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How is Navratri celebrated in Southern India?

What comes to your mind when someone says ‘Navratri’?


Festive food?

Colorful Indian clothes?

Folk music?

Does it remind you of popular songs from movies and famous singers – Chudiyaan, Chogada, and so many other songs that have shaped the ideas of a Bollywood crazy nation for generations?

Or does it remind you of Durga Puja and the ‘Pujo’ fever.

Well, that’s just about how a part of India celebrates the festival. But how does South India celebrate Navratri? Do they even celebrate Navratri?

I often wondered about these, and ever since I began traveling and exploring Southern India, these questions became more pressing in my mind. I have never heard of Garba being traditionally danced down South from any of my South Indian friends ever. But if Navratri is such a major Hindu festival there must be some celebrations around it, even in the South!

On and on these questions went in my head, until I bugged my friends to tell me about it. And finally I got my answer – Bommai Kolu. It also put to rest my doubts, and now I know that Navratri is celebrated religiously and socially all across India.

Bommai Kolu is also known as Golu, Bombe Habba, or Bommala Koluvu. ‘Bommai Kolu’ in Tamil means ‘Divine Presence’. ‘Bommala Koluvu’ in Telugu means ‘Court of Toys’, and ‘Bombe Habba’ in Kannada means ‘Doll Festival’. During this celebration, young girls and women display dolls, figurines, court life, and everyday scenes with the divine presence of Goddess Saraswati, Goddess Parvati, and Goddess Lakshmi. The dolls are displayed in a step-like horizontal array. The displays depict social events, such as marriages, village shandy, and public gatherings. On the sidelines, there are also displays of children’s parks, zoos, etc. The displays are decorated with colorful festoons, serial lamps, etc. This celebration happens typically in the states of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, and Tamil Nadu.

How is Bommai Kolu celebrated?

On the first day of the Navratri festival, a Ganpati puja is done. After that, a welcoming ritual is performed for the three Goddesses. This ritual is called Kalasa Ahnavam. The ritual is generally performed by an elderly member of the family. Then a rack is built with an odd number of steps or shelves using wooden planks on which the Golu dolls would be displayed. The maximum number of steps/shelves that can be in this Golu set up is nine. This setup is covered with a clean fabric, and then the dolls, figurines, and toys are set up on it. It is believed that the Goddess resides inside the Kalasam during the nine days of Navratri and would bring peace & harmony to the home. The Kalasha is placed on the first step of the Golu display.

In the evenings, women invite each other to visit their homes and view their Kolu displays. They exchange gifts and sweets. What are any Indian festivals or any festivals actually without gifts and sweet, isn’t it? Married women are gifted small bags called tamboolams that contain coconut, sweets, fruits, turmeric, a small mirror, betel leaves, and a comb.

As part of the celebration, Rangolis are decorated and a Kuthuvilakku lamp is lit in the center of these Rangolis. Devotional hymns and shlokas are chanted.

The Pattade Gombe or Marapacchi Bommai

Traditionally, wooden figurines of a bridge and a groom are also placed in the Golu. This setup is called as ‘Marapacchi Bommai’ or ‘Pattada Gombe’. These figurines are usually made from sandalwood, teak, or rosewood. Each year, these dolls are decorated with new clothes before being put on display. In South Indian weddings, the bride is presented with the Marapacchi Bommai at her wedding by her parents as part of her wedding trousseau to initiate the yearly tradition of ‘Navratri Golu’ in her new home with her husband. These dolls are a couple dressed in their wedding attire, depicting the newlyweds, and symbolizing prosperity & fertility. These dolls would mark the beginning of the bride’s Golu collection. These dolls are heirloom and are passed down from generation to generation. In Old Mysore, the Pattade Gombe is believed to be a tribute to the Wodeyars – the benevolent and progressive monarchs who had ruled the region for over six centuries.

The pujas in Bommai Golu

The celebration of the nine nights of Navratri is divided into three parts. Days 1 to 3 are for praying to Goddess Durga. Days 4 to 6 are for praying to Goddess Lakshmi. Days 7 to 9 are for praying to Goddess Saraswathi. People invoke three kinds of energies during these pujas – the Ichchha Shakti, The Jnana Shakti, and the Kriyaa Shakti. On the ninth day is a special Saraswati Puja.

The step-wise arrangement of Golu – Kolu Padi

Kolu Padi 1 to 3

The Kalasha is placed on the first step of the Kolu. The first three Kolu Padi are dedicated to the Gods and Goddesses. These steps would ideally have the dolls and figurines of Goddess Durga, Goddess Lakshmi, Goddess Saraswati, Lord Brahma, Lord Shiva, and Lord Vishnu. Figurines of other Gods and Goddesses also go on these Kolu Padi.

Kolu Padi 4 to 6

The next three Kolu Padis – Kolu Padi 4 to 6 have idols of saints like Guru Raghavendra, Sai Baba, Azhwars, etc. Some households also put up dolls and figurines of national leaders like Mahatma Gandhi or Swami Vivekananda.

Kolu Padi 7

This is a step is for putting the dolls of the woman’s or the household’s choice. They are arranged according to themes, like festivals, marriage, family, etc.

Kolu Padi 8

This step is also for expressing women’s creativity. The dolls of Chetiyar and Chetichi are placed on this Kolu Padi.

Kolu Padi 9

This is the last step of the Kolu. his is where the Marapachi dolls are placed. There are also other dolls placed here according to different themes and venues like swimming pools, playgrounds, parks, etc.

End of Bommai Golu

The tenth day, the day of Vijaya Dashmi or Dussehra is considered to be the most auspicious day, marking the victory of good over evil. On the evening of Dussehra, one of the dolls from the Kolu display is symbolically put to sleep. The kalasha that was first placed during the Kalasha Ahvanam puja on the first day of Navratri is now moved a little towards the north marking the end of the Navratri celebrations. Prayers are offered to the Goddesses for enabling the successful completion of that year’s Golu, along with hopes for a successful Kolu for the next year too. Then the Kolu is packed up and set aside safely until next year. It is also customary to add at least one new Golu every year.

Best places to get the Golu

Chennai, Kanchipuram, Mysore, Tirupati, Vandipalayam, and Hyderabad are the best places to get the Golu. Generally, the best places to look for the best Golu dolls are the temple towns. There used to be many dedicated artisans who would create these Golu dolls especially for the Navratri festival. Also, every year, some dolls that are trending that see a huge demand in that season, so the earlier you get collecting, the better dolls you could get.

The fading tradition of Bommai Golu

Unfortunately, the keen interest and fervor to set up the arrangement has seen quite a decline. There are a variety of reasons for this decline – emergence of nuclear families, employed parents (too busy to set up the Kolu Padi and do the pujas), hostel-dwelling children, general apathy towards fine arts, decreasing focus on following old traditions, etc. This has affected the artisans who were earlier dedicated to creating these Golu dolls have lost a significant source of livelihood. The respective state governments are trying to revive this art and keep it alive. There is also a huge demand for these dolls in the international market, which is helping the artisans to some extent, though reaching out to the markets is still a challenge.

What do you think about the Bommai Golu traditions? Do you have any interesting traditions, memories or pictures of your own Golu dolls and figurines? Tell me in the comments or find me on Instagram at @banjaranfoodie.

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