A craft losing its grip

hands-on tools: Naarna Nalike making the umbrella; (from top left) palm leaves left to dry in the courtyard, finished chatri and mats left to dry. Photos by Gopu Gokhale

Bali Utsavas are generally organised in the coastal districts of Dakshina Kannada and Udupi from November onwards. During the rituals, daiva or spirit is worshipped or invoked. The spirit that is worshipped differs from shrine to shrine. But the shrine’s regalia, which comprises a huge umbrella, is carried by those following the chief priest, remain almost similar. While some are ornamental and decked in colourful threads, beads and trinkets, some are simple. These traditional huge umbrellas, called as chatras, are the most sacred and ancient among the spirit’s regalia.

In an auspicious hour during the ‘Bali Utsava’, the chief priest is accompanied by the beat of drums and trumpets while he circumambulates the shrine’s inner sanctum cradling the presiding spirit of the shrine in his arms and a massive umbrella towering his head.

There are references to this chatra in the mythological story about Vamana, said to be the fifth incarnation of Lord Vishnu. Historians believe that chatra owes its importance, though not mentioned in Vedas or Puranas, to the fact that it is an integral part of the deity’s regalia. The chatra is made from natural materials and a new one is used in every Bali Utsava.

Skilled workers on stake

Chatras have now become scarce as the community of skilled craftspeople has been reduced to a handful, bemoan the elderly organisers of these utsavas. Thus it comes as no surprise to see the surviving chatra makers like Naarna Nalike from Shishila village in Belthangady taluk, struggling to cater to the demands of hundreds of shrines across the coastal districts.

Shishila, located around 90 km from Mangaluru, is a natural paradise due to its close proximity to the western ghats. In a place surrounded by areca nut and coconut groves, Naarna Nalike, seated on a traditional mat in the courtyard goes about his work. Taking a break from his work, he informs that the palm leaves, the main raw material, has become difficult to source over the years.

Many palm trees were chopped down by those who were ignorant about its significance, he rues. If the palm leaves are available, Naarna Nalike, a bhoota paathri (divine interpreter), needs about seven days to make a chatra. As Nalike elaborates on the process of making a chatra, with details about its various stages, it does not take too long to realise apart from skill require, in equal measure, concentration and patience.

As the demands from different shrines pour in, Naarna Nalike sets the process rolling 10 days ahead of Deepavali. The palm leaves are first left to dry on the shaded part of the courtyard for a couple of days. Then the thin sticks for the chatra are made from the bamboo. The ropes are made from a wild creeper, kairolu. The palm leaves are placed one above the other in three layers, which are then stitched together to prevent from slipping.

Gloomy future

Half-way through the making of umbrella, a two-feet-long bamboo pole is fixed in the middle. When the umbrella is completed, intricate carvings from the areca sheath are used to decorate and enhance its overall aesthetic appeal. “My chatra not only provides foolproof protection from the rain but also gives a cool shade when held against the scorching sun,’’ Naarna Nalike says with pride.

Naarna Nalike, like his forefathers, also weaves baskets, mats, gorabe, which is used to separate dirt from grains, and other materials from different types of palm leaves. “The youths do not have any knowledge about this tradition and are not interested to learn the skill. As a result, the number of people engaged in this work is on a decline,” Naarna Nalike says.

Naarna makes chatras for use in local temples such as Shishileshwara, Dharmasthala and Vaidyanatheshwara. “I do not fix a fee for the chatras. I accept whatever is given because I consider this [making of the chatras] as a service to the god,” he says.

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A craft losing its grip

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