Bommai Golu or Kolu is a Tamizh word that refers to the practice of the display of dolls during the Navaratri festival. Contextually and symbolically it can also be understood to mean “Divine Presence”
Known as “Bommala Koluvu” in Telugu and “Bombe Habba” in Kannada, this practice is an old tradition that is fast losing its significance and there are few families that continue this tradition today.
Often, this stems from a lack of knowledge with regard to the What, Why, and How of this tradition. The Navaratri festival is observed twice a year – once in the month of “Mesha” or “Chaithra” when the Vasantha Rithu segues into the Grishma Rithu (roughly corresponding to the beginning of summer) and then again in the month of ‘Kanya” or “Aswayuja” when the Varsha Rithu segues into the Sharad Rithu (Autumn/Winter) – it is the latter that is more popular and when someone talks about the Navarathri festival, it is this Navarathri that they are referring to.
In writing this post, I have largely relied on the Kanchi Paramacharya’s discourses on “Ambal” and “Goddesses of Navaratri” and to a lesser extent on Swami Sivananda’s (Divine Life Society) essay on the subject.
The “junction-points” mentioned above – “Vasantha-Grishma” and “Varsha-Sharad” are important periods of climactic and solar influence. These are periods when even a little sadhana done with sincerity goes a long way. During Navarathri we pray to the “Malai-Magal” (Daughter of the mountain, a reference to Parvathi who is the daughter of Himawan), Alai-Magal (Daughter of the waves, a reference to Laskhmi who emerged out of the ocean of milk), and “Kalai-Magal” (Daughter of supreme knowledge, a reference to Saraswati). The Navaratri festival begins on the Prathama tithi (first day) of Shukla Paksha (bright lunar-fortnight) of Kanya Maasa.
A small digression here – Why display the dolls at all? Why this nine-day celebration? The Paramacharya notes during his discourse (probably in response to a question, I am not sure). “It has become fashionable to question everything nowadays. Well, the most important purpose is Loka-kshemam (Universal welfare). When people focus all their energies on the divine – chanting, praying, singing, organizing satsangs and “Katha-Kalakshepas” (Hari Kathas), there is a tremendous release of the “Shakti of Ambal” The culture was that people displayed the dolls and prayed that the divine presence come and reside there in the Golu and Ambal is the most compassionate – she comes when called.” Then Satsangs were organized where the women from the neighborhood sat in front of the Golu and sang songs. Parents, grandparents told stories from the Bhagavatha, Ramayana, Mahabharatha to children – this released Shakthi into the atmosphere. Hari Katha’s were organized at temples and more Shakti…This Shakti of Ambal diffused into and permeated the atmosphere leading to Loka-kshemam. Today, it is this lack of Shakti, this failure to collectively work for Loka-kshemam that is sorely lacking amongst the Hindus of the country today.”
Coming back to the festival, during the first set of three days Para-shakti is worshipped as Durga, then as Lakshmi during the second set of three days, and as Saraswathi during the last set of three days. As the Lakshmi Ashtothram and Saraswathi Ashtothram state “Brahma-Vishnu-Sivathmikayai Namaha” it is the one Parashakti in different garbs functioning multi-variously.
The Golu is arranged on a “Golu-Padi” (Padi = steps). Usually 9 steps are built but odd numbers of 3, 5, and 7 are also seen. However 9 is the ideal number. The nine steps could be taken to refer to the nine ways of worshipping Ambal – “swarnam, kirthanam, smaranam, paadasevanam, archanam, vandhanam, dasyam, sakyam, atmasevadhanam” They are also representative of the Nava grahas, nine planets (nine planets as per the Hindu astrological almanac which includes the shadowy planets – Rahu and Kethu). From the bottom to the top the size of the steps progressively get shorter, with the top most step being the shortest – symbolically telling us how we must keep narrowing our focus in order to progress in our sadhana. The arrangement of dolls should also follow the pattern of progressive complexity with the dolls of Shiva, Vishnu, Devi etc. occupying the top most position, with the avatara-purushas and the Rishis occupying the next lower steps and so on.
The pride of place on the Golu-padi is reserved for the “Kalasham” or the “Kodam” because it is in the Kalasham that Ambal is invoked and it is in the Kalasham that she resides during Navaratri.
Marapachi dolls made of red-sandal-wood or silk-cotton-wood, or rose-wood are traditional dolls that are the first to go up onto the golu padi. They are the male-female”pair-dolls” and are handed down from mother to daughter
The Paramacharya also notes – “For, the nine days it is women who perform all the pujas. This does not stop the men from doing their share of pujas, it is just that during Navaratri women get the special preference and rights for doing the puja during Navaratri” – The Paramacharya shows here how there is no discrimination whatsoever in the Hindu religion and all these feminists who raise a hue and cry about the Shani-shingnapur temple and Sabarimala do it with no understanding of Hindu Dharma.
What the Hindus need more than anything else is to imbibe this spirit of Navaratri and build the collective Shakthi that the Paramacharya talks about. Too much energy is being expended in wasteful pursuits…