Navarathri Golu - The South Indian festival of Arranging Dolls

Navarathri is more special for me than other important festivals like Diwali or Pongal (Makara Sankranthi) as I get to do a lot during Navarathri esp. arranging the Navarathri Golu. Kolu (or Bommai Golu) is the arrangement of dolls and several figurines in steps that may be 3,5,7,9 or 11 in number. This is primarily celebrated in Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh & Karnataka

Navarathri means 9 nights. It is the celebration of the Trinity Goddesses – Parvathy, Lakshmi and Saraswathi. It ends with Dusshera aka Saraswathi Puja and Vijayadasami. In the northern states of India esp. Gujarat it’s more of a Dance and Music festival with Dandiya Raas, Garbha Dance etc. But in southern states it’s a d├ęcor and music festival. It’s been an incredible experience always. Arranging the Golu, inviting people to visit the Golu, dressing up kids as Lord Krishna and Gopika, sharing ‘sundal’- a preparation of legumes like green peas – a specialty snack of Navarathri, singing the classical Carnatic songs, its all such a great festival. It requires lots of patience and passion as well to unpack the dolls, fix the steps, arrange the dolls, entertain the guests for the whole 9 days, repack the dolls and store them properly to prevent breakage, because most are terracotta dolls.
When my mom started keeping Golu when I was a kid we started with 3 steps, that too managed with trunk boxes and tables etc. Then we proceeded to 5 steps and then as we collected several dolls we bought the Kolu stand and here is our Kolu with 7 steps plus a few arrangements on the side. Though Golu dolls online shopping can be done, visiting the artisans, touching & feeling the bommai is a special thing. But golu steps online purchase is a good idea though!
Navarathri Golu bommai arrangement in 7 steps

Our culture is more oriented towards story telling and art based passing-on of information. That's why a lot of temple sculptures, paintings etc than documents or books. The Golu is to tell the stories of our Gods to kids by narrating  with dolls. (Something typical we do till date with any toys or dolls - enacting Barbie & Ken's wedding with dolls or race car driving by pushing Hotwheels cars). Why village scenes? Again story telling - talking about farming, marriage, buying groceries (Chettiar bommai), stories & legends of Gods and finally stand-alone sculptures of Gods themselves for praying.

Do every south Indian household celebrate navaratri by arranging dolls? No. So why do some people keep Kolu and some don't? Being a traditional festival, its basis is on caste system. Stories of Gods was important only to people whose caste had their occupation associated with God. The castes associated with war or business weren't doing this. Obviously it's a thing of past and now whoever can do it does it because it's fun to do it but it's a too much work also! Which would also explain that dolls of cricket & musical troupe is all a very modern addition.

It's Navaratri (nava + rathri) which leads to Vijayadasami (Dusshera), like steps to reach something. What sculptures in which step? Again story telling. You talk about everyday life in lower steps and move on to  magical stories of Gods in middle steps and just sculptures of Gods for prayer  in the top steps. Number of steps is just decided by the number of dolls they have and the height of the house itself!

Yes. Each festival is dedicated to a particular God. Krishna Jayanthi, Hanumath Jayanthi, Diwali for Krishna (south)/Rama (north). Likewise, Navaratri is meant for all female deities - Lakshmi, Saraswati, Parvati & all their reincarnations.
Navarathri Bommai Golu / Bommala Koluvu

Navarathri Golu - Annamalai & Unnamulai Ammai

Let me show you it all step by step. Starting from the first step. The first step generally has figurines of Gods and Goddesses. At the centre is Lord Shiva holding Lord Ganesha aka Pillaiyaar and beside him is his consort Goddess Parwathi holding Lord Murugan aka Karthikeyan. A typical family picture! Beside them is Lord Buddha and then a breastfeeding mother (who I choose to place along with the Gods). To the other side are Gandhiji with his 3 monkeys and Lord Rama, Sita and Lakshmana. The 3 monkeys denote see no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil as Gandhiji instructions.
In the second step are Dakshinamurthy and Annamalaiyar and Unnamulaiyammai. Dakshinamurthy is Lord Shiva who is an ascetic. He sits south faced under a tree. South is Dakshin so Dakshinamurthy. He is flanked by 4 rishis – saints. Beside Dakshinamurthy are Annamalaiyar and Unnamulaiyammai, yet other names of Lord Shiva and his consort Parwathi with the Saiva Nalvar. The little figurine beneath is Lakshmi Hayagreevar – the horse faced incarnation of Lord Vishnu who is a specialty God for knowledge and wisdom. 
On the third step are 3 different scenes. The first scene is Lord Krishna with his wife Rukmini and childhood friend Kuselan. Kuselan aka Sudama is a father of 27 kids who is highly affected by poverty. Well, what would you expect out of a guy who has 27 kids.!!! Since Krishna is a king, he decides to ask help. So as a gift he takes beaten rice. As Krishna takes one handful of rice, the whole of his gold goes to Sudama’s place. On the second handful, Kuselan’s house becomes a palace. In the front as you may see there are some little figurines. The beadwork of the Sivalingam with the snake and a Thulasi Madam between second and third scenes were again among my mom’s 9th grade work! The 2nd scene is Kamakshi hugging Siva Lingam. She had actually made this Lingam with sand beside a river in Kanchipuram and started praying him to accept her as his wife. When the river started bulging with overflowing water, the lingam was at the verge of dissolving when she just hugged it that it doesn’t dissolve. With her love and warm hug, Lord Shiva accepted her and married her. The third scene is Avvaiyum Navarkaniyum. Avvai is an old lady poet who was proud of her knowledge. So Lord Muruga in the form of a little cowboy sits atop a Naval Maram – Jamun tree. When Avvai asks this cowboy to pluck and put down some Jamun Fruits, he asks ‘Sutta Pazham Venduma.? Sudadha Pazham Venduma.?’ (Do you want cooked, hot Jamuns or normal Jamuns). She laughs and says, ‘How do u cook Jamun’. He says, ‘Its possible’. She says, ‘Ok. Give me Sutta Pazham. He plucks and throws the fruits down. She picks them up and blows the sand stuck onto it. On seeing this, he asks, ‘Seems the Jamun really hot, you are blowing it.?’. Immediately she realized, this is God himself!!! 
Navarathri Golu Pittukku mann sumandha leelai
The first scene is ‘Pittukku Man Sumandha Kadhai’. Well, during the reign of a particular Pandya King, the river Vaigai bulged with overflowing water and one male member was called from every household to get the water under control. And there was this particular old lady who had no son and no husband as well. This loner was surviving by selling ‘Pittu / Puttu’ – a rice powder delicacy of South India. To help her, Lord Shiva came down as a common man. He asked her if she could give him ‘Puttu’ and he would represent on her behalf. And the old lady accepted. But after having food, he went and slept off. The King got furious and ordered to whip-lash him. He was whip lashed, but the pain was felt by everyone including the King!  The 2nd scene is Thirukazhukundram. It’s a place where eagles take food from the hands of the temple priest like a pet animal. Eagles are Lord Vishnu’s vahanam – mount. The last scene on 4th step is a Krishna Leela. Krishna is an incarnation of Lord Vishnu. In this scene, the lady is Yashodha – Lord Krishna’s foster mother with a ‘Maththu’ – an instrument to make ghee, in hand looking at the prank he had played. He was actually tied up to an ‘Ural’ – a traditional manual mixie/grinder as a punishment for his pranks. Inspite of it, he manages to crawl around with it and goes through 2 trees. The ‘Ural’ gets stuck up between the trees and the trees fall. These trees were 2 people who were cursed to become trees and would be reversed only upon the grace of Lord Krishna. In the scene are those 2 people beside the fallen tree. 
Navarathri Bommai Golu Bommala Koluvu

Rajasthani Kaavad

Navarathri Golu Kanchipuram Garuda Sevai
Now comes the 5th step. This step has 2 scenes. First is Thanjavur Thalaiyatti bommai of Chettiar and Chettichi. Chettiar is the merchant community of South  India. So here is a couple selling fruits. The second scene is Raas Leela. The lover God Krishna is an incarnation of Lord Vishnu. He is seen here with several Gopi’s. 
The next step has a Rajasthani Kaavad. Its from a place called Bassi in Rajasthan and its like a portable temple! Its handmade with wood and handpainted on it! This is carried by religious story tellers from village to village and they explain the story depicted in each section opening door by door! See the beaded flowers in front? Those were done by my mom when she was a school child in her 9th grade. Next is Bharatha Pillayar. It is believed that Lord Ganesha aka Pillaiyar, wrote the Mahabaratha, one of the longest epics in India along with Ramayana, as said by Maharishi Vyasa. So in the scene is depicted the same.K. Now lemme continue. Where did I leave last time? Ya. The fourth step. 
On the 7th step is the elaborate scene of ‘Kanchipuram Garuda Sevai’. It’s an elaborate procession in the Varadaraja Perumal Temple in Kanchipuram. Garudan – Eagle is the Vahana – Mount of Perumal – Lord Vishnu. This procession is a speciality for the Garudan. So the Garudan is seen really bigger than Lord Vishnu himself.

Well, now that all the 7 steps are completed, lets move on to the side displays. Golu ideas for side displays vary so much from utilizing the entire floor to make extensive models.
Navarathri Golu Ideas
Navarathri Bommai Golu Bommalu Koluvu Pinterest Navarathri Bommai Golu Bommalu Koluvu Pinterest

The First scene Gugan where Lord Rama, with his wife Sita and brother Lakshmanan and the oarsman Gugan are on their way into a forest for exile. Next to it is Matryoshka doll aka Babushka doll which is the Nesting Russian Doll set where each doll goes into a bigger doll that itself. Beside it is a small vegetable vendor doll with excellent detailed work including actual fabrics for its dress and small fibers for his head and chest hair.
On the other side, is another side display that has several assorted dolls. The Taj, the slipper and the heart are my handwork in Papier Mache which I did a few years back. The 3 Baby Dolls behind those are from Japan. Japan too has a similar festival called the Doll Festival for Girls – Hina MatsuriA snake and a crocodile need a special mention. These are African Wooden Wiggle Snake Art. This is done by attaching little pieces of wood to a piece of leather centrally placed. As you may see the whole croc and the snake can twist and turn almost like a real snake. The flexibility is so really amazing. 


An ardent traveler by passion. Being an ex - Art History Teacher, my area of interest especially lies in Nature and Heritage. Visited 78 UNESCO World Heritage sites as of Sept 2020. I've been listed among the Top 7 Women Travel Bloggers of India, Top 50 in UK. I have been interviewed in a couple of TV Shows, Radio Channels and Events as well. Read more about me and read the testimonials of different brands