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.
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.
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.
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.