The gods hold court

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Legends and customs spanning over time have lent meaning to the golu tradition

The celebration of Navratri is almost synonymous with the arrangement of golu in Tamil Nadu. A day before Navratri begins, the golu padi is decorated and the dolls are arranged in accordance with tradition.

“In the Sangam era, the word koluvitriruttal referred to the practice of the king and the queen giving audience to their subjects from an elevated space. It was called darbar sevai or koluvitriruttal. For the deity placed inside a home, that home is the kingdom.The families dwelling inside are the deity’s subjects.The arrangement of golu is a recreation of the Lord’s darbar,” says noted scholar Velukkudi Krishnan. These dolls depict the leelas of the lord.

These stories come alive through the golu. Through music and stories, the world is recreated. “Dolls are meant to tell us something.They are a metaphor for jeevatmas. The steps of a golu are symbols of the stages to be crossed through karma yoga, jnana yoga, bhakti yoga and saranagathi to attain salvation.The supreme spirit makes us move.We are here to play our part in the drama called samsara.The stage is set where we perform in accordance with his will,“ says  Krishnan.

There is also a societal significance to having golu as an important aspect of our celebrations.Nanditha Krishna of CP Ramaswami Aiyar Foundation says that it has a lot to do with our agricultural economy. “We must remember that earlier, the dolls were all made of clay. The potter was an important part of our society and there are also village temples where the potter is the priest. After the first rains, when rivers were desilted, a lot of clay was produced.This was put to good use in the festivals that followed,“ she says.

The coming together of people cutting across generations also makes a home a conducive space for storytelling, where stories, rituals and customs passe on from one generation to the other. As a child, Vikram Sridhar, a  storyteller by profession, would go every Navratri to his aunt’s home in Chennai for the golu, mainly for the food that was served there. “For a child, food is an important attraction during the festival. It’s also to be noted that being celebrated at a time when autumn transitions to winter, the sundals prepared from different lentils and pulses ensured that the body remained healthy in this period of weather change,” he says.

And once the crowd settled down with sundals and payasams, conversations would also begin. “A golu is a beautiful audio visual medium and hence very sensorial. The stories and songs complemented the golus. When curiosity piqued us, we would ask about the dolls and the stories behind them and thus got to know a lot of the puranic tales. Now the stories were not just from mythology. At the lower end of the golu were recreations of various plants and animals and I got introduced to many species through the golu. Also, days before the golu was set up, there were many scenarios that we created by recycling various items in the home to set up a tennis court or cricket field in a golu. I remember, when the World cup fever was high, we even had dolls of a the cricket stadium. Along with the dolls, we also pass on stories to the next geenration through a golu,” he says.

This is a microcosm of the creation of the divine Mother. Her court spans across time and to this day new ideas keep this tradition all the more interesting.

This story was published in The Times of India 

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