Thursday, 2 October 2008


It is called Navarathri, nine nights of celebrating the Goddesses Lakshmi, Parvathi and Saraswathi, here in Tamilnadu. Elsewhere it is Dussehra, celebrating Ramlila, or Durga Pooja in Bengal – all festivals blazing with colour and revelry, celebrating the triumph of good over evil. Simplistic Hindu faith.

In Madras (as in other places in Tamilnadu) it is celebrated with a kolu at homes, a kind of arrangement of colourful dolls, or iconic representations of gods and goddesses on numerous steps, along with other curios and artifacts. It is the height of socializing for womenfolk, who visit one another and exchange thamboolam (the auspicious gifts of betel leaves and nuts, coconut and fruits with turmeric, sandal paste and kumkum- vermilion).

No sooner than the wind changes, and the nights start turning cooler, shops selling the dolls sprout up overnight in busy shopping areas. The area around Sri Kapali Temple is the ultimate example. The pavements are crowded with different vendors displaying their wares – all arranged in step fashion, so that they themselves look like kolu.

My mother and I went to look for ourselves. My mother whose kolus were real works of art, enjoyed looking at the dolls. Here she is, at one of the shops still setting out its wares, enjoying one of the butter-eating Krishna.

There are representations of all the major Gods and Goddesses, painted with brilliant colours, attracting the passersby to stop and look again, even if they don’t buy. The sellers are mainly city dwellers who get their wares from anywhere – Cuddalore, Bunrooti, Ponidcherry, said one of them. Some of them were reluctant to talk, since business was picking up right then. But one of them told me that they are all mostly fruit sellers, who change to doll selling for the season. Higher prices did not deter many – the vendors expected their customers to bargain and bargain they did.

The pavement shops block sizable chunks outside the regular major shops. I asked one of the jewellers, whose space outside was hosting one of these, if they asked him before setting up shop. He said, “They did the first time, and since then they come every year and occupy the space without asking. But they won’t let anyone set up shop here – it is as if they have an unsigned lease! The whole family takes turns to keep watch.” He did not seem to mind very much, though.

At one of the wedding halls nearby, there was an exhibition of the products of women’s self-help groups, which also had dolls and other interesting objects (unconnected with Navarathri) for sale. The idols of Ganesha(above), carved in wood and painted, are more than three foot high. And the little dolls (left) wearing colourful costumes, not more than six inches high.

I have also heard of a similar festival in Japan called Hinamatsuri, where dolls are arranged on tiers. Makes one wonder if there was a common starting point for both.

There is nothing like our festivals – a perfect balance of religious and social features - with their bright colours to make our spirits soar.


kallu said...

Raji, interesting pictures. And write up.
A friend of mine just started off the kolu this year- to fill an empty nest. The happiness it seems to give her - it has filled her life for the past month!
As you say, it is the heights of socialising.
And now it all seems easy - if you have the money; just go out and buy every kind of doll.

Blogeswari said...

Lovely post! Missing Madras-mylapore-mada veedi
Thank you for the photographs, Raji

Webradio said...

Bonjour Raji !
très jolies photos, et le texte est bien aussi...

Ma fille serait ravie de voir toutes ces poupées !
Je lui montrerai à son retour.
A bientôt.

SandraRee said...

Great post Raji, love all the pictures! And I agree, there's nothing like festival!

namaki said...

a very interesting article about your culture ! and nice pictures to go with it !

Maddy said...

I call this saying things with pictures - lovely - for I can imagine myself walking through those very streets..
Now i was wondering how you took those snaps. from a car or walking through the streets ? what a spectacle you would have made if it was the latter - people would have murmured "paru american maamiyakkum avaal - photo eduthinde irukkku..

Chipie said...

Bonsoir !

C'est très joli et intéressant. Cela nous dépayse. J'aime les poupées !

Karthik Narayan said...

festive spirit at its best... :) from our own prety dolly. Always a delight! Yeah this is way better than facebook or orkut and brings out the artistic talents of both the maker and the decorator...

Karthik Narayan said...

BTW if i didnt say this earlier - i totally agree with webradio's brilliant reply to this post. Never could have said it better! Totally understandable...

Kat said...

A nice treatise on Kolu backed with interesting pics.

Why is Parvathi doll alone missing at home?

Anonymous said...

Lovely, Raji. This brought on such a wave of nostalgia!

Swarna said...

Raji, Thanks for those vibrant pics.
I miss Chennai at Kolu time.
We used to set up a 5-step display, and by the side of it a small 'park'. The steps were never the readymade ones. Instead rice tins and boxes of suitable sizes, planks, and anything else that could go into the base, did. And the display was always satisfying.
I'm trying to share one such here - unsuccessfully.
I updated my 'Happy Dussera' post.
God bless!

Swarna said...

I put up the pic of a homely kolu, and linked here.

Anonymous said...

Very nice to read both Maiji & your blogs on KOLU . My mother indulged
in it like Maiji used to when my sister was young say for 3 or 4
years. She used to enjoy dressing in her new pavadai, with flowers in
the hair etc.I remember visiting neighbours for sundal with a
group of my boy friends.I used to enjoy the various sundals ,plus
could stay outdoors with my friends about an hour or two late than
usual. In fact sundal was the side dish for dinner too.


Anya Padyam said...

I love this festival:) the creativity involved is amazing. Even though we never used to buy new ones often, I used to look forward to it as a kid - a lot!

now, miss the whole planning and arranging

Beautiful pictures, makes me wish I was in Chennai... and you are right! it is a great festival

Lakshmi Bharadwaj said...

i miss navathri soo much. thanks for bring the memories back.


Thank you everyone.

Kallu , your friend found a nice way to socialise - we do need a lot of that.

Blogeswari, nothing like the Mylapore Mada veedhis for that atmosphere of sanctity and colour,and let's face it, some rough and ready rudeness from the hawkers.

Webradio, Hope your daughter likes the pictures of the dolls - they are all made of clay, and are not soft, but hard, baked (in ovens or kilns) and painted in the brilliant colours.

Sandra, the joy one gets in sharing the festival is indescribable. Glad you liked the pictures.

Namaki, I am glad you found it interesting, and that the pictures could convey some of the atmosphere.

Maddy, I did walk down the street, with my mother, just to look at the dolls. I may have made a spectacle of myself, clicking those pictures. :-). But was worth it.

Thank you, Chipie.

Karthik , too right.

Kat, good point. Somehow the two came as a set and my mother got just the two....but there were other dolls of the Devi.

Kamini, all of us felt that - the getting ready and setting up of the kolu - how we enjoyed it, in varying degrees of enthusiasm.

Swarna, most homes had these made to order makeshift steps! Thanks for the link.

Venky, nostalgia time!

Just someone, thanks for dropping by and sharing your feelings.

Lakshmi, hope the memories of Navarathri made you happy.

Devika Jyothi said...

I remember my friend Bhanumati who used to arrange Kolu and serve us thamboolam...

Happy days..Thank you for bringing back those these days when I celebrate Ramlila and Dussehra here in Delhi.

The Kolu photos look so colourful...lovely!

see you again, Raji!

Devika Jyothi said...

Seasons Greetings, Raji!

forgot to wish..

Alaphia Zoyab said...

This is definitely my favourite festival!


Devika, thanks - wish you and everyone else the same.

Alaphia, are you missing Chennai? :)