Navaratri, the nine-day autumn festival, is a celebration of women empowerment. Although the festival is celebrated across the length and breadth of India, the long-standing tradition of ‘Golu’ marks the celebrations here in the southern states.
Golu (or Kolu) in Tamil refers to the display and decoration of dolls and figurines of human beings, and idols of gods and goddesses during Navaratri. It is not only popular in Tamil Nadu, but also in Karnataka and the two Telugu states, where it is known as Gombe Habba (Kannada) and Bomma Koluvu (Telugu).
As per the tradition, the dolls and figurines are placed on steps stand for the spiritual progression of human beings. The term ‘Kolu’ comes from the Tamil words ‘Kolu veetriruthal’, which means the presence of kings and queens in the court. The term extends to describe the presence of gods and goddesses surrounded by their devotees and saints.
Nine days of spiritual fervour
Purattasi Navaratri or Sharadha Navaratri represents the nine-day battle of Goddess Shakti with the demon king Mahishasura. The festival ends on Vijayadasami, the 10th day, with the victory of the goddess over the demon king. And with the victory of the goddess, the nine-day festivities becomes the celebration of women across all age groups, and their empowerment.
The festival is celebrated during the autumn season, during the months of either September of October. It is believed that Yama is at his peak during this time, right after Mahalayapaksham, and can spell disasters. Hence, the festival stresses on positivity or positive energy during these days.
The dolls are arranged on odd number of steps and the bottom-most tier of the arrangement displays the figurines of human beings. Dolls of the Chettiyar couple trading sugar and pulses depicts the human activities and they are flanked by the settings of village or city life, and a marriage scene, on the same step. The presence of the Chettiyar, the traders’ community, dolls symbolises the significance of trade.
Dolls of saints and sages revered in the Hindu religion occupy the above few steps while the topmost of the steps are occupied by gods and goddesses. The kalash or kalasam is kept in the middle as it denotes devotion, which is considered to be the centre point.
The tradition could date back to hundreds of years even though historians say there is no exact documentation or evidence that shows when it actually began. However, the tradition may be related to the centuries-old tradition where an idol of Goddess Saraswati is taken on a procession from Padmanabhapuram to Thiruvananthapuram during Navaratri.
Traditionally, the marapachi dolls or the dolls made from wood varieties like sandalwood or red wood in male and female forms, adorn the display. The wood contains medicinal value and marapachi dolls have been common wedding gifts to newly-wed couples. However, the concept has now changed with dolls of all kinds making it to the display.
The different Golu themes also lend an interesting and insightful spin to the tradition. From epics like the Ramayana and the Mahabharata to the 10 incarnations of Lord Vishnu, the themes have immense scope for creativity and innovation.
And now even Spiderman and Rajinikanth’s Kabali and Pettai find a place among the traditional tales of Koorma avataram of Vishnu or Sundarakandam from Ramayana. At times, even political assassinations make their way to the display.