Dolls in vibrant colours, stacked on steps that sometimes reach the ceiling, suddenly appear, every year in South Indian Hindu households. After spending most of the year locked up in trunks, protected by moth balls, someone lets them out for ten very special days every autumn. These ten days, called Navaratri or Dussehra, mark an important Hindu festival. In South India, especially in the states of Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu the celebrations are accompanied by an elaborate display of dolls, called Golu. But why are these dolls stacked up in this way and why are there so many of them?
Golu is meant to reproduce a scene from the epic battle between the Hindu Goddess Durga and the demon Mahishasura. The demon had managed to wangle a very special boon from the supreme Hindu god Brahma: He could not be killed by any man or god, but only by a woman. Mahishasura was so certain that a woman was too weak to kill him, that he himself added this condition to his boon. Practically immortal, the demon went around wreaking havoc on earth. Once he had the entire planet under his control, he wanted heaven. The Gods were terrified of this being who seemed to have power, even beyond theirs!
Something had to be done, and soon. All the gods along with Brahma, who was sort of responsible for it all, gathered for a serious meeting. There was only one way out. They would have to make a woman, strong enough to take on Mahishasura. They combined all their supernatural energies and, lo and behold, a dazzling Goddess emerged, armed for battle. She rode out on a tiger to challenge Mahishasura. The demon, seeing the beautiful goddess was floored and tried to woo her, instead of fighting her. Cheeky much?
Of course, he soon found out that she actually meant to kill him and not marry him. A great battle ensued. All the gods gathered to witness it. The people of earth also looked skywards. The scene was like an amphitheatre with two powerful gladiators fighting to the death. The goddess eventually beheaded the demon and won.
The steps in Golu symbolise the hierarchy of the various Hindu gods as they watch the battle. The supreme gods occupy the top steps, ending with demi gods and humans on the bottom steps. That’s why there have to be so many dolls. But how do the dollmakers know what the Gods looked like?
It’s all a product of some top-class imagination. The gods are all modelled after the paintings of one of India’s greatest artists, Raja Ravi Verma. The dolls sort of owe their faces to him.
But every Golu has two dolls that look quite different from the others. These are the wooden heirloom Marapachi dolls. The dolls were traditionally made only in Tirupati in Tamil Nadu out of red sandalwood. Some say, that the first pair was made as a wedding gift by a father for his daughter, who at the time of her marriage, was just a child. Other’s say that the wood’s medicinal properties make it a safe gift for newlyweds who would soon have children to play with them. Tirupati is still the only place you can buy them but red sandalwood is quite rare and expensive now. Children still dress up these dolls and proudly display them in the household’s Golu.
Most other Golu dolls are made of clay. Some suggest that the Golu ritual has nothing to do with religion but was started to create a demand for clay objects, which would encourage people to regularly de-silt irrigation canals. Whatever its origin, Golu today is a mainstay of South Indian tradition and the displays continue to bring joy and colour to households that make them.
To hear other tales from Indian mythology and history, join us on one of our walking tours.