Navaratri Golu – a time when the dolls come to life ©Sangeeta Venkatesh

It’s the auspicious period of the Sharad Navaratri, also known as the Maha Navaratri. It’s the time when Goddess Durga – the invincible warrior goddess descends to be with her devotees.  Durga Devi -the fierce form of Adi Shakti, is said to be the primordial energy, responsible for creation and also the functioning of life is an important part of most Indian households.

The three feminine energies- Lakshmi, Durga and Saraswati

Golu- Hopping“: There are deep spiritual significances associated with these days, but in addition, these 9 days also have social significance where women visit each other’s homes in their best finery to receive haldi-kumkum, thamboolam, the mandatory sundal, chant and pray together for the well-being of their homes.  In southern India, the tradition of assembling dolls on steps or ‘padis’ is awaited eagerly as enthusiastic family members unpack the dolls that were kept away in the lofts and lovingly dust and arrange them in different themes. And then the series of ‘Golu – hopping’ begins.

My eco-friendly Thamboolam from 2019

Marapatchi Bommai: Every family has a prized set of dolls that have come down through generations and more often than not it is the ‘Marapatchi Bommais’ or wooden dolls that are an indispensable part of Navaratri Golu/Kolu arrangements. I got mine from my paternal grandmother during my wedding. These dolls are generally made in a small town close to Tirupati, Andhra Pradesh called Settigunta. The dolls are made from either Neem or Country wood and can be found in various sizes. Red sandal wood or raktachandan wood is also popularly used as these are resistant to white ants and fire and are smaller than the other Marapachi dolls. The dolls are considered to be the representation of Lord Venkateshwara of Tirupati and his consort Padmavati Devi and these are dressed up elaborately.

Marapatchi/ Wooden Dolls; P.C: Ramalakshmi Srinivasan

The other traditional dolls are made from clay, but dolls made from papier mache, wood, marble, porcelain and other materials have made their way giving richness to the arts and crafts.

My mother had a quite a collection, but due to the frequent transfers during my father’s tenure in the army, these were lost or damaged along the way. So, I started afresh, after I got married but only when we decided to ‘settle down’ in Bangalore that I could make a serious attempt at investing in a series of steps and the traditional toys or ‘Golu Bommais’, as they are known. Navaratri golu steps are odd in number – that is 5, 7 or 9 and are arranged on the Mahalaya Amavasya or new moon day. Thereafter when the Devi Paksha starts, the Navaratri house-visits start with the beautiful chanting of Lalita Sahasranamam, Ayigiri Nandini verses and other sholkas extolling the Devi.

Installation of the Kalasham: While there were traditional rules in keeping the dolls, these days innovation plays a great role. In the early days, the first step usually had the ‘kalasham’ and smaller dolls of vegetation. And as you went up the ladder, you go through other forms of the animal kingdom. Then tableaux of humans and their activities are placed. Above them are saints and other tableaux of scenes from mythology. The last step usually has the forms of the Devi and/or the Gods that form the Trinity along with their consorts.

This order represents how we can rise upwards towards divinity. It also represents how Goddess Durga assimilates the power of the divine, human, animal, vegetable and mineral worlds. Indeed, these are not mere dolls but the thought process and narrative are embedded in deep philosophy on one hand and on the other in the mundane.

The Silver Kalasham flanked by the ‘Shanka’ & ‘Chakra’ lamps

A kalasha, is a metal pot with a large base and a narrow mouth, large enough to hold a coconut and is filled with water when placed for worship. The coconut is surrounded by mango leaves.

While there are ‘Golu competitions’ in India, the Indian diaspora around the world is also not left behind. This year, due to the pandemic, there are virtual ‘darshans; as well as competitions planned across the world. Speaks a lot about the enthusiasm Indians have for their festive seasons.

An elaborate Golu display; Picture Courtesy: Viji Kannan

The Puducherry clay dolls: The clay dolls from Puducherry are said to be special. The clay obtained from the Sankaraparani River is supposed to be of a fine quality strong enough to make even big dolls. The clay is kneaded with hands and feet to make it supple and then cast into moulds. They are then sun-dried, fired in a kiln and then painted in bright colours. So next time we buy these dolls, do remember the tedious process, so that we do not haggle with them.

The G I registered Thanjavur/ Tanjore Dolls: The dancing dolls (thalai aatti bommai) of Thanjavur that are regularly seen in most golu displays have the honour of being included in the Government of India, Geographical Indication Registry in 2009. The Raja- Rani pair are a popular inclusion in every golu.

The GI registered Raja-Rani Tanjore dolls; P.C: Internet

I present a photo-essay of some dolls from my collection and some of my friends. I hope you enjoy the accompanying photo-essay.

The Vishnu Dashavatharam

The Dasavatharam dolls – or ten incarnations of Lord Vishnu- are ubiquitous in all Golu displays. The Lalita Sahasranamam says that the ten incarnations sprang out of the ten fingernails of the Goddess.

A Lakshmi-Hyagriva vigraha that is a favourite in my collection.

These two steps show the (clockwise) antics of Lord Krishna stealing the butter, Lord Krishna on a banyan leaf as envisioned by Rishi Markendeya, two marble dolls of Lord Krishna, Krishna with the Gopikas of Nandagaon, Satya Narayana Puja, a wooden Ganesha idol, and a representation of the ‘Gajendra Moksham’ story.

The deity Skanda – also known as Kartikeya or Subramanya, picture courtesy: Swetha Sundar
Brothers in Arms – Lord Ganesha and Lord Kartikeya; Picture Courtesy: Swetha Sundar
Astha Lakshmi ; Picture Courtesy : Swetha Sundar

The following are the eight forms of Lakshmi or Astha Lakshmi.

  1. Adi Lakshmi – the primal mother goddess
  2. Dhana Lakshmi – goddess of material wealth
  3. Dhanya Lakshmi – goddess of good harvest and grains
  4. Gaja Lakshmi – goddess of power and strength
  5. Santana Lakshmi – goddess of off-springs and progeny
  6. Veera Lakshmi – goddess of courage and strength
  7. Vijaya Lakshmi – goddess of victory
  8. Aishwarya Lakshmi – goddess of comfort and luxury
Andal, the divine maiden; P.C: Sakunthala Rajmohan
Chakrath Azhwar/ Sudarshana Chakra; P.C: Sakunthala Rajmohan
Nitya Kalyana Perumal; P.C: Sakunthala Rajmohan

Dolls such as those of Andal, Chakrath Azhwar and the LakshmiVaraha Nitya Kalyan Perumal dolls can largely be found in Sri Vaishnava households as they are an intricate part of their Sampradayam.

The Mysuru Dasara Tableaux – Picture Courtesy: Ramalakshmi Srinivasan

The Mysore Dasara celebrations are legendary and was started by the 14th century Vijayanagar Empire and was then continued by the Wodeyar Dynasty. On Vijaya Dashami, the jumbu savari or the tradional Dasara procession on the streets of Mysore is a huge attraction.

A 5-step Golu display @ home
Another Display; P.C: Swetha Sundar
The seer of Kanchi Kamakoti Peetham – the Maha Periyava Jagadguru Shri Chandrasekharendra Saraswati Swamigal; P. C: Sweta Sundar
A Village Scene; P.C: Viji Kannan
Some modern elements toousing toys that belonged to my boys!

A Labour of Love: The Golus are a labour of love for many women and their families. Says Swetha Sundar, a poet, writer and an artist ” We look forward to this 9 days- 9 nights journey into wonderland and the realm of stories , deities and fantasy. That is what Golu is for us – a whole body and mind detox. One ends up feeling energised and stimulated at the end of the nine days and gain victory or Vijaya over your senses on Vijayadashami.”

Viji Kannan, who’s imagination and efforts show every year says, “Kolu not only only means feeling the Devi’s divine presence, it is also an occasion that brings together the energy, time, help, enthusiasm, teamwork and creativity provided by all my family members to display the rich, colorful, historical and cultural heritage of India through different themes every year and that truly provides humbling experience.”

Wishing everyone a safe, healthy and happy Navaratri. The Goddess will show us the way.

Acknowledgements: I thank all the ladies who have been credited in the pictures for sharing the pictures. The rest of the pictures are mine.

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9 thoughts on “Navaratri Golu – a time when the dolls come to life ©Sangeeta Venkatesh

  1. Such elaborately well explained about Golu was totally new for me but very intersting to read the whole article .The pictures put in everything more clearly.Happy Navratri to you and your family Chechi 🙏🏻❤️ thanks.May this festive spread happiness and positivity among all🤗🥰

    Liked by 1 person

  2. What an incredibly interesting and informative post, Sangeeta. I had only heard about Golus but had no idea, whatsoever, about the significance or the history. You’ve made it very lively by interspersing the stunning pictures of the various Golus and giving us a detailed insight into the tradition. Many thanks. Happy Navratri. May the Shakti ,help us all to win our battles.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. This was such an interesting and comprehensive read on Golus! I have been visiting Golus every year at friends’ homes but actually understood the significance now. Had no idea that some of the dolls were even heirlooms passed down from generations or that there are Golu competitions too. Really enjoyed reading this.


  4. I look forward to your writing on different topics that are very informative with beautiful pics relevant to the topics. Your dedication to read, research and bringing it in your writing Beautifully to the world is very inspiring.

    Thanks for giving me an opportunity to contribute with few pics.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. What a fascinating and interesting read, I got acquainted with Golu only recently but this post explained so much about the dolls,their origin and history .Thank you for this


  6. What a fascinating and interesting read, I got acquainted with Golu only recently but this post explained so much about the dolls,their origin and history .Thank you for this


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