A Tryst With Divine Spirits!

The literal meaning of Bhuta in Tulumy mother tongue and also the predominant language of South Kanara district in coastal Karnataka – is ghost.

But the Bhutas of the ritual worship called Bhuta Kola that take place annually in ancestral homes across the region are not the restless spectres the word conjures up.

They are divinities…deified cultural heroes, mythological figures and ancestral spirits that are considered Dhootas or ‘assistants’ to God, and who manifest his power and interpret His (or Her!) word. They are guardian angels of the community. Their judges and their juries.

The Preparation

Bhuta Kola in Mangalore
Panjurli adding final touches at around 3am, just about when we decided we could stay no longer.

This ritual, consisting of nightlong performances that include dancing, storytelling (in ballads) and rhythmic hypnotic drumming that alters the state of consciousness of the performers in which they pronounce oracular statements, is a remnant of a primitive Dravidian religion that continued even after old mythologies and beliefs merged with newer Puranic religions.

It is still caste-centric. Performed by hereditary artistes from a particular community and patronised by feudal land owners. But significantly, with the approval of the Brahmin priesthood. What could not be practically absorbed was cleverly given tacit approval. So a priest officiates at the beginning and is present for the purification, but he has nothing to do with the ritual itself.

My connection with this ritual is more emotional than religious. Four of these shrines were littered around the property my grandfather acquired to build his tile factory. There was also a sacred pond with carved naga (serpent) stones submerged at the bottom.

There is no record of when they were built or who built them, but it was evident the local community had made them a part of their worship. So he adopted and propitiated these spirits and the rituals became the highlights of our summer holidays.

The Ornaments

Bhuta Kola in Mangalore
Donning these very heavy silver ankle ornaments known as Gaggara, marks the start of the ritual, when the performer gets possessed by the spirit!
Bhuta Kola in Mangalore
Solid silver ornaments that will go back into a bank locker Monday morning. Devotion (and fear) we hope will keep these from getting swapped!
Bhuta Kola in Mangalore
Panjurli’s silver Head ornament and other jewellery. The sprigs are tender areca flowers.

There were two sets of deities. A brother-sister duo called Kallurti and Kalkuda, and male siblings – the boar faced Panjurli and the fearsome Guliga – said to be endowed with enormous powers to facilitate one’s connection with the supreme being, to grant wishes and to solve problems.

But they weren’t always benign. Woe betide anyone who incurred their wrath…retribution could be swift and devastating, usually administered with fire or pestilence. Mom once half-jokingly attributed an electrical short circuit in my house (in Chennai, several hundred kilometres away) to the fact that I didn’t believe anymore! The fear was an efficient tool to curb petty crimes obviously, all it took was for the accused to be brought to the shrine for a quick unburdening.

After mom’s passing, my two sisters and I decided to hand over the running of the shrines to a committee representing the local community, and divest the land surrounding it. Our ever considerate parent, in anticipation of our disinterest, had already moved the shrines to a corner of the property with access directly from the main road.

It has since taken on a life of its own. Its ‘parish’ has multiplied as evidenced by the impressive attendance at the annual festival. The celebration is grander today than the simple ritual I remember and includes free food served to over a thousand devotees.

The Kola

Last month, my older sister and I along with our spouses, went back ‘home‘ to attend a Kola after nine long years. The young performers did not know us nor our connection with the land. R and I were driving to Mysore early next morning, so we couldn’t stay for the second and grander half where the fiery Guliga chews up a live chicken. The fear and awe of watching that spectacle for the first time still makes me shudder!

What we did witness seemed tamer, less intense somehow. Perhaps I am biased. Or just older. Nothing ever feels the same here anymore.

PS: A bronze Mudadaya Bhuta mask typically used in actual worship inside a shrine now graces my living room wall. It was a lucky find on one of my visits after mum’s passing, awaiting consecration in a shop on a market street in Mangalore, . Most (local) people are shocked that I dared to bring one home. I feared my mother’s wrath more or it would’ve been here sooner.

Posted by

Madhu is an Interior designer turned travel blogger on a long sabbatical to explore the world. When not crafting stories on The Urge To Wander, she's probably Tweeting @theurgetowander or sharing special moments on instagram.com/theurgetowander

95 thoughts on “A Tryst With Divine Spirits!

  1. Excellent inputs on the South Kanara and the ritual worship of the Bhuta Kola. The photo illustrations make it very educative. Thanks Madhu.

    1. Thank you Dilip. The performances in traditional ancestral houses are even more atmospheric, since they take place in the yard of the main house.

  2. Absolutely fasinating post Madhu. I am sure this Bhuta mask that dons your house is bless your home and your lives. Keep clicking, writing and sharing.

    1. Thank you so much Ishita. I didn’t dare hang that up until after mom passed away. She would have been frantic with fear 🙂

  3. What wild wonderful colours Madhu. Strange isn’t it how traditions and memories flow and ebb, where we put them and what they eventually mean to us.

    1. Very strange indeed Patti. They keep me rooted to that place that my head wants to have nothing to do with anymore, but my heart won’t let go! Thank you Patti.

  4. Often the technologized world forgets the very real presence of the spirits. The ancestors and others are close by. Thank you for sharing this with us.

  5. Bhuta is a well-known word in Javanese which means monster or mythical beast. And the Indonesian word of duta was derived from dhoota, which means assistant, messenger or ambassador. It’s amazing how many Sanskrit and Indian words are still used here in Indonesia without people realizing it. I know I would love India for this kind of cultural and historical connection, I believe. Nice photos, Madhu!

    1. The cross cultural similarities are fascinating aren’t they? I don’t doubt you will have a greater understanding of Indian culture and mythology, because of these historical connections. Thank you Bama.

    1. Thank you Sarita. There should be no dearth of it in a diverse nation like ours, but most of us ‘educated urban’ citizens are losing touch with our roots. I wonder how much will survive beyond the next generation.

  6. Great photos. And a great post too! It is always interesting to read about other culture. India is so diverse, isn’t it? 🙂

    1. Thanks Nandini. There must be a thousand such rituals across India or more. I wish there was a listing of indigenous rituals and traditions somewhere 🙂

  7. Great post, Madhu. (A tile factory? I just read Arundhati Roy’s The god of little nothings!) 🙂
    If I understand correctly from your text, there was cross-cultural influence between Indonesia and India, right? I thought it was only India > Indonesia… (I have a novel in my head called Hanuman! need a bit of research to get it off the floor) 🙂
    Take care

    1. Thanks Brian. Arundati’s book is “God Of Small Things” actually 🙂 She writes about a region bordering my hoemtown with a lot of cultural similarities. And I am not aware of any Indonesia>India cross cultural influences!

      1. Thanks for the correction. I (just) read it in French: “Le dieu des petits riens”. And I wasn’t sure whether the original was little or small! 🙂 Loved the book. I am more familiar with northern India (by family tradition) and I enjoyed the cultural insights very much. Strong parallels may actually be drawn with other (very remote) cultures. See 100 years of solitude for instance! Anyway, thanks for your post. You have fascinating stuff on your blog. Je reviendrai! Take care. Brian

  8. How you are always able to get to the preparation of things and occasions that are so so interesting is beyond me! You shared something so unique I’m sure all your readers would want to witness. I know I would.

    1. This took place in the grounds of my childhood home Rommel, so no big shakes about gaining access. Plan a trip to India around that time – usually the third Saturday in April – and I will take you there myself 🙂

  9. Oh Madhu you stirred the spirit of my love of India and its culture. These pictures, though specific to that part of Karnataka could be repeated around other villages scattered around India. The culture may vary and the dieties given a different name but familiar nevertheless. Bharat Mata is so interesting. Every 100 klms there is a slight variant of culture and the village is alive day or night. I used to make the annual pilgrimage from Pune to the foothills of the Himilayas or down to Kodaikanal for a month vacation in the hills during the hot season when tar actually bubbles on the road and villagers walk bare foot through it. I found the South Indian celebrations in which sharpened knives are thrust through cheeks and spirit possession takes place very confronting. When in remote areas on itinerary I would be comforted to sleep by Hindi songs blaring their message and the ever present rhythmic beat of drums told of countless village gatherings where the men of the village sang until the veins of their neck swelled from their enthusiasm. I will never forget my years there, nor will my children who were raised there.

  10. fantastic post Madhu, I am so thrilled this ceremony still exists, a remnant of a much older time , and so personally connected to you. How extraordinary it must have been to participate in the Bhuta as a child, and a wise parent who moved the shrines to see it live on!

    1. Thank you Christine. We somehow never felt the need to document any of it at the time! I had been wanting to do it for several years now, and am happy I got the opportunity to do so this year.

    1. It was quite gruesome, and the guy had to be stoned for certain to be able to do it, but I remember staying up until dawn just to watch it when we were young! 🙂

    1. Thank you Saba. Happy to meet a Tamil blogger. I don’t read Tamil sadly, although I do speak it fairly well 🙂

  11. These memories of growing up sound like rich fodder for short memoir pieces to me, Madhu! It must have been amazing. 🙂

    1. I guess. It was an incredible childhood until it started unraveling after my grand dad passed away. I touched upon it briefly in a cathartic post titled ‘memories’ that I have linked to above.

  12. You are in such a unique position to have a personal connection to a very interesting, colorful and lively tradition like this one. Thank you for sharing! I am pretty sure I wouldn’t have been able to handle photos of a chicken being eaten alive so I think I’m happy you skipped out on that part of the ritual!

    1. True. My generation had the best of it, being on the cusp of change as India opened up to globalization. My daughter and her children have no real connection with life as it used to be in rural India, which i think is sad. I hope to take the boys there next year. Thank you for your thoughtful comment Jessica 🙂

  13. The preparation that goes into this ritual is incredible. The makeup itself is a work of art as well as the costuming. The bronze Bhuta mask is handsome, perhaps a symbol of the guardian angel of your past and connections to this ancestral property. Your photos and narrative, as always, Madhu, paint a cultural picture. I learn much. Nice that the four of you could re-experience this family ritual that is now a community festival. Wow!

    1. My mother would freak out if she could see that mask on my wall Lynne! I didn’t want to wait till all of them disappeared and we would need to go to a museum to see one! 🙂 Yes, it felt good to be able to experience it again. Hope to go back with the grandkids next year. Thanks Lynne.

  14. How wonderful you went back. And what a great gift to hand this over to the community. I loved your photos Madhu, and it was made all the more special with the story behind it.

    1. The reasons were purely selfish then Jo. But now we are beginning to think we should do whatever we can to help keep this alive from a cultural perspective. Thank you for reading and for your ever generous comments.

  15. My education is getting completed. After reading your post, and seeing and reading the accompanying brilliant photographs..I’m half way there..to completing my education. Loved it.

    1. Your comment has my head in a spin Harini! Glad to be contributing to your already extensive knowledge bank! 😀 Thank you for stopping by to comment.

  16. Very informative and educational. Reminded me of the Kathakali performances of the Kerala community here in Singapore. Love the pictures too.

    1. It is similar to Kathakali in the make-up, but the ritual itself is more religious ceremony than dance drama, with the posession and trance like state. Appreciate your visit and comment dear Eric.

  17. A visit to your blog is always like a wonderful adventure where i accumulate bits of treasure, from your well of knowledge . I learn so much from you Madhu, and my spirit blossoms more because of the nourishment you selflessly deliver with each posting your share. Always a delight to embrace your words and images! Have a lovely weekend my sister!

  18. I love the final looks of Panjurli and Kalkuda and your story about the ritual worship called Bhuta Kola. Thank you for sharing, Madhu. It was both educational and beautiful.

    1. Thank you Judy. I would have loved to stay for the Panjurli/ Guliga part of the ritual, but we really ran out of time. Hope I get to feature that next year.

  19. What enthralling images and descriptions, Madhu – I feel as though I was standing right there witnessing it all unfold! In the makeup and ornaments I see striking similarities with both Bali and unexpectedly, even Cantonese opera here in Hong Kong – save the floral decorations, Guliga and Panjurli would not look out of place in a local theatre. As always your family history is utterly fascinating… perhaps you could write a book or memoir of some sort!

    1. A memoir would be an ambitious project, but not for any lack of fodder. That place was unique even for Mangalore. A kind of a replica of a village created within the urban space, so we didn’t miss out on the benefits of both! We had bullock carts as well as motor cars!! Who knows…..perhaps someday 🙂 Thank you for your interest James.

  20. And I found someone in the blog world who belongs to my land… Yes I’m a bunt and belong to south canara too. Great to see somebody talking about our culture which is so very different and vibrant than other South Indian communities.. Yes we south canara ppl do believe in bootas and panjurli and kallurtis.. And that’s what keeps our community going. Me and my family make sure we attend the function every year.. My favourite has always been the chicken eating one.. Although it scares the shit out of me ;p

    Loved the post and could relate to each and every word. Thank you for writing this so beautifully.


    1. It was mom’s wisdom in moving those shrines that has kept it alive. Not sure how we would have dealt with it ourselves! Glad you enjoyed it Elisa.

  21. What an interesting ritual Madhu and so colourful and fascinating! You took stunning shots! Thanks for sharing and for all the info. Great read. 😀 ♥ Hugs ♥

    1. I can understand how strange and yes ‘mind boggling’ all this must seem to you Kathryn. The urban young in India would probably react the same way! 🙂

      1. Steeped in culture and history. I wish I understood more of your culture. It has always fascinated me. I know I could read more but I look forward to your posts and some insight from you cause frankly I have no time for historical reading at this time. Thanks Madhu!

  22. What a rich perspective you have absorbed from your own history. An adult can almost never again see through the eyes of a child. Yes, older — wiser, more sophisticated, less inclined to believe —
    Nor — perhaps — would you want to or need to see again through that child’s eyes. But you do give us a glimpse of another world richer and stranger (perhaps) and more colorful than our own, for which I know I owe you many thanks. As always with this wonderful blog, wherever you are, it is a treasure trove of gorgeous Otherness, and I for one cherish it.

    1. Nostalgia is strange Judith. It exaggerates earlier experiences and spoils you for the real thing. I know little has probably changed there (barring the ugly plastic chairs and fake silk of course!), but I wanted it to feel exactly like it did before!
      I am so glad you enjoy the ‘otherness’ as you say, of our lives and traditions. I always worry that it might be a bit too foreign 🙂

      1. Never!
        We all are far too well acquainted with our own, and fated to live only one life. How skimpy that is! One of the best ways I know of to enrich it is to borrow other people’s lives and experience and eyes. Like the Japanese with their gardens, taking advantage of the “borrowed view.”

    1. Glad you enjoyed this Elita. I have discarded the background image of my blog for a fresher, uncluttered look. Hope you still like it 🙂

Let me know what you think

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s