Dolls in vibrant colours, stacked on steps that sometimes reach the ceiling, suddenly appear, every year in South Indian Hindu households. After spending most of the year locked up in trunks, protected by moth balls, someone lets them out for ten very special days every autumn. These ten days, called Navaratri or Dussehra, mark an important Hindu festival. In South India, especially in the states of Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu the celebrations are accompanied by an elaborate display of dolls, called Kolu (also called Golu or Koluvu). But why are these dolls stacked up in this way and why are there so many of them?
[Detour: You may also like this short video on why the festival of Diwali is celebrated across India]
Some believe that this festival commemorates the battle between Goddess Durga and the demon Mahishasura. Mahishasura had somehow managed to get himself a boon; that he would be killed by no one. Not man, not God, not demon. And with that, he marched straight into heaven and threatened the gods. The gods did some quick thinking and found a loophole. The boon didn’t say anything about not being killed by a woman!
So they created Goddess Durga, gave her their most powerful weapons and sent her off to kill the ruthless Demon. A terrible combat broke out and continued for nine long days. Finally, on the tenth day, Durga pinned Mahishasura down with her foot and cut off his head with her sword.
And today, this is celebrated all over the country in one way or another. In South India, this battle is recalled every year during the Navaratri. The Goddess comes down to fight and the Gods too come to Earth to cheer her on. And almost every house sets up an elaborate ‘kolu’, an arrangement of colourful idols of Gods on a rack with multiple steps, symbolically giving them a nice ringside seat to watch the battle.
The Kolu tradition has come a long way. Kolus still tell stories, but not just of gods and goddesses. They unabashedly show off the family’s travels, hint at their political affiliations, and end up being a commentary on everything from their financial status to their child’s latest class project. So sitting quietly in the midst of all the gods, you may very well spot Thomas the train or the Incredible Hulk.
You will invariably spot a pair of crudely finished but beautifully decked up wooden dolls in a corner of the kolu. They are called the ‘Marapachi dolls’. These were said to be gifts given by a girl’s father to his daughter, who, at the time of her marriage would typically have been a child herself. Today, many households take pride in the Marapachi as an heirloom.
In South India, especially in Tamil Nadu, it is customary to offer guests a simple delicacy called ‘Sundal’ during Navaratri. Sundal is a dry dish typically made from Chick peas. Ten days is a long time to sustain elaborate cooking. Perhaps that’s how the humble sundal came to stay? Easy to make, easy on the pocket and easy to pack as a give away?
[Detour: A quick recipe for Sundal]
There are different kinds of sundal (sweet and savoury varieties) that are prepared during Kolu.
Here’s is a Sundal recipe with Chickpeas
- Fresh, finely grated coconut – 1 cup
- 200 gms chickpeas
- Mustard seeds 1 or 2 teaspoons
- Asafoetida – a pinch
- Red chilly – 2 / 3
- Curry leaves – 10 to 12 leaves
- Soak the chickpeas for 4 hours, pressure cook until they become soft.
- Heat 2 tablespoons of gingelly oil in the pan
- Add mustard seeds, curry leaves, asafoetida and red chillies.
- Saute for 30 seconds.
- Add the boiled chickpeas, and grated coconut. Cook for 5 minutes.
- Add salt to taste.
- Delicious savoury sundal is ready!
The ninth day of Navaratri, is celebrated as ‘Ayudha Pooja’, a festival dedicated to the worship of tools. On this day, in many parts of south India, it is difficult to miss the sandal paste adorning office equipment and machinery. Cars, autos and trucks are ‘dressed’ in their finest and do the rounds of the city, horns blaring. It’s a moot point if it started this way. One story says that the Pandavas retrieved their weapons, so long hidden on a treetop, and worshipped them before moving on. Another says that Goddess Durga fervently prayed to the weapons which came in so handy in her battle against the demon. In today’s context, weapons have given way to the tools that help people in their daily lives. So everything, from the dosa grinder to the gaming console gets smeared with a dollop of sandal paste.
But like every other Indian festival, this one too means different things to people living in different parts of the country. In the North, Dussehra is a festival celebrating the victory of Lord Rama over Ravana. Ravana is the villain in this story and paid the price for abducting Rama’s wife. Elsewhere, in the Bastar district, it is Ravana who is the hero. He is, they claim, every bit as wise, versatile and capable as Rama. Moreover, he was a great devotee of Shiva and was loved by the people he ruled. So in Bastar, they celebrate Ravana. In Bengal, people celebrate the Goddess’ victory over Mahishasura. Many look upon her as the daughter who has returned to her father’s house for some rest and relaxation. When it is time for her to go back, on the day of the visarjan, everyone turns out to bid farewell to her, and there is a palpable air of sorrow and loss over the place. On the other hand, in Gujarat, they dance their way through the Navratri. It’s the time when you can spot men and women wearing their finest and boogying away to pulsating music.
[Did you know that in some parts of India, they do not celebrate Diwali or Dussehra? Read that story here]
Different names, different styles, different stories, even different Gods! Only the holidays coincide. Whichever story you subscribe to, and however you celebrate it, this festival marks the victory of good over evil. And after ten days of festivities, ‘Kolu padis’ are dismantled, dolls are carefully packed away, fancy lights disconnected and friends and relatives are again relegated to the background of busy daily life. The city limps back to reality after a surfeit of sundal and holidays.
- Alai Darwaza – Qutub Minar Complex, Delhi NOVEMBER 21, 2020
- Marking History through British buildings NOVEMBER 17, 2020
- The last great queen of Travancore NOVEMBER 7, 2020
- Brahmi and the evolution of scripts OCTOBER 15, 2020
- The Cambodian King of Kanchipuram OCTOBER 14, 2020
- James Prinsep – the man who read the writing on the wall OCTOBER 10, 2020
- Mariamman – the Village Goddess who travelled SEPTEMBER 30, 2020
- Misnamed Monuments of Mamallapuram SEPTEMBER 28, 2020
India Exists In Her Stories
Join us on a quest for these stories, on walking tours and day trips that zigzag through the very beat and pulse of the city and its many attractions.
We’ll show you the best places to visit and introduce you to the best things to do on your visit.