'Bommai Golu' | A unique tradition of displaying dolls during Dussehra

Golu - The festival of dolls and figurines

This Dussehra I was in India and happened to visit the homes of several friends and relatives during the festive season. Dussehra is also called as Vijayadashami or Navaratri or Dasara or Durga Puja depending on the Indian state you are in but in all cases the festival is essentially a celebration of goodness over evil. People celebrate the festival in their unique traditional way based on their local culture.

In the northern states, one of the key aspects of Dussehra is the Ramlila performance which is an enactment of stories from the Ramayana. Artists perform at fairs across the state and these plays draw audiences in the thousands. In the western state of Gujarat, Dandiya Raas and Garba (traditional folk dances) are the highlight of Dussehra with performance arts on all days of the festival. Dressed in colourful traditional dresses and with coordinated movements, people dance in concentric circles to music (mostly live orchestra).

In West Bengal, the festival takes on the form of Durga Puja. There is dancing, music and 'pandals' are erected at several venues where clay sculptures/idols of Goddess Durga are worshipped.

In southern India, the celebrations take on different forms. In Karnataka, especially in Mysore, temples are decked up and Dussehra processions are taken out with dance groups, tableaux, music bands and more. In Telangana, one of the notable traditions of Dussehra is the Bathukamma which is a creative and beautiful decoration of flowers in a stack, in seven concentric layers. The floral celebration also includes traditional dancing by the womenfolk who are dressed in their best traditional clothes and jewels.

Bathukamma

Bathukamma celebrations in Telangana

In Tamil Nadu, in addition to decoration of temples and dance performances, one other notable part of the festivities is the Bommai Golu display. You will find this in the states of Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka as well, where they are called Bommala Koluvu and Gombe Habba respectively.

What is Bommai Golu?


Bommai Golu (also called Golu or Kolu) is the artistic display of traditional dolls and idols during Dussehra. An assortment of dolls and figurines are arranged on a step-like wooden frame with the placement of the dolls representing the spiritual progression of humans.

Golu Dolls Arrangement for Navratri

The 'steps' can vary in number from 1 to 11 depending on the space one has available and the number of dolls one has but the steps have to be odd numbered - 1, 3, 5, 7, 9 or 11. These steps are usually made of wood or metal and are dismantlable. They are covered and decorated with plain cloth or sarees and then the dolls are placed on them.

Navaratri Bommai Golu

The arrangement of the dolls and idols also follows a pattern. If you were keeping a Golu with 9 steps then the first three steps on the top would feature Gods & Goddesses. The next three steps would include idols of saints, enlightened ones and other learned people. The bottom three steps would represent humans and their activities follwed by birds & animals. 

Depending on the number of steps you have in your Golu and your collection of dolls, the allocation of steps to each set of dolls would obviously vary, but the hierarchy remains the same.

Golu Arrangements during Navaratri

Generally, at least one new doll is added to the Golu collection each year. And often, the dolls on display are passed on from one generation to another. So, don't be surprised if you come across dolls that are over hundred years old!

Bommai Golu - Navratri Golu

Most Golu arrangements have an idol of Goddess Durga in one form or the other. Some people keep a 'Kalasham' instead which is a traditional holy pot. It is decorated with mango leaves and holds a coconut and is viewed as a symbol of wisdom and abundance.

Goddess Durga - Golu Doll

On the bottom most step of the Golu arrangement, you will usually find Marapachi Bommai.

Marapachi Bommai ('wooden dolls' in Tamil) are traditional dolls representing a couple and symbolising fertility and well-being. Traditionally, this pair of dolls was gifted to the bride by her parents to wish her a happy and prosperous married life. These dolls are also gifted by mothers to their daughters when they start their Golu arrangements and it is usually passed down the generations. Each year, the dolls are decorated with new dresses and enjoy a prominent placement in the Golu arrangement.

Marapachi Bommai Dolls - Navaratri Bommai Golu dolls

Another common doll that you will come across in most Golu arrangements is the Chettiyar and Chettichi Set. These bobble-headed dolls represent the business heritage of the Chettiyar community as well as happiness and prosperity. The Chettiyars were well-known for their family-run grocery business in which both the husband and wife took part. In a typical Golu setting, these dolls are placed along with fruits/vegetables and grains on one of the bottom two steps.

Navarathri Golu Doll - Chettiyar and Chettichi Set

In the picture below, if you look at the middle step, you will see the 12 Alvars. The Alvars were Tamil poet-saints who were known for their devotion to Vishnu and went travelling from one town to another composing and singing beautiful poems in praise of the deity. The 12 Alvars came from different backgrounds and the most well-known were Periyalvar, Nammalvar and Andal (the only female Alvar and the foster daughter of Periyalvar). You will find these idols in the middle steps where the saints are placed.

Alwars - Golu Dolls

Another popular Golu set is the Garuda Vahana Seva which depicts the Garuda Vahana procession undertaken during the Brahmotsavam. A beautifully decorated idol of Bhagwan Vishnu is taken around the temple atop Garuda, the Vahana of Vishnu. This type of Seva is performed in most Vishnu temples across India but the most popular one is the Seva at Tirumala during the Brahmorsavam days.

Garuda Vahana Seva - Golu Dolls

Each doll or sets of doll used in the Golu has a story to tell. It is a beautiful way to celebrate the stories of Ramayana, the Puranas, the Navdurgas and more.

The Golu arrangement is kept for 3-9 days and on the tenth day (the last day of the festival), the dolls are symbolically put to sleep marking the end of the year's Golu. The next day, the dolls are packed and stored and the Golu steps dismantled for next year’s use.

Navratri Golu Celebrations

Navratri Golu Celebrations

Navratri Golu Celebrations

When the Golu arrangement is in place, women of the house invite other womenfolk and children (friends and neighbours) to their home. Pujas are performed, 'shlokas' are recited and 'Sundal' and sweets are served to the guests. 'Sundal' is a stir-fried dish made with boiled chickpeas, boiled peanuts or other boiled legumes. For each day of Golu, a different variety of Sundal is made and is distributed among near and dear. It is also customary to give betel leaves with areca nuts (vethalai pakku), along with haldi (turmeric), kumkum (vermilion powder), flowers & fruits to the women who visit.

My aunt, Shobha Sridharan, who lives in New Jersey, started the tradition of keeping Golu when her two sons asked her why they didn't do it. That was years back and since then it has been an annual tradition in their household. They ordered a 5-step dismantlable Golu step from a local Indian in New Jersey and their initial collection of traditionl Golu dolls arrived all the way from Chennai. Their initial collection included staple Golu sets like Dasasvataram, Mahalakshmi Kalyanam etc. and since then their collection has been growing - mostly with items being gifted to them by friends and relatives. Now they have so many things to display that they are unable to put them all out every year - so they have started rotating through the collection and doing a selective display each year.

My aunt usually picks a Saturday within the 9 days of Dussehra to invite all their friends and from the time the doorbell starts ringing at around 4:00 pm, till the last guest arrives, it is usually close to midnight. It is a floating crowd but they get around 30 to 40 families visiting them on that single day.

My aunt's two sons participated a lot when they were in school, setting up their own corners in the Golu arrangement and exhibiting their creativity. Now they are all grown up but my aunt still enjoys setting up the Golu every year (see photo below). As she says, "Golu not only exposes kids to our traditions and culture, but also helps keep them socially connected with friends and family".

Golu decorations

Golu is a great way to celebrate traditions as well as to bond with friends and family. It is also a chance to show off one's creativity via the Golu arrangement. And lastly it is also a festival that aims at supporting small, independent artisans who deserve recognition and support for their beautiful craft. 

Do you have any Golu stories to share? Let me know via the comments box below.

Traditional Golu Decorations



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