Quaint tradition enriches city's Navratri festivities

Dasara Doll Festival

Anyone who has grown up in Delhi, would definitely have pleasant memories of Shankar’s International Dolls Museum.

Having grown up seeing exhibitions of Japanese, Korean and other dolls in different art centres across the Capital, it comes as a pleasant surprise to know that the true repositories of these miniatures are the South Indian households here in the city.

Even though miles away from their home, the South Indians celebrate the festival of Navratri by following their age-old tradition of worshipping Dasara dolls. Bombe Habba or Golu or Kolu (Kannada) or Bommala Koluvu (Telugu) or Bommai Kolu (Tamil) is a tradition that can be referred to more like a ‘toy festival’, celebrated by families across Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. 

But it is not necessary that only those who have seen their families worshipping dolls carry forward the tradition. Take for instance Bhuvaneshwari Hariharan, a government official living in Vaishali, who follows Golu more for the love of the festival. 

“I grew up seeing my parents’ deck up dolls on each of the nine steps that were created two days before Navratri began. When I got married, my in-laws didn’t follow this tradition but I felt the urge to continue because it’s such a beautiful experience to welcome the festivities,” says Hariharan talking about the theme she had chosen last year. 

“Along with the dolls on the steps, my children and I also created a miniature park and the nine planets which have a temple dedicated to them in the South. We even prepared diagrams of navarasa to go with the theme,” she says regaling Metrolife with interesting nuggets and history of this custom.   

Celebrated for 10 days, this worship of dolls culminates on the day of Vijayadashami or Dasara, the day Goddess Durga won the battle against the demons or asuras after fighting for nine days. 

To mark the same, an exhibition of various wooden idols and figurines is organised in South Indian homes. But this display is only in odd numbers, i.e., 3, 5, 7, 9, 11 or 13. The arrangement of dolls on the tiers is also interesting. The hierarchy starts from miniature idols of gods being placed right at the top (ninth step) and ends with mortals of earth placed at the lower steps near the ground. 

While the first three steps are dedicated to figurines or idols of different gods and goddesses, the next three steps have arrangement of dolls depicting demi-gods, saints or kings and queens. Miniature forms of Mysore kings are generally seen placed on these steps. While step seven is dedicated to Hindu festivals, celebrations and occasions, the eighth is decorated with scenes from everyday life. The last in the line usually displays the evolution of mankind or living things. 

“Very few people display all 13 steps since the whole process is quite tiring,” says Namagiri, a homemaker residing in Alaknanda near Kalkaji in South Delhi. She has displayed a “miniature Golu” this time since “it is difficult to do an elaborate set-up while taking care of two young kids,” she laughs.

What is amazing, however, is her collection of dolls. Namagiri states, “My husband and I are fond of collecting dolls so we have wooden dolls from countries like Uzbekistan, Congo, Russia and South Africa, including those from Indian states such as Chhattisgarh and Uttar Pradesh to name a few. Initially, people used to worship only ethnic dolls such as Chettinad and Marapachi (a couple doll considered auspicious).” 

Her statement proves how the tradition is reaching new heights with the younger generation which is not just following the age-old customs but also making their own additions to it.

And yes, if you happen to visit a South Indian family during Navratri, don’t be surprised if the housemates offer you betel nut, coconut and betel leaves since “it is considered auspicious to give these to the married women,” adds Namagiri.

Also, one must keep their eyes open to spot themes such as Ashtalakshmi (eight forms of Goddess Lakshmi), traditional South Indian wedding, Radha-Krishna, etc that influence these doll exhibitions. Truly, living in India and celebrating each festival is an experience for not just the foreigners but even for Indians themselves! 

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