Culture, Religion


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…

Culture, Religion, Spirituality

Varalakshmi and Varalakshmi Vratha

When the Sun is in Kataka (Cancer in the Zodiac), in the month of Shravana, on the Friday of Shukla Paksha (Bright fortnight) the Varalakshmi or VaraMahalakshmi vratha is performed.


Lakshmi and Varalakshmi: Lakshmi is the goddess of not just fortune. She is श्री, “Shri” “Sri” or “Siri” the consort of Vishnu and source of his power and preservative function. She is the repository of all virtue, excellence, dignity, intellect, beauty, grace, splendour, prosperity, majesty, royalty, and wealth.

Lakshmi is described and depicted as enchantingly beautiful, sitting or standing on a lotus and holding two lotuses, one in each hand. Her other two hands are usually in “Abhaya-Hastha” and “Varada-Hastha” poses. The Abhaya-Hastha pose, where the palm of the right hand is seen with the fingers pointing upwards represents “protection” and the Varada-Hastha pose, where the palm of the Left hand is seen with the fingers pointing downwards represents “boon-conferring”

Her four hands by themselves symbolically signify her divine power to grant the four पुरुषार्थ (Purusharthas) of human life – Dharma, Artha, Kama, and Moksha.

The different hues in which she is depicted are also deeply symbolic. If her complexion is dark then she is Vishnu’s consort, when she is golden-yellow, she is the supreme source of all wealth, prosperity, and happiness, when she is white and pristine, she is prakriti the all pervasive nature herself – that prakriti from which springs the universe with its animate and inanimate beings. When she is rose-coloured or peach in complexion she is the compassionate mother of the Universe.

She is also the “power of multiplicity” depicted as the one supreme goddess manifesting in different forms with eight of these aspects being most popular and depicted in popular iconography:

  1. Aadi-Lakshmi (The Primeval Goddess) or Maha Lakshmi (The Great Goddess)
  2. Dhana-Lakshmi or Aishwarya Lakshmi (The Goddess of Prosperity and Wealth)
  3. Dhaanya-Lakshmi (Goddess of Food Grains)
  4. Gaja-Lakshmi (The Goddess flanked by two elephants; the provider of “cattle wealth”)
  5. Santana-Lakshmi (The Goddess of Progeny)
  6. Veera-Lakshmi or Dhairya Lakshmi (The Goddess of Valor and Courage)
  7. Vidya-Lakshmi (The Goddess of Knowledge)
  8. Vijaya-Lakshmi or Jaya Lakshmi (The Goddess of Victory)

Varalakshmi specifically is the compassionate, wish-fulfilling mother of the universe. Two of her hands hold a lotus each and her other two hands are in the “Abhaya-Hastha” and “Varada-Hastha” poses.

Varalakshmi Vratha: There are several stories that talk about the origins, the significance and importance of the Varalakshmi Vratha:

Story-1: Shyama Bala was the beautiful daughter of King Bhadrashravas and his wife Surachandrika. Shyama Bala was married to emperor Maladhara. Once Goddess Lakshmi visited Shyama Bala’s mother Surachandrika in the guise of a poor old woman and tried to explain the procedure and importance of the Varalakshmi vratha. Surachandrika insulted Lakshmi (who was in the guise of an old woman) and Lakshmi walked away and with her so did all the riches of the household of Surachandrika and Bhadrashravas.

Lakshmi then went to Surachandrika’s daughter Shyama Bala’s house who received Lakshmi (in the guise of an old woman) with great regard and heard from her with devotion the methodology and significance of the Vratha and derived the benefits of the Vratha. When she learnt of the poverty stricken state of her parents, she sent them a pot of gold but even that did nothing to alleviate her parents poverty – It is perhaps (my conjecture) this that has given birth to the practice of invoking the goddess in a “Kalasha” or pot. Finally Surachandrika accepted her mistake and started the annual Varalakshmi vratha and regained her lost prosperity and happiness.

Story-2: Once Lord Shiva and Parvati were playing a game of dice. When the last dice was thrown, Pravati claimed victory. Shiva disputed her claim and asked Chitranemi one of the “Shiva-Ganas” to be the arbiter. Chitranemi was partial to Shiva and therefore declared Shiva the winner although in reality Parvati had won. An infuriated Parvati cursed Chitranemi declaring that he would lose his place amongst the Shiva-Ganas and live a lifetime as a leper. Shiva, interceded on Chitranemi’s behalf and requested that Parvati forgive Chitranemi as this was the first time he had uttered a lie and that too on Shiva’s behalf. Parvati relented and told Chitranemi that he would be released from the curse the day he witnessed the “divine damsels” observing the Varalakshmi vratha. Chitranemi suffered from leprosy for long. He started living on the banks of the Tungabhadra, waiting for the day of his liberation. One day he saw a few divine damsels come to the banks of the Tungabhadra and asked them who they were and when he learnt that they were “divine damsels” who had come to the Tungabhadra to observe the Varalakshmi vratha. Chitranemi requested that he be allowed to watch the Vratha. As prophesied by Parvathi, Chitranemi was cured of his leprosy.

The Vratha: When the Sun is in Kataka (Cancer in the Zodiac), in the month of Shravana, on the Friday of Shukla Paksha (Bright fortnight) the Varalakshmi or VaraMahalakshmi vratha is performed. The goddess is invoked typically in a Kalasha or pot (silver, copper, brass). A mango leaf-bunch is placed around the mouth of the pot and a coconut smeared with turmeric is inserted into the mouth of the pot. Over this an icon/image of the goddess made of silver is placed. This is followed by the Shodasha-upachara (16 steps) and Ashtottara-shatanamavali (108 names) puja. There are several videos and books that detail the puja procedure.

  3. Hindu Gods and Godesses; Swami Harshananda; Ramakrishna Math, Mylapore, Chennai
  4. Sampradaya Vratha Puja Vidhi; A.R. Parthasarathi, Dr. Kethu Ramachandrashekar; GIRI Trading Agency Private Limited.