The significance of Bommai Golu during Navaratri – India’s Doll Festival

Navaratri or Golu pandigai ( for Tamizhians) is India’s Doll festival and in fact, Hinamatsuri- the doll festival of Japan is very similar to this ancient Hindu custom of dolls’ display. While Navaratri (Navratri) across the rest of India is often associated with ritualistic worship or garba or Durga Puja, the local populace in TamilNadu celebrate it as a ‘nine-day dolls festival’ or Bommai Golu (Bommai means Doll, Golu is to display and pandigai means festival). Golu is celebrated as Bommala Koluvu in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh and as Bombe Habba in Karnataka during the months of September-October based on the Hindu Lunar calendar.

Golu Pandigai
A clay doll of Lord Vishnu with his consort Lakshmi; Pic Courtesy: Shankari, MADURAI

Nostalgia around Golu pandigai

Navaratri Golu gains importance, especially in traditional Tamizh homes. My fondest childhood memories of this festival are the times I spent with my (late)grandpa, during those preparatory days way ahead of Navaratri when as a family, we indulged in cleaning the house, unpacking the boxes marked as ‘Golu’ that had dolls of every colour, size and shape.

Dusting umpteen sets of dolls ( made of clay), shining fruits and vegetables made of wax for display, arranging Golu Bommai (dolls and toys) by segregating them into sections titled zoo, school,Park et al and chalking out a list of prasadam(offerings to God) for the next nine days as part of the routine was a fixture during Navaratri!

All this frenzy was immersed in melodious Indian Classical, Hindustani and Carnatic songs that the good old cassettes inserted in the now-defunct Phillips tape-recorder churned out; the tunes of which pervaded our home, day in and day out and alleviated to unbearable levels during these festive seasons.

Golu Pandigai
A typical temple scene of TamilNadu; Pic Courtesy: Geeta, Madurai

Many of the dolls are usually passed on as a family legacy and possession from one generation to another. So, the preparatory days also included moments of letting out a meek shriek on discovering one or two of the favourite dolls dismantled after its year-long hibernation inside the cartons and a bit of brooding over the loss of the precious piece!

Yes, these clay-based eco-friendly dolls are displayed once a year during Bommai Golu and are packed and secured on lofts to be unpacked and displayed again the next year during Navratri. It is a cyclic process and I always wondered if it represents the Cycle of Life and Death!

Once done with elementary chores, we took up one activity each day to put forth our best for the finale of Navaratri. Foremost was growing grass for the greenery that pervades Golu. Mustard seeds were much sought after to make mini tableaus of lawns, weeds and forests. We preferred mustard as they sprout shoots quickly and a resemble a lush grassland. But not before earmarking the places for the crocodile pond, wildlife safari and children’s park around which handfuls of soil were usually spread to seed the mustards. The enclosures were then filled with tiny figurines of birds, animals, vehicles and humans.

Golu Pandigai
Wikimedia Commons

Another constant in our family Golu was the miniature theppakulam(pond)made of a water beaker that had floating mandapams. I remember making these mandapams with the help of my mom and thatha (grandpa) by cutting and pasting the thermocol sheets together and then embellishing it with colourful ribbons, pieces of mirrors, motifs and shimmers. This was to complement the majestic looking colourful-clay Gopuram (Indian temple tower) with some devotees and saints around sitty pretty as dolls. With this the temple set-up was complete!

Golu Pandigai
Veda Bhavan, Secunderabad; Pic Courtesy: Lakshmi

The significance of Bommai Golu during Navaratri

Durga-Puja and Dussehra festivals during the Navaratri season are quite well known and celebrated on a large scale, thus, hogging the limelight, while the humble and simple Navaratri Golu Pandigai of South-India remains obscure. So, come with me as I take you through the realms of time around this festival of South-India that gets usually confined to households, clustered societies and temples.

The story behind Golu Pandigai

As the legend goes- many aeons ago, a demon(asura) by name Mahisha (Mahisha-asura)wrecks havoc across the three worlds. He takes advantage of a boon in which he cannot be vanquished by any Man. Ta-da! so, the Achilles heel is that he could be defeated by a woman. To defeat this demon who was growing mightier than the Supreme God, a superpower was needed. Thus, all the celestial beings including Gods, Goddesses and Demi-Gods come together to create a unifying form of power (Shakti) by offering their individual powers simultaneously. Thus is born a female super-power, Goddess Maha-Devi.
 
Maha Devi adapts a warrior form of Durgai (Goddess Durga) and confronts Mahishasura and his army and fights them riding on a lion as her vehicle. Mahishasura’s army is completely uprooted and he alone survives on the battlefield at the end of nine days and nights. He then deceives MahaDevi by changing his form constantly and remains unvanquished.
Golu Pandigai
An artist’s depiction of MahaDevi vanquishing Mahisha
In this battle of good over evil, Gods and the celestial beings stand still and transfer their unifying energy to MahaDevi. Precisely at this juncture, Mahishasura who had taken the form of a buffalo (to deceive MahaDevi) is to change into another form. However, as he is about to change back to his original asura form, Durga slays Mahishasura. This victorious moment of good over evil gets frozen in time and peace of the cosmos is restored.

Transcending time and aeons, the very same triumphant moment is recreated in households today across South India as Bommai Golu through a display of dolls. It is akin to invoking the celestial beings into our homes to celebrate and re-emphasise that good ultimately wins over evil.

Thus, the festival of Navaratri celebrates the victory of good over evil, for nine auspicious nights symbolizing the efforts of MahaDevi and celestial beings to vanquish Mahishasura. Golu pandigai in South-India culminates with Saraswati Puja, Ayudha Puja and Vijayadashami on the last three days.
Golu Pandigai
Pic Courtesy : Vanaja

Bommai Golu

Dolls that are displayed during Bommai Golu involve the ones representing mythological characters, celestial beings and the Hindu pantheon. Poets and saints and sometimes, freedom fighters, too, find a place in this extravaganza. In TamilNadu, a bride is presented with ‘Marapacchi Bommai’ (wooden figurines)of a man and a woman representing a couple, on her wedding day as part of the wedding trousseau, to herald the tradition of Golu at her in-law’s place. These wooden dolls symbolize prosperity and fertility and the start of bride’s Gollu collection.

Golu Bommai
Pic Courtesy : Dharmambal , Madurai

It is customary to include a new doll in the Golu collection every year. So, a trip to the local market, days in advance, is the norm just before every Golu Pandigai in most households.

Golu Pandigai
Pic Courtesy : Saranya, Pattukotai

During my childhood days, I used to chuckle at the way people bargained and bought these dolls from the vendors. The usual rhetorics were, ‘Oru Vivekanandar Kodu’ (Give me a Vivekananda) or ‘Andha Durgai evalavukku koduppai’ (For what price are you ready to sell the Durga idol). As a child, it sounded to me as if all these personalities were for sale!

Golu Padigal

The dolls are to be conventionally displayed on golu padigal (steps to display the dolls) during Bommai Golu. These wooden steps are often dismantlable ones and are sold as a unit but in odd-numbers of 3,5,7,9 or 11 steps. Nowadays, people have started opting for steel or wrought-iron ones too.

The entire living room of a home is often dedicated for Bommai Golu and I remember, as a child, enthusiastically packing away my school books into a trunk to make way for more space until the nine-day festival (holidays) came to an end, year after year!

Golu Pandigai
Pic Courtesy : Neela , Abids

We did not have the luxury of space then, so the norm was to clear the bookshelves in our living room and display these dolls. Now, we have ample space, yet, unfortunately, cannot indulge in all the preparation of keeping Golu as the tradition has been discontinued in my in-laws home many decades back. Life can often be unfair and I terribly miss the celebrations around this beautiful homespun festival that helped in forging relationships with the near and far also with unknown people, many a time.

Arrangement and Decor of the Golu Padigal

The figurines of gods and goddesses are mandatorily assigned the top tier while dolls of shopkeepers, Tanjore thalayaati Chettiar and Chettichi bommai, a bride and bride-groom set-up, vibrant and animated vegetable sellers or flower sellers et al occupied the lower rungs. Another favourite doll set of mine was a scene of Adi Sankaracharya preaching his disciples under the shade of a tree.

After the Golu Padi and Golu Bommmai are arranged, it is time to give final touches to the whole set-up. Fairy lights and colourful rangoli (floral and motifs) dominate the decor of these living rooms and homes.

Golu Pandigai
Pic Courtesy : Gomati , Secunderabad

Here are some of the rangolis I have done over the years from 1998 onwards. I do not have photographs of the same, prior to this year, though. It was a moment of pride as a child when friends and relatives used to tag along with their friends just to have a glimpse of the rangoli I did and the theme of Bommai Golu we displayed. The rangoli and theme were always different every year. So, if you get to visit a house in these nine days, do appreciate the efforts of the womenfolk. A word of appreciation is sure to brighten up any face, isn’t it?

Rangoli

Rangoli

Rangoli

Rituals and Cultural around Bommai Golu

Once the Golu is arranged, womenfolk and girls(kanya) of the family start inviting neighbours and relatives to have a glimpse of Bommai Golu and seek the Almighty’s blessings for the next nine days. A visit to ancient local temples is another ritual as temples celebrate Bommai Golu too, by a display of dolls as well as by adorning and decorating the deity as a form of Shakti! This is termed as alankaram.

Golu Pandigai
Goddess Meenakshi alankaram at Vedhabhavan, Hyderabad ; Pic Courtesy : Vanaja Lakshmi

This Golu hopping is again an interesting aspect of Golu Pandigai. These visits are an opportunity to showcase the singing and creative talents of ladies and girls too.

Golu Pandigai
Golu at Veda Bhavan ; Pic Courtesy : Lakshmi

As I could only compete in braying, I was often uncomfortable with this part of the festival during my childhood. However, on one of the occasions, a very kind family friend suggested that I could recite chapters of the Bhagavad Gita if I wasn’t comfortable singing. This made me( 11-year-old me)giddy with excitement and I quickly rattled away three chapters from the sacred book of the Hindus to an applause of all the ladies present. Since then for many years, as others sang to glory, I recited away chapters and slokas from Hindu scriptures. We still have a hearty laugh when I think of those good old days!

Only Ladies, Please!

Golu is more of a festival ‘for women by women’. Men usually end up performing the role of chauffers and helpers to bring home the required items for the festival, of course amidst gulping umpteen number of filter kaapi all along!!

Women are presented with a packet of prasadam, a hamper containing seasonal fruits, coconut, kumkum (vermillion) and manjal (turmeric) along with betel leaves and a string of flowers when they visit a home during Golu hopping. Nowadays, a return gift is added too.

It is interesting how a festival that started with a religious and spiritual concept transcends age and time and has burgeoned into a social event where competitions are also being conducted to encourage and appreciate the efforts of the female folk.

Golu Pandigai
Pic Courtesy: Lalitha Swaminathan; Thanjavur

Parting Words

Bommai Golu during Navaratri is an occasion for families and friends to get together and introduce Indian culture and ancient epics to younger generations. However, the divinity associated with Golu pandigai is slowly ebbing away. It has come to just baking cakes, visiting restaurants for lunch and greeting each other through WhatsApp messages, in many of the households, as some feel it is a tedious process.

I just hope these beautiful concepts of community interaction and living, providing livelihood to the doll makers, potters and vendors stay on forever. After all, these are eco-friendly festivals and should not be swapped with other activities and events leading to a cultural appropriation that indirectly also encourage the use of plastics. Let us be eco-sensitive as our ancestors were and appreciate our ancient traditions, customs and rituals and take immense pride in them. There is nothing regressive about following old traditions which are built around sustainability, socialization and eco-sensitivity!

Hope you liked reading this post as much as I enjoyed reminiscing the memories and putting it together. Season’s Greetings!

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Read about India's doll festival - Bommai Golu which is a home-spun 9 days festival across South Indian states. Travel | Festivals | India | Asia Travel | Decor | Ancient | TamilNadu  #incredibleindia #navratri #festival #indian #indianart #ancient #ancientindia #history #culture #asian #travel #traditional #dolls

Read about India's doll festival - Bommai Golu which is a home-spun 9 days festival across South Indian states. Travel | Festivals | India | Asia Travel | Decor | Ancient | TamilNadu  #incredibleindia #navratri #festival #indian #indianart #ancient #ancientindia #history #culture #asian #travel #traditional #dolls

Read about India's doll festival - Bommai Golu which is a home-spun 9 days festival across South Indian states. Travel | Festivals | India | Asia Travel | Decor | Ancient | TamilNadu  #incredibleindia #navratri #festival #indian #indianart #ancient #ancientindia #history #culture #asian #travel #traditional #dolls

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22 Comments

  1. Oh my! I miss Golu… Currently in a different country and I really miss the joy of setting up the steps and unwrapping every doll and putting it all together. The best part is taking out those decades old bommais that belonged to my granny.

    1. Yes…Golu is pure nostalgia for most of us Tamizhians 🙂 Thanks for dropping by!

  2. Great post Meenakshi.being in Bangalore I have always heard about Golu festival but never had an opportunity to know it better. I can totally relate to the preparation phase as we felt the same excitment during Diwali time as kids like.

  3. Being down south, I have experienced this every year. A very close friend does this every year and each year she has this one set up that is so new. And so creative too. This year, she did this entire food street like that of VV puram. Pity I could only see her pics as I was out of town. Your pics made me relive those happy times I spend visiting the Golus in the vicinity. Loved the way you have explained it all

  4. I have few Tamilian friends and they invite us every year for golu. I never knew about this way of celebrating navratri until I came to Bangalore. Your post explained everything in detail and it’s really helpful for people like me.

  5. This looks like such an interesting and very colourful festival. It’s so nice that they’re keeping the traditions you have alive by celebrating. The dolls are so intricate and quite an impressive display when all together too.

  6. Amar Singh says:

    What an interesting festival and one less known about even when I was in India. The celebration Is a long nine-day dolls festival in line with dushera but needs to be made popular. Love the collection of different dolls and seems it is well prepared for and an integral part of the culture. Thanks for sharing.

  7. Bommai Golu during Navaratri was a very unique experience for me when I was invited by a friend to her house for this celebration in Bengaluru. The cute display of the little dolls was so colorful and what was even more impressive was the effort in making the whole thing! I am truly delighted to read this post as not only is it sharing about something so unique on Indian culture, it is also in a way continuing the amazing heritage and tradition!

  8. Wow! I loved the detailed account and the facts you shared. I first got to know about Golu in 2014 and I loved the concept. Many of my colleagues here in Bangalore keep the dolls and I love their pictures. I even wrote a post in 2014. Check on the blog if you get time 🙂

  9. How ignorant am I that I am Indian and I don’t know about Bommai Golu doll festival? I know about Navratri (I come from a Hindu family) but I guess culturally, North Indian’s traditions are quite different from the states down south so this isn’t something I know a lot about. Interesting to read nevertheless – we do something similar during Janmashtmi.

  10. I was always curious to know about these dolls and today I know the exact reason. This is very interesting and must be really fun as well. I just loved the way you built up small schools, and gardens.

  11. This is a very interesting tradition and one I was not aware of. I love the fact that the dolls are all handmade and passed down from generation to generation, such a nice tradition. Thanks for all your research.

  12. Bommai Golu sounds like a wonderful festival celebrating women. I love how it brings back memories of preparation with your grandpa. And I didn’t know mustard seeds could be used to grow grass quickly on these displays. What a fun celebration of dolls and women in general.

  13. Rhiannon says:

    This was so interesting to read!! I’ve always wondered about the meaning and history behind Navaratri but didn’t ever get to researching. My boyfriend is Malayali and if I ask him to explain me his response would be simply “a festival” so it’s really great to finally be able to read such a well detailed and thought out post and understand in full! It’s only right that Mahisha’s Achilles heel be a woman 😉

  14. I am fascinated by the tradition of this Navaratri festival. It is beautiful, that many of these dolls are given from one generation to another, this is a very nice tradition. I also really like the fact that this is all handmade and with so much love to the details. So many great things to look at. Such traditions are really important to be kept alive and given and taught from parents to children.

  15. Such a well-articulated post. Loved all the details and the amazing pictures. I loved going to houses when invited to see the golu. 🙂

  16. Every body knows about the charm of Durgo Puja but not much about the rituals. Thank you so much for such a beautiful enlightening and fascinating post.

  17. Wow, Meenu thank you for enlightening me with the significance of Golu. A friend of mine carries out the ritual and has been sending us pictures of the gods every year, but I was always intrigued by the story behind this ritual. Your post is such an eye-opener and also the same story holds true here as the Durga Puja we Bengali’s celebrate, which is essentially the slaying of Mahisasura.

    Love the meticulous detailing of this narrative. Thank you so much for sharing these little snippets from your life too. Made for a fascinating read.

  18. Very comprehensive and one of my favourite festivals. Thanks for sharing:)

  19. What a beautiful post,Meenu. I have always been curious about the significance of Golu, and you’ve explained it so well. A post that would help people understand this tradition better.
    Now I wish to see a Golu, as I never have.
    Your rangolis are outstanding!

  20. OH Meenu. this is so nostalgic. Infact I was just brroding hte last few days, about not teaching my kids about Golu, as I hardly set this up. Blame the transfers and the absence of the husband and any form of help. My childhood memories are flooded with Golu and the things that go with it. As you have mentioned, from the unpacking and the re packing in newspaper later, to deciding on a theme. IT used to be quite a lot of fun, coming up with a theme and then figuring out a way of displaying it perfectly.

    We used to also make this thepakolum surrounded by the mustard seeds greenery. What fun it was! The only thing I hate was, being asked to sing when I was at someones home. Argh!!! Shy htat I was then, just would avoid going to peoples home and sing.

    Its been years since I have been to an elaborate 9 step Golu display.

  21. One way taxi says:

    I have read your full post and I want to say that this is a very nice post with beautiful images. Thanks for sharing an amazing post which is related to the Navaratri doll festival.

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