Golu, the doll display of Navarathri festival

Srinivasan Balakrishnan

Navaratri, the festival of ‘Nau’ (nine) ‘rathri’ (nights) that begins the day after Mahalaya Amavasya (new moon), is celebrated by different names in different parts of India. In the Eastern belt it is the most popular Durga Puja; it is Ram Lila in the Northern & Western belt; among the Indian Nepalis it is ‘Dashain’, the ten-day festival; so also Dushera in various parts, Laxmi Puja in certain parts, and Navarathri in South India. One festival but many names and varied celebrations; that is Incredible India!

In Tamil Nadu, as part of Navrathri festivity, dolls display is arranged at homes. This is called Golu. Traditional collection of dolls, particularly clay dolls, handed down from one generation to the next and so on is preserved as a valuable treasure and displayed proudly on this occasion. Some dolls could be century old! Days before the festivity begins, the treasure is brought down carefully from the loft where it is preserved in boxes, wrapped in old cloth and paper. Steps are arranged in odd number, generally 9 (indicating 9 nights) or downwards for the display. Dolls are arranged in the descending order of rank – top rows are reserved for images of Gods; then come demi-gods/angels/ saints; next humans, then animals/birds, insects and finally plants, according to the level of senses. So, at the lowest level, a mini park is created, which is the standard practice and easy to create with germinating mustard and fenugreek.

 Doll sets depicting various activities are sold for readymade display, like incarnations of gods/goddesses, wedding scene, groom’s procession, music concert, cricket and other games, deity procession, vendors and market, school, musicians/band set, zoo, and as per that year’s trend. There are a few ‘clinics’ in Chennai’s Mylapore area for mending/repairing old dolls. They are called doll doctors and charge hefty fees. The sentimental attachment to old dolls is encashed by these ‘doctors’ who are much in demand during Navarathri season, as they are a rare breed and few in numbers. 

Navarathri / Golu is essentially a ladies/girls festival; men have to just carryout the errands. The lady of the house goes out inviting neighbours, relatives & friends, flaunting her silk sari and gold ornaments; now with Whatsapp this job has become easier but lacks the glitter. The invited girls and women folk sing devotional songs sitting in front of the Golu display, as it is considered a divine place associated with Goddesses. Traditional oil lamps (kuthuvilakku) add grace to Golu. Invitees are served snacks and suku-malli coffee or paanagam to drink, as per the budget, and are sent off with auspicious items like blouse bit, kumkum, turmeric, betel leaf, plantain, coconut, small mirror, comb, and a gift item, usually SS tiffin box (the most loved item by women folk, my wife being no exception), even sari for special invitees. It all depends upon the household budget. And it is the lady of the house who is the finance minister! 

An integral part of Golu is the ‘sundal’ prasad that is invariably offered to all those visiting the golu. It is nothing but boiled grams – greengram, chick pea, horse gram, pea, etc., – with a dash of asafoetida, grated coconut and seasoning; grated mango gives a distinct flavor and taste. This is just right for the prevailing rainy weather; gives a filled up feeling but digests easily too.  Naughty boys, though not invited, go from house to house asking ‘golu irukka?’ (Do you have golu display?), just for the sake of sundal but pretending to be interested in the doll display. These little rascals would even rank the houses as per the taste of sundal prasad offered.

Temples also arrange golu in their premises. They are indeed mighty displays with life-size images that would run for meters, essentially based on Hindu mythology. The deity is also made up in various makeups / avatars and is taken out in procession. You would need thousand eyes to grasp the divine beauty. Tirupati Balaji temple’s Navrathri Brahmotsavam ranks as a very grand celebration.

Even banks, shops, petrol bunks and other establishments put up golus at their premises.  Petty traders spring up on the pavements displaying traditional clay dolls for sale while big doll stores display their collections in a massive golu style gallery. Newspapers, ladies’ magazines and neighbourhood papers/associations organize golu competition and award prize to the best / innovative / self-created displays.

Being a ladies special festival, it is no wonder Navrathri is dedicated to the three principal Goddesses, Sakthi, Lakshmi and Saraswathi. Three nights each are devoted to Sakthi, Goddess of Power/Victory, then to Lakshmi, Goddess of Wealth, and Saraswathi, Goddess of Learning/Wisdom. As you can see, all these three resources are essential for a mortal to succeed in life. So these Goddesses are generously propitiated during Navarathri. The ninth day is celebrated as Saraswathi pujai / Ayudha Pujai day. Vidhyarambh, initiation of tiny-tots into education, is organized at home/temples. Schools take advantage of this sentiment and mint money with new admissions of kids at various levels – daycare, pre-KG, LKG & UKG.  Books and notebooks of children and the pen of office goers are placed at puja mandap at home and worshipped on this day. The next day children take out the books and give a symbolic reading. Ninth day is also the day of Ayudha Puja when machinery/implements are worshipped. In offices/factories, collection is made from all for common puja. Hence newspapers don’t come the next day - a much deserved day’s rest for the men and machinery of the Fourth Estate. But the so-called atheist newspapers do come out for the sake of principle but their distribution and door delivery are paralysed on this day.

Fortunately, the public pandal worship culture has not pervaded into Navrathri festivity but Bengalis and Biharis living here do put up a few Durga Puja pandals in the areas of their concentration. I only hope this alien culture does not become viral in Tamil Nadu as in the case of Ganesh chathurthi public pandals which are real nuisance and pollutants.

It is interesting to note that Japan also celebrates a similar dolls display festival. Called “Hina-matsuri“, this cultural event of Japan, celebrated on the 3rd of March every year, is also known as Girls’ / Dolls Festival.

As the showcase at our home by itself is like a permanent Golu, we have desisted from hosting a golu all these years. But there is a desire to hold golu at least once to make my wife a proud Golu host in shimmering silk saris, one per evening for nine evenings. The only drawback is sometimes her sundal recipe could turn out to be disastrous and the little rascals could give single star rating! Further I would be the lone victim forced to eat it for days to come, stored in fridge!

                …. krishnanbala2004@yahoo.co.in / 9840917608 Whatsapp