One of the most important Hindu festivals, Dasara or Dussehra as it is also known, comes to an end today. Observed during the holy 9-days or Navratri that typically falls in the months of either September or October, the festival is an ode to Goddess Durga. She is the epitome of power and “Shakti” and worshipped in multiple forms during this festival, that essentially celebrates the victory of good over evil.
Right from Manali in the north to Mysore in the south, Dasara is celebrated with grandeur and fervour and is steeped in customs that are as unique as interesting. It is not an understatement to say that the color and creativity exhibited during the festival known as Durga Pujo in Kolkata is magical. With Durga pandals all over, the city transforms itself into a sea of celebration. In Delhi and other parts of North India, Dasara is synonymous with RamLeela in that it is believed that it was on the 10th day of the festival, Rama returned victorious after defeating the demon king Ravana.
Just like the rest of India, Dasara in South India is an opulent affair wherein Goddess Durga is worshipped with fervour in all Her forms which not only include Lakshmi and Saraswati but also material forms that include tools, weapons and learning aids like books and musical instruments.
A unique tradition in parts of Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu is the display of dolls during the period of Navratri. A wonderful way to preserve our traditions, heritage and customs, the arrangement and worship of these dolls over the 10-day period has a deeper connotation than just being a religious practice.
There are different religious beliefs associated with the practice of keeping dolls. Some believe that the practice is a way of invoking the Gods into the house during this time. There is another belief that all Gods during Navratri bequeathed their powers to Goddess Durga for Her to conquer the demon Mahisha and became dolls sans any power. Hence it is customary to worship dolls during this period.
At the onset, there is a ‘kalasha’ placed which is normally a silver or brass pot that is filled with water and worshipped with turmeric, vermilion and a “gajje vastra”. A coconut with a pair of betel leaves on either side is placed and the pot is kept in a plate of rice for the period of ten days. Along with these the two most important wooden dolls known as the “Pattada Gombe” is placed.
These dolls are actually a couple that is gifted to a bride and taken with her when she moves into her new house. It is given as a tradition and is worshipped during Dasara along with the pair bought by her mother in law when she was a newlywed. The Pattada Gombe are decorated days before the festival with new clothes, ornaments and suitable decorations.
After the kalasha and Pattada gombe, statues of Gods such as Shiva, Vishnu, Goddess Lakshmi and Saraswati are displayed after which comes the ‘Dasha Avatar’ and then the dolls of kings and queens.
Ready-made sets that depict daily social life such as the occasion of marriage, children playing in the park, band processions etc are popular. Arrangements depicting stories from the Panchatantra and mythological events like Lord Krishna lifting the Govardhana mountain as well as scenes from the Ramayana and Mahabharata are commonly displayed.
The next few steps are dedicated to rustic scenes such farmers working in the fields, women folk drawing water from the wells and the like. Different members of the society such as priests, cobblers and potters are also displayed.
Most households display a play park at the end, replete with greenery, toy animals, birds and houses. Ragi is sprouted in small containers and is made to grow days in advance to form greenery for the park. It is watered carefully to prevent drying.
While there are no hard and fast rules for the display of dolls, the hierarchy is designed such that it is a reflection of our society along with its numerous members and depicts the role and occupation each one of us have to play in society.
Earlier dolls were made of clay and even cloth but now there is a wide variety of wooden, paper mache as well as glass items that is available. While it is a time-consuming activity, there are lots of women who are keen to keep the tradition of Gombe Habba alive. It is a time to unleash your creativity and several households decide on a theme each year around which the dolls are displayed.
The tradition is also prevalent as Bomma Kolu (Golu) in Tamil Nadu and Bommala Koluvu in Andhra Pradesh.
Apart from the religious significance, it is firmly believed that this arrangement reflects human evolution, hence lower forms of life like plants, animals and insects are kept below and the evolution chain is continued upwards. It is a time for family bonding as well as for friends and extended family to get together and spend quality time while ensuring that such traditions which date back thousands of years are not lost in the passage of time.
Click here to read my post on other Indian festivals.