Navratri Golu celebrations in Chennai’s Mylapore: History and significance of Navratri Golu during Dussehra

The big biscuit tins and wooden planks would morph into a ‘golu’ display stand. (File photo: IE)

By Asha Balakrishnan

Navratri 2020: The year 2020 has been extremely overwhelming for all of us. A striking effect of this pandemic has been the social distancing and not getting to socialise in person with our family and friends as before. With Navaratri round the corner, it got me thinking how this year’s festivities would unravel. While each region celebrates this festival in different ways, my region celebrates this Devi festival with an arrangement of dolls called ‘Kolu or Golu’ signifying the Darbar of Devi.

Navratri 2020: Happy childhood memories

The very name “Navaratri” evokes powerful childhood memories in me. What strikes me the most about these memories is that not one of them is materialistic but most of them are about social bonding.

With festive time closer, my mind is wandering around Mylapore, an affluent neighbourhood famous for sacred sites and a cultural centre in Madras. Festivals are interwoven into the life of Mylapore and navaratri is no exception. It is in these vacations that I have built many cherish worthy memories which are now my emotional cushions. If you are a person who believes in vibrations and positive energy of a place, then Mylapore is one such divine place. The thought of this magical place beckons me to relive and celebrate my childhood Dussehra vacation and immortalise them in this column.

Navratri 2020: Dussehra vacations

Growing up in Bangalore, Dussehra vacation was something I looked forward to during my school years. Like to many, vacations meant no regular routine and festivals meant food and fun but I looked forward to the time with my extended family. The last day of mid-term would be the Kannada exam that would end by 10.30 a.m and my train to my grandparents home in Madras, the Brindavan express would be at 1.20p.m. This was an annual highlight — a solo trip where my dad would put me onboard and my grandfather would pick me up at Madras Central and the next 15 days would be at thatha-paati’s (grand parents) home in Kutcheri road, Mylapore.

At home, a few days before Navratri, after dusting and cleaning the whole home, the elders would be busy in the kitchen and in their noon day siesta time, they would climb the attic and pull out biscuit tins, planks and clay dolls. I would zealously wait down looking to unwrap the dolls covered in old clothes and newspapers. The musty smell that came with the wrappings remains fresh in my mind even today. The toys were old heirlooms which the family inherited from one generation to another. The dolls would be cleaned and if need be given a touch-up or repainted.

Navratri golu: What does Golu mean and how do you dress a Dasara doll?

The big biscuit tins and wooden planks would morph into a ‘golu’ display stand. The square tins would hold the wooden plank and thus 11 steps were formed which almost covered half of paati’s room on the ground floor. The whole arrangement would be draped with thatha’s veshti (white dhoti) and pinned with crepe ribbons. All the clay dolls and porcelain dolls would be arranged on the steps by elders symbolising ascension of spirituality over materialism, so the Gods would be at the top and the material world would be at the bottom, but only after placing the auspicious kalasham (holy pot) signifying the presence of Devi .

Why is Navratri golu celebrated?

My role, every year, was to set up the park on the ground below the mandatory steps. It was a joy for me to remove the toys from my wicker basket, sourced from the makeshift shops around the nearby teppakulam (temple pond). Tiny chairs, tiny figurines, miniature coconut trees, hand pump, homes would all be landscaped with the beach sand and the soaked ragi (millets) was sprinkled which by the third day would add beauty with their lush micro-greens and give a lawn effect.

The roads were laid with used coffee grounds which would be collected and dried before and match sticks would be used to make a fence. It was always so much fun, as a child, to build this beautiful park, leaving me with a sense of pride to flaunt my masterpiece. Just reminiscing and writing about this reminds me how important it is to create festival traditions that establish such positive memories.

In the morning, the pooja rituals were done by the elder ladies; snacks for the invitees would be made in the kitchen like sundal (seasoned legumes) and some finger foods for kids like kai-suttu murukku, thattai (savouries)and laddus.

Evening I would go around with my aunt to visit homes to view others golu arrangements, while mami and paati would receive the guests at home. It was fun hoarding sundal from one home to another with small token gifts for us little girls.

It was also mandatory for us to visit the nearby Kapali koil, to participate in the festival. The whole area around the temple would be festive and matching it on ground , around teppakulam and mada veedhi (The lanes around temple), where hawkers selling traditional mann bommais (clay dolls) and other small items. The regular shops like Srividya, Giri’s, Sukra’s, Vijaya stores, Ambika would be doing brisk business selling flowers, pooja and gift items.

I would walk with elders through the narrow streets to reach the Kapali temple and praying to God was the last thing on my mind. I was more besotted by the festive atmosphere — the peacocks and the golu at the temple and the decorated deities were a visual feast. After the darshan we would sit and enjoy the cultural concert and walk back home with sundal in our hands.

What can be more special for a child than to have delicious food, fun and token gifts during various golu visits. The bonding time at relatives and friends’ places are all the rich memories that I would hoard as I returned home, again on Brindavan Express. That was my childhood navaratri. A couple of years when I didn’t make it to Madras, I ended up in Mysore Dussehra with my parents.

Navratri 2020: Time for Virtual Golu Tours?

Years later, when my daughter and son were born, I started the tradition of keeping golu. Living in a multi- cultural condominium, this pan Indian festival which charmingly links religions, rituals, social and cultural traditions has given my children a lot more memories and exposure to different cultures. Festivals, besides being an occasion to gather and socialise with family and friends over food and fun, for me is to pass on the baton of our rich culture and tradition to my children to assimilate, absorb and bring a smile on their face.

This pandemic festive time with the new normal, things are going to be different. Maybe virtual golu tours and social media wishes to compensate for the social gatherings? Given all, we must take solace in the environmental recovery of fewer carbon footprints, clean roads, clear skies, breathable environments while recalling the whole bunch of memories and keeping the tradition alive with digital vibes.

(Asha Balakrishnan is a storyteller by passion, with varied interests including reading, organic gardening, yoga, travelling, blogging, and art and craft. Views expressed are personal.)

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