A Tryst With Divine Spirits!

The literal meaning of Bhuta in Tulu, the predominant language of South Kanara district in coastal Karnataka – and my mother tongue incidentally – is ghost.

But the Bhutas of the ritual worship called Bhuta Kolathat 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.

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

Preparation

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 fuedal 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, along with a sacred pond. 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.

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.

Ornaments

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 jokingly attributed an electrical short circuit in my house (in Chennai, several hundred kilometers 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! But what we did witness seemed tamer, less intense somehow. Perhaps I am biased. Or just older. Nothing ever feels the same here anymore.

PS: The thumbnail image is of a typical bronze Bhuta mask used for worship in a shrine, that I found in a shop on a market street in Mangalore. It now graces my living room wall.

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Hi, I'm Madhu. Wanderer. Travel blogger. Story teller. Bitten late and hard by the travel bug, I am on a mission to make up for lost time.

94 thoughts on “A Tryst With Divine Spirits!

  1. 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
    Brian

    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

  2. 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 🙂

  3. 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.

  4. 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! 🙂

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