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.


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.


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.

93 thoughts on “A Tryst With Divine Spirits!

  1. 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.

  2. 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 🙂

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

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