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.
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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.
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.
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!
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
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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?
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.
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.
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 the 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.
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 a 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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