Wednesday, October 1, 2008



Maiji's Kolu in 1978

. . . .is enjoyed by women and girls all over South India. Now is the time of the year to celebrate the bommai kolu (dolls arrangement). I went to see the bommais (dolls) on sale near Sri Kapali Temple, and was happy to see so many of them.

Click on the picture for an enlarged view

My first recollection of this nine-day festival is that a kolu would appear overnight in our pooja room like magic. Arranged on nine steps covered with a white cloth, the images of all the gods and goddesses, along with the family’s collection of curios, arranged artistically under a canopy of white cloth, edged with red and green frilled border, and decorated with rainbow coloured paper garlands, it would seem to us children like a magic show.

In a single night after we children were sent to bed, my mother with the help of my elder brother and sisters would have the show ready. For the rest of the 355 days these dolls and everything else were stored in my mother’s tallboys in my mother’s store room. During Navarathri in the evenings, my sister and I, dressed in our best pavadai uduppu (long skirt and blouse) were sent to neigbouring houses to invite the womenfolk there to visit our kolu and accept manjal kumkumam (auspicious objects). In the homes where they had also arranged kolu, we would be welcomed, seated on a pattupai,(silken mat) asked to sing a song, and finally treated to the sundal and any sweet prepared as neivedhiyam (sacred offering to the gods), along with vetrilai pakku (betel leaves and nuts), coconuts, and blouse pieces as gifts. We used to feel like VIP s, when we returned home with our loot. All the while my mother too would be doing the same to visitors at our homes who would have come to invite us. Those ten days were really fun for me and I enjoyed them thoroughly.

When I got married and set up my own home in Delhi, I was astonished to find that kolu was non-existent in the north. Very few families belonging to the south, about four or five had kolu. When my eldest daughter was one year old, I started the kolu with a handful of bommais, typical Delhi made ones – I thus introduced the festival of kolu to my neighbours. These dolls were sold in readiness for Diwali festival pooja, performed to welcome prosperity.

My first kolu was a very small one with just two steps, two feet long and one foot wide. I enjoyed this, and my husband also encouraged me no end. From that kolu, in a period of twenty years, my kolu grew in size and shape, decorated with all the frills my mother had, and also admired by one and all. I am not boasting, but my kolus were well appreciated, and I enjoyed readying them.

Come September, I would start planning for kolu. Apart from the seven steps, I enjoyed having some side shows on the floor, all prepared and made at home with the help of my children. One year it would be a small town with a temple with four towers in the centre, small shops selling things one sees in the towns, around the temple walls; small lanes with bullock carts. Sometimes it would be a hill temple with fields around, and the rich crop nodding their heads, (the crops were grown using fenugreek seeds) and a park with children playing.

One year in Pondicherry I made a model of the whole length of Rajpath of New Delhi, from the Secretariat to Indian Gate, with the lawns, the fountains, and all the buildings including the Parliament House. Everything was hand made with cardboard. Another year it was the seafront of Pondicherry with the sea and the waves, and the buildings on the seashore. Another year I made the map of India, marked the main cities with important buildings, and people dressed in the costumes of the regions.

After coming back to Delhi, I created theme-based sideshows like the Fairy Tales and Nursery Rhymes.

A week before kolu started I would be ready with my plans and start to prepare the hills, the fields and parks with loose earth carried in from outside by the bucketful. The mud was moulded by hand into various objects like walls, shops, huts, with windows and doors. Ice cream cups painted red were used as pots for plants and shrubs. My father-in-law took pleasure in teasing me that the whole room was now a dump. At the same time he would be the first to admire all the handiwork I had done. And gradually we had collected a large number of bommais, all big and small from Trichy, Chingleput and Pondicherry, including the famous Bunrutti bommais.

Yesterday at the shops I found that everything I made then was available readymade – including plots of grass!

My centerpiece was a Lakshmi, about a foot tall, sitting on a lotus flower, six inches high and size of a dinner plate. Two elephants, big, white ones stood on either side of the Goddess with a garland each held in its trunk.

My last kolu was in 1978 in Delhi. Somehow with elders no more, and the older children leaving home, and us moving to a smaller house dampened my enthusiasm. My only regret now is I never thought of taking any photos of the kolu in Pondicherry – they were worth it. My consolation is that my last Kolu in 1979 was photographed and published in the Indian Express newspaper of New Delhi. The kolu had fewer dolls that year, only those that had escaped an attack by white ants, caused by a leaking pipe in the storeroom. I managed to salvage many by repainting and touching them up.

At the kolu in Trichy, with newly bought bommais, I had also made a park with a pond in which fish and swans were swimming and a stork waiting on the edge, as though ready to catch a fish. My first guest was the Collector’s wife. We were meeting for the first time, and both were nervous to start the conversation. Finally she asked me “Do you have a cook?” The question was put in Tamil with only the word cook in English. Before I could say No. my four year old, Viji, came out saying, “Yes, we have one, standing on one leg!” and pointed to the stork. Poor girl – she thought our visitor was asking for a stork. In Tamil the word for stork is ‘kokku’ which sounds like ‘cook’. Anyway that broke the ice and conversation flowed easily.

Now all my dolls are decorating the kolus of my friends and relatives, to whom I gave them away. Only two dolls, a Lakshmi and a Saraswathi, more than 50 years old, remain at Raji’s place – a reminder of the days gone by.


Jen Kumar said...

Maiji aunty,

Amazing story. It was like a movie for me, eating popcorn through reading your post! I hung on every word. Thank you for posting this.
As an American who spent two years in Chennai, I was taken by the Golu displays and Navarathri as a whole and have been celebrating it as such here in US, while I was single and even now as I am married. I wish I could have seen your golus. I would have been awestruck. The spirit of golu is something I have not experienced in any other setting. Truly unique. I loved your stories as a small girl. Would have really enjoyed that. The houses and scenes you had created over the years would have been breathtaking. Your description sets me in front of your displays with eyes full of awe and wonder. Golu helps adults be creative and imaginative.. like a child... it's so amazing. I just set up our golu for this year and it seems to be the most beautiful yet!! My past golus are in the slideshow
Can't wait to upload for this year!

Hope you can stop by my blog you may like some of my stories about Navarathri..

What do you do with fenugreek (methi) seeds? Do they sprout? What is the process for that?

Again romba nandri. You're narratives have made my day brighter!!

anbudan, Jennifer

Anonymous said...

Hi. This post is really nice. In my house we don't celebrate navratri, but we often get to visit other families in either my building, or those who are friends of my parents. So I have been seeing the golu for quite some time now, and it is indeed a pleasure to watch the different settings in each house. This year I saw a football stadium set up in my neighbors house.

Nice read...

kallu said...

Lovely post- this really seems like the golu spirit. All the efforts and collecting and planning over the years. Gladdens the spirit.

Viji said...

Ma, this was total nostalgia . I have been re creating all the gorgeous idols in my mind ; their colours , their contours was always my favourite time of the year with the weather in Delhi also so wonderful, the perfume of the jasmine flowers on the vine and the delving into the "perria petti" to take out all the kolu paraphernilia that had been packed away so lovingly the previous year. And the excitement of making the new paper garlands , wondering what exotic colour scheme you would come up with each time. Nothing , nothing can come close to the charm and beauty of your celeberation. It had everyhting from religious fervour and cultural education to social niceties being observed. Memories that will forever be mused upon .

Blogeswari said...

Just read Raji's and came here via Desipundit.. Your post is taking me to Madras days with 9 golu padis, chittis+ amma decorating the padis, akka and I helping 'em with the dolls, pattupavadai, sundal + paatu class on vijayadasami day

Anonymous said...

Lovely, Maiji. If only there had been photographs!

Gowri Mohanakrishnan said...

Oh for a laddoo and some mixture!
Maiji hasnt mentioned the amazing laddoos she made for Navaratri or the 'mixture' - I can close my eyes and feel the taste of that laddooo in my mouth.
To each her own, I guess, and my memories of Navarathri are, at this moment, not quite spiritual!!(or even ritual)

Maiji said...

Thank you everyone.

Thank you, Jennifer, for hosting my post on Desi Pundit.
Jennifer, it is a nice feeling to see that you are aware of the bommai kolu festival and all it takes to make it a success. I am sure your efforts at home are equally appreciated and admired by every visitor. Thanks and wishing you all the best.

As for the fenugreek sprouting - take a fistful of fenugreek dried in the sun for a few hours. Then sow them in prepared, slightly wet, moist plot of earh. Sprinkle a handful of water daily on it. In a couple of days the sprouts are sure to come up.

Anonymous said...

Very nice to read your blog on KOLU . My mother indulged
in it like Maiji used to when my sister was young say for 3 or 4
years. She used to enjoy dressing in her new pavadai, with flowers in
the hair etc.I remember visiting neighbours for sundal with a
group of my boy friends.I used to enjoy the various sundals ,plus
could stay outdoors with my friends about an hour or two late than
usual. In fact sundal was the side dish for dinner too.

Lakshmi Bharadwaj said...

thank you for sharing your memories. lovely post, and a happy dussera to you!! Hope u have many more lovely navrathri's in the days to come.

She said...

I am a north indian so maybe I haven't been able to appreciate the tradition as much, but I am just overwhelmed to see this blog. Its great to see you write and there is so much that you can share with us. Today, when kids usually dont live with their grandparents or dont have the time or inclination to talk to them, its great to see you on this medium where you are able to connect with so many youngsters.

mona said...

Dear Maiji

Really love reading your blog, I am amazed at your creativity whether it is your golu or knitting things for your g. g child.
My question is: despite having a large family and all its requirements, you found time to do all these things in a unique way.
How did you prepare for it? How did you organize yourself so that everything went smoothly?

We have a lovely golu every yeat, but I am lost when it comes to preparing food or snacks for guests. I get overwhelmed. Any tips ? HOw must I plan this event so that it goes smoothly and I don't sacrifice time spent with family, or shortcuts because I concentrate on the golu and visitors.

Please help/ anticipating your response

Ashok said...

Dear Maiji, as always your little anecdotes make some truly engrossing reading... what amazes me most are your powers of memory, the way u are able to recall the details of the various "Kolus" u designed is simply amazing..thank u for sharing various simple but interesting moments of your life with us... i look forward to some more.

Unknown said...

These are absolutely fantastic!! Thank you so much!
Return Gifts | Navratri Return Gifts

Anita Moorthy said...

Hi Lalitha Athai,
What a lovely post. Thank you so much. It's brought all the memories of Golu to me! My mother used to set up golu every year, and we used to make a "park". We used to soak mustard seeds and get them to sprout. That was the gr`ss in the 'park'. Ah those memories!