The kolu is the essence of Navaratri celebrations. Earlier, preparations for the kolu would begin months in advance. The dolls, wrapped in cotton rags and neatly stacked in huge wooden trunks, are carefully taken out, dusted, mended and sometimes, given a fresh coat of paint. Some artistically inclined women would craft a couple of new dolls for the occasion each year.
The tradition has been in existence for at least 500 years, from the reign of the Vijayanagar kings. Some of the inscriptions mention the Navaratri kolu. An old Marathi record at the Saraswathi Mahal library (Thanjavur) mentions the supply of dolls representing people belonging to 18 different castes for the Navaratri kolu. The kolu tradition, it is believed, was popular among the royal families of Thanjavur and Pudukkottai.
The kolu is not confined to India alone. It is followed in many Asian countries, especially Sri Lanka and Japan. In fact, the Japanese version of our Navaratri kolu is known as Hina Masturi.
The Navratri Kollu Festival commences on the Amavasya day of the month of Bhadrapada, the last day of Pitripaksha.Kollu means displaying.
On the Amavasya day after finishing the rituals, like offering `tarpana etc. the custom is, to keep the Kalash filled with rice, toor dal haldi sticks, betel leaves and nuts or mango leaves with a coconut on it.
The right muhurtam is chosen before placing the Kalash and the dolls for worship, with which the Kollu festival begins.
Normally the parents give bommai during the marriage marriage of their daughters and such dolls are called “Marapachi Bommai”. Marapachi is made from a special kind of wood which has medicinal value. From the day the married girl gets the Marapachi Bommai she starts collecting dolls and observes the ceremony annually.
The clay dolls displayed are mostly from mythological characters. All Gods and Goddesses of our Epics and Puranas are displayed on the tiers which are beautifully decorated and look spectacular and colourful. for example, `Garuda Vahana’ i.e. God Narayan taken in Garuda Vahan or vehicle is kept. One of the items exhibited is the Marriage Set called `Malam Talam’ i.e. the marriage procession of relations and friends led by musical players of clarionet (malam) and mridangam (talam).
Those days, houses were spacious, joint families were common and people had lots of leisure. Hence, the arrangements were grand and elaborate. Usually, a whole room was devoted for the kolu. The dolls were displayed on the kolupadis or steps made of wood and covered with a thick cloth. The number of steps was always an odd number — three, five, seven or nine. The more the steps, the merrier!
The Navratri Kollu is done by constructing wide tiers or steps in any number, maximum being nine. The number of tiers or steps should be in odd numbers, like, one, three, five and so on. One can erect nine steps too if space and time permits. Variety of dolls are displayed artistically and arranged beautifully on the steps.
The dolls were mostly mud icons of various gods and goddesses painted in bright colours. Some families displayed dolls made of rosewood, sandalwood and ivory.
A Ramayana set, a Dasavatara set, a set of musicians and the ubiquitous pot-bellied smiling Chettiar and his equally plump wife… these were most common in most arrangements! Many kolus also had a miniature kitchen — various utensils made of soapstone or brass, which were filled with grains and pulses. Then, there were fruits and vegetables made of mud or wood and painted… they would look almost.
The floor space on the sides and the front of the steps was landscaped to feature a village, gardens, parks and temples.
The most popular was the temple scenes. Sand, painstakingly gathered from the Marina, would be used to lay the narrow streets surrounding the temple. The mini-temple was either built of mud or bought. The temple invariably had an imposing gopuram. If it was a Murugan temple, it was placed on a small hillock. The temple had a mud tank in the front. A brass trough normally served as the tank.
Today, quite a few things have changed. Innovation and substitution appear to be the watchwords for the present-day kolus. The traditional wooden steps have vanished from most homes and some families now use iron kolupadis which can be converted into bookshelves after the event.
Many families build the steps out of big boxes and outsized dictionaries.
The dolls are not restricted to those of gods and goddesses. Now there are dolls dressed in traditional costumes of different Indian States and the countries.
The air-hostess dolls are often seen on display in the homes of foreign-returned families. Then there are postman dolls in his khaki uniform and with a mailbag, the doctor with his stethoscope, the shopkeeper with his wares. Designer kolus exhibit, besides dolls, colourful books, stamps, coins, medals, paintings, charts, toys and board games.
Fancy lighting and installations and computer graphics too are used as part of the decorations.
The floor is no longer limited to village scenes and temples as children are discouraged from bringing sand and clay in to the flat. Instead, events such as the general elections, the Kargil war and the Olympic games are featured.
A new development is the thematic kolu where the entire kolu, both on the steps and on the floor, revolves round a particular theme. India’s freedom struggle was a popular theme in1997, when the nation celebrated the golden jubilee of its Independence.
Another novel trend is the concept of `community kolus’. Many women, unable to keep kolu in their homes, join hands and put up a kolu in a common place.
Community kolus besides promoting team spirit and neighbourhood amity, also reflect the collective talent and imagination.
For children, the kolu provides a nine-day crash course on hard work, discipline and courtesy. The children do their bit… by keeping the room clean, inviting and serving guests.
Despite the Internet and various other forms of infotainment, the colourful kolu is adapting itself to the changing needs of the society.
Kolu festival lasts for nine days with arti, prayers Prasad daily mornings and evenings. During these nine days ladies are invited and offered haldi kumku with betel leaves with huts and fruits. In the morning sweets and evening `chundals’ i.e. different chanas are offered to the ladies.
Kollu festival days are for rejoicing when ladies dress up in their finery and ornaments and find an opt occasion to dress up specially their daughters.
On the ninth day, the day before the Vijay Dasami day, the tenth day of the Dussera, falls the Saraswati Puja. Goddess Saraswati is the Goddess of Learning and as such books musical instruments etc., are decorated with flowers and worshipped. Vijay Dasami or the Dussera Day, the last tenth day is the auspicious day when all fine arts like, dance, music, or any new venture in learning is begun. It is the `Learners’ Day.
A child beginning his first lessons of alphabets begins it today ceremoniously. Prayers are offered to Goddess Saraswati and her blessings sought. Token of Guru Dakshinas are also given to the respective Gurus.
On the tenth night after the ceremonial arti and prayers the, `Marapachi’ and the exhibits are packed carefully in cloth or paper and preserved for use the next year.
Vijay Dasami and Navratri are also the auspicious time for buying new clothes and feasting. Unlike other Vrats, there is no custom of fasting during Navratri Kollu.
What is that we should do during these days of the Navarathri festival?
We direct our Itchaa Sakti to direct our mind toward Divinity within. We apply our Kriya Sakti to conduct Dharmic Actions – unselfish service to the humanity. Finally, we turn our Jnaana Sakti to attain the Divine Self. Hindu Festivals and Celebrations constantly remind us our True Human Nature through symbolic messages. The purpose of the celebrations is not for external pleasures but for inward peace and tranquility.