The time was around midnight and the place was my grandfather’s house in a tiny village nestled close to the Western Ghats. The entire family had gathered in the ancestral house after a long time. Opening my eyes for a moment, what I saw before me was an image that has ever since stayed in my mind as one of the most fascinating visuals from my childhood.
There, with his colourful costumes and accessories glowing in the light of burning torches, his painted face glistening with perspiration, and a sword in his hand, was dancing a man in a state of trance matching his steps to the rhythmic beats of the drums. This is my earliest memory of Bhoota Kola or the ritual of spirit worship, a tradition that is one of the hallmarks of the culture of Tulu Nadu, the region comprising coastal districts of Dakshina Kannada and Udupi in Karnataka and Kasaragod in Kerala where Tulu is spoken.
Everyday life in this land of abundant natural resources and primarily agrarian population is closely tied to nature and its worship in myriad ways. Bhoota Aradhane or spirit worship that unites all Tuluvas irrespective of their caste and class is a wonderful example of this timeless bond between man and nature. One of the meanings of the word Bhoota is ‘of the past’ referring to the spirits of the dead and Kola stands for ‘playing a role’. The word Bhoota here implies a positive connotation unlike the usual meaning of ‘demon’ attached to it. Bhootas, also referred to as Daivas, are feared and revered as protectors of life and crops, and guardians of Dharma (justice). A Bhoota Kola is a ritual where spirits are invoked to propitiate them and seek their blessings for the community.
Not native to Tulu Nadu
Palthady Ramakrishna Achar, a renowned scholar and President of the Tulu Sahitya Academy is of the opinion that Bhoota Aradhane in its present form is not native to Tulu Nadu. “It was introduced here around 14th century from Sri Lanka where it is still alive in the form of Yaksha Aradhane. As ancestral worship was already a part of Tulu culture, this form of spirit worship was readily adopted by the Tuluvas,” he observes.
Noted researcher and Registrar of Mangalore University Prof Chinnappa Gowda has identified more than 400 Bhootas worshipped in Tulu Nadu. The Bhootas, which are also believed to be the Ganas (assistants) of Lord Shiva, can be of different types depending on their origin. Kalkuda-Kallurti, Koti-Chennaya, Kantabare-Boodabare, Koraga-Taniya, Bobbarya, Jaarandhaya, Abbage-Daarage, Kodamandaya, etc are Bhootas of human origin while Pili Bhoota (tiger), Maisandaya (buffalo), Annappa Panjurli (boar), Naga (cobra), etc are animal spirits that were originally totems of different tribes.
Vishnumurthy, Lakkesiri, Ullalthi, Dhoomavathi, Pilichamundi, Brahmer, Jumadi, Vaidyanatha, Jatadhari, etc are comparable to the puranic gods like Vishnu, Devi and Shiva. There are also Bhootas whose spheres of influence are limited to particular regions like Shiradi Bhoota, Maleraya, Duggalaya, Nayar Bhoota, etc.
The preparations for the night-long ceremony of Bhoota Kola begin in the evening with the arrival of bhandaara or Bhoota’s paraphernalia in a procession to the beautifully decorated ritual site. The man who will act as the medium for the holy spirit is given enne-boolya or the formal invitation to invoke the spirit. He then prepares himself for the performance by wearing elaborate costumes, jewellery and makeup, a process that finds similarity in another enchanting traditional art of Tulu Nadu, viz., Yakshagaana. With the gaggara or heavy brass anklets tied to his feet, he is finally ready for his role as the impersonator of the spirit deity. The folk artistes who invoke the spirits during Bhoota Kolas generally belong to tribal communities like Nalike, Parava and Pambada. The spirit impersonator is assisted by a female member of his family who sings paad-dana or a ballad that narrates the story of the origin of the Bhoota, main events from its life, its heroic deeds, death, etc. While a paad-dana is usually a short ballad, its longer version is called sandhi which sometimes contains thousands of lines, all preserved orally!
Tradition, art rolled into one
The spirit possession is an intriguing psycho-cultural aspect of Bhoota Kola where the spirit impersonator enters into a trance and acts as a bridge between the human and the spirit world. The words of guidance, blessings and reprimand that he utters in such a possessed state (which are referred to as Nudi) are considered with utmost respect by the devotees and his instructions are carried out without fail. The blessings of the Bhoota are sought by the elders of the community and the spirit responds with abhaya or promise of protection for its believers, their crops and livestock. Historical evidences are available to prove that Bhoota Aradhane was utilised even by the Tuluva kings of the great Vijayanagara Empire to instill a fear of law among their subjects.
A Bhoota Sthaana is a shrine where idols of the spirit deity are kept and worshipped. In houses across Tulu Nadu it is common to find a room dedicated for the Bhoota that is worshipped by the family. The Bhoota Kola season starts during the auspicious day of Deepavali and ends with Pattanaje or the 10th day of the Hindu month of Vrishabha which falls around the 25th of May. Apart from the Kola (sometimes also called Nema) which is spirit worship on a grand scale, Agelu, Thambila, Bali, Kendadaseve are some of the other forms of appeasing the spirit deities.
Along with contributing to the strong familial and community bonds among the people of Tulu Nadu, the spirit worship also serves to bridge the religious divide as spirits with Muslim origins like Ali Bhoota and Bobbarya are also venerated by the faithful here. Even in the modern age ruled by technology, Bhoota Aradhane continues to hold sway over Tulu Nadu as it has done for centuries. As an art form, tradition, entertainment and psycho-cultural phenomenon, spirit worship stands as a grand example of man’s longing for an intimate connection with nature.