a lively Gujarat folk dance involving sticks and clapping.

Some 1,500 people are expected to attend the first dance tonight, at Byron Hall, including several community and secular groups.

For the past three years the event has been jointly organised by the Sangat Centre, which offers legal advice, the International Siddhashram Shakti Centre and Harrow Council.

Walking beside the horse and cart leading the parade, Sangat Centre manager Kanti Nagada said: "This festival is a way to bring the community together, a celebration of angels overcoming demons as evil is wiped out.

"It is a way for people to forget everyone else and come together in religious and cultural celebration."

International Siddhashram Shakti Centre founder and spiritual leader Rajeshji Parmar added: "This is a very auspicious festival for Hindus, allowing them to celebrate mentally, emotionally and physically for nine days.

"You can immerse yourself in spirituality and the worship of God, and close your mind off to everything else."

Harrow councillors, MPs, volunteer groups and police officers also joined the procession. Tony McNulty, MP for Harrow East, was gearing up for nine nights of dancing at various Navratri celebrations across the borough.

He said: "This is a very important festival for the Hindu community. However, it's also a great social event as it brings the young and old together.

"The Garba dance is a wonderful social consolidation of the evening."

At the Byron Hall ceremony, a tray of oil lamps was passed around to symbolise the cleansing of the soul, before guru Shri Kanaiyalal Bhatt led an hour-long reading from the Bhagavad Gita.

Navin Shah, London Assembly member for Harrow and Brent, confessed he followed Jainism, not a Hinduism, but voiced enthusiasm for the festival.

"It is an excellent blending of contemporary and traditional themes, while at the same time having a strong spiritual aspect," he said. "And there is lots of cultural overlap; it is not just Hindus who come to celebrate, but Muslims, Jains and so on.

"It is a wonderful way to promote respect and understanding of different faiths and cultures. I am so pleased this festival grows in strength every year because it is a symbol of racial and religious harmony."

Harrow councillor Anjana Patel, cabinet member for schools and children's development, added: "For me the really important aspect of Navratri is that it connects children who have been brought up in this country with their culture and tradition."

Bhavagad Gita readings will take place at Byron Hall from 10am to 1pm every day until next Sunday, while traditional Garba dances will kick off every night from 8pm to 11pm. All are welcome to attend.