An interesting aspect of Navratri in the southern states of India, viz. Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka is the display of Golu or Kolu as they are better known. Golu is a display of dolls in a particular format, especially in the form of steps or padis (in Tamil); usually nine or odd numbers like seven, or five. The display of dolls carry themes from mythology, like the ten avatars of Lord Vishnu, scenes enacting the romance of Radha and Krishna or events from the life of lord Krishna as a child, etc.
Amongst the display the most important and a must have is the display of the Marapachi dolls which is apair of a male and female dolls. This pair is usually made of carved reddish wood and is sold in different sizes. During the display, they are adorned in colourful traditional dresses and jewelry. Usually, it is a tradition for mothers to give a pair of the marapachi dolls to their daughters during their wedding to begin the displayu of their own Golu at their new homes. Many collect dolls to form themes from mythical tales and over a period build a beautiful collection of such dolls. A pot or the kumbham, is also placed in the arrangement which gets a ritual worship during the nine days of Navratri. The pot is arranged either at the top most level or at the bottom, with a coconut or a pomegranate amongst mango leaves. Many scholars have indicated that the pair marapichi represent marital harmony and the pot and the selection of the fruits which remain fresh, indicate fertility.
The array of the dolls represents a durbar or the court of Goddess Durga before she leaves to eliminate Mahishasura or the buffalo-demon.
Though the practice of setting up the Golu has religious overtones due to the timing and the themes of arrangement, it seems to have more social relevance than anything else. This is a time when the women folk get together and help each other in setting the display. Later they go in groups to visit different Golu’s put up in the neighborhood. During such visits there is singing of religious songs and many other activities which focus on the women of the household. Snacks and certain staple offerings are served to the guests, which again display the culinary skills of the women folk. This serves as an interesting mingling of the women where each displays their imaginative skills of arrangement and religious knowledge. The dolls are then put back safely after the nine days for another year.
Besides giving the women folk a source of entertainment and platform to showcase their skills, another important rationale of such festivals was to give a fillip to the agricultural economy. Such festivals kept the demand of clay up, even during non-agricultural seasons like this, as in the olden days such dolls were made of clay only, unlike today when many other materials are used to make them.
An interesting social custom, which aligns itself with the religious festivities and mythical themes.
In fact, the Japanese have a similar festival, known as Hina matsuri, or the doll festival. Hina means a doll and matsuri is festival in Japanese. Hina matsuri is a festival which is celebrated on March 3rd every year to ensure a healthy life for young girls in the family.
Similar to the Golu display, in Hina matsuri too dolls are arranged over different steps, covered with a red cloth. In the topmost layer are kept dolls depicting the Emperor and Empress of Japan. In the subsequent layers are placed dolls which represent the men and women in waiting for the royal couple, followed by musicians, singers, courtiers and other items like arrangement of furniture, etc.
The origin of this can be traced to an ancient practice wherein straw dolls were made and set off in small boats in the river in the belief that the dolls had taken away with them the evil spirits which would have otherwise affected their daughters. In due course, it became a royal festival with all the royal trappings with it to modern times when every household with a girl child celebrates this festival. Till date, the superstition holds good that the dolls absorb the evil spirits and thus the dolls are kept back without delay, as any delay is believed to delay the girls wedding date.
Interestingly, in Hina matsuri too, the ceremonial dolls are handed over by mothers to their daughters!
Two festivals, both celebrated by women folk in similar form, by two different cultures. An interesting similarity!