Navaratri, or the Festival of Nine Nights is observed in autumn across India. The close-knit communities of south India make it more of a homespun affair which showcases folk craftsmanship, community bonding and cuisine. South Indians, especially Tamils across the world, continue to celebrate this assembly of dolls even today.
Bringing home the goddess
Growing up in Chennai I was told Navaratri (Dussehra, elsewhere in India) was all about celebrating the awesome power of the goddess Durga who according to myth, vanquished the evil demon Mahisasura. The charm of the predominantly agrarian festival (the occasion would coincide with the dredging of paddy fields which would yield clay that was used by craftspeople to fashion clay dolls) was brought to the cities by migrating population as Golu (also Kolu) in parts of Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Kerala. It’s folksy, kitschy and fun.
Golu is the display of the goddess in public. In ancient times the bedecked goddess would be brought out in a procession from the temple. Taking the celebration further, people made a ziggurat-like pedestal in their homes and displayed their collection of clay figurines. Tradition demands that the tiers be in odd numbers of 3, 5 7, 9 or 11. The lady of the house usually invites womenfolk and little girls or kanyas of her family and neighbourhood to marvel at the display of dolls made of clay, cloth or wood. Its customary to sing Devi bhagavatam or songs dedicated to the goddess. Singing is mandatory at any Golu gathering; be prepared to be heckled silently by the musical snobs if you are tone deaf and are pressed into breaking into a song. A kalasam – a jar to suggest overflowing harvest – filled with rice; a coin made of silver and coconut and mango leaves is placed on the steps leading to the house.
Menfolk, please excuse. Golu is simply an excuse for hen parties. Young girls are gifted sets of new clothes, married women and girls on the cusp of marriage are received at homes, gifted bags of fruits, coconut, betel leaves, vermilion and turmeric. Men are usually relegated to the role of arm candy or chauffeur as the ladies go back and forth to various homes for Golu.
The bummer during the festivities is unlike the lavish spreads across the rest of India, the local staple for the nine days is the sundal, a humble salad made of chickpea or peanuts tossed with grated coconut, green chillies and a dash of lemon in a dressing of sesame oil. Nothing elaborate, it is gifted to visiting women and girls in little packets as a to-go snack.
Display of Dolls
The best part of Golu is the display of clay dolls. Although originally, all dolls had religious connotations, these days it is common to have secular themes like panoramas of a cricket fields, temple goers, market scenes, national leaders, etc. If you find yourself in Chennai, go on a heritage walk around the mada veedhis or the walls of Mylapore’s Kapaleeshwarar Temple to discover the pavements packed with colourful dolls on sale. The dolls are usually made with clay, cloth and wood and are dyed with natural pigments.
If you are in Chennai in the next nine days the best way to visit Golu displays are at homes of friends or at temples. Festive atmosphere pervades the temple premises as there are numerous concerts and performances. Huge quantities of sundal are distributed as parasadam.
For details of Navaratri festivities in Chennai check out this site.
Sudha G Tilak has lived and worked in Chennai as a journalist but is currently based in Delhi and is a consultant editor for Lonely Planet. If anyone is in Chennai, please courier her a packet of sundal.