Complex displays of dolls, Golu Bommai, depict everything from weddings and rites of passage to stories about our saints and Gods
By Krathu Sankaranarayanan, Texas
Not many Hindu festivals can match the excitement that Navarati brings to the families of India, where each state has its own way of celebrating. From parties to pujas over nine nights, Navaratri has it all! When most people think of the festival, they may think of fasting and of Garba and Dandiya, the dancing of Gujarat. That’s one way of celebrating, but not how everybody observes this grand festival. In South India, we observe it in a very significant way by making a Golu Bommai, literally “display of dolls.”
Before I dive into that tradition, I need to talk about the Navaratri festival as a whole. Observed in September/October, Navaratri spans nine nights and ten days, following the autumn equinox. The first three days are dedicated to the Goddess Durga, the next three to Lakshmi and the final three days to Saraswati. The origin of Navaratri begins with a demon named Mahisha terrorizing the worlds. He was misusing a boon that he could not be slain by a man. Mahisha was growing stronger and stronger, and somebody needed to stop him. Because of this, all of the Gods and Goddesses came together to form a power by giving their individual shakti (power) simultaneously to create a new Goddess, Devi. Devi then adopts the warrior form—Durga. Durga and Mahisha battle over a period of ten days, ending with Durga’s victory. It was a battle of good over evil, in which good eventually won, which is the whole idea of Navaratri. This origin story is why Navaratri is celebrated for ten days and is also why it is devoted to Durga and the Nava (nine) Shaktis.
Golu dolls are an integral part of the festival for many South Indians, for whom Navaratri wouldn’t be the same without them. According to one source, the word golu comes from the Tamil word kolu, meaning to show off. People display golus in their house to invite divine female energy into their homes. Because Navaratri is observed for the Nava Shaktis, families will invite young girls and married women to their house to offer them prasadam food and betel leaf. The families will show them the home’s golu. These girls and women are seen as embodiments of the Nava Shaktis and Durga, who bring divine female energy and prosperity into the household.
My family’s 2019 Navaratri display: (Left) Level 11: nine forms of Goddess Shakti; level 10 (left to right): Vishnu’s abode in the milky ocean, Siva’s abode in Kailasa, Markandeya being protected by Lord Siva from Yama, God of Death; level 9: Lord Muruga’s forms in His six temples; level 8: Siva and Parvati’s wedding; level 7: story of Andal, the Vaishnava woman saint; level 6: the ten avatars of Vishnu and His rescue of Gajendra the elephant; level 5: two sets depicting devotees worshiping during pradosham, 14th day of the lunar calendar, and Narasimhar; level 4: story of Garba Rakshambigai temple where those expecting a child pray, story of Murugan’s birth; level 3: story of Manu Needhi Cholan (205–161 bce), famed king who saved a cow’s calf being killed by the Chola prince; level 2: samskaras, (left to right) first solid food, lamp ceremony, ear piercing; level 1: wedding, marapachi bommai dolls, seemantham blessing for a pregnant woman
Golu structures share a lot of things in common with Dravidian temple gopurams. Gopurams and golus both have an odd number of tiers/steps, and both narrate scenes from Hinduism using figurines. The dolls in a golu can be displayed on the steps either as a singular doll or as part of a set. Singular figurines are usually larger and depict Gods and Goddesses. The dolls that are part of sets are smaller and depict stories from Hinduism and Indian culture as well as parts of our life.
These golu dolls are often kept and passed down for generations, like heirlooms. An example of this is marapachi bommai, figurines depicting a man and a woman made from wood instead of the usual clay or papier-mache. They are special because of the tradition of mothers giving such figurines to their daughters on their weddings. Most families who put up a golu usually have one such set, which stands out from the rest of the colorful clay dolls.
In Houston, Navaratri is a big deal, and people celebrate by throwing parties with their friends and family. Traditionally these gatherings would be female only, but today the whole family is welcome. During Navaratri, we attend many of our friends’ and relatives’ golus, as well as hosting our own. Golu gatherings are such a big deal nowadays that the term “golu hopping” has become popular. Because so many people celebrate golu over the nine nights, friends will visit multiple houses per day. The Houston scene is so big that, on some days, my family must visit over ten houses!
A typical visit starts with a warm welcome by the host. Then we show off our golu display. If someone doesn’t catch the theme, we explain it to them and we talk to them about the dolls that are displayed that year, and often spend a few more minutes sharing each story. In my house, I usually jump in to do this because I love telling stories and sharing the cultural significance of the display.
Next, we invite our guests to sing devotional songs to our golu. We all sit down and give them our undivided attention. We not only do this for elders but for our younger guests as well, as it is an opportunity to encourage their talent and bring positive energy. In my house, because my brother and I play the mridangam drum, we accompany them if we know the song.
After we sit for a little bit, we offer the guests thambulam, food blessed in our home shrine, thanking them for their visit to our house. Thambulam consists of vethala pakku sweets, kumkum, a fruit and a small gift. This is exactly how others welcome us into their golu. When you have a lot of houses to visit, this happens very fast.
The festivities for my family begin a few days before Navaratri starts. We start by deciding the overall theme for the year and which dolls we want to use. Because my family has been doing golu for generations, we have a large collection of figurines. Having a theme helps make the dolls match well when they are displayed and also helps us rotate the dolls from year to year. This year, we did a Krishna and Ramayana theme.
Once the theme is decided and the dolls are taken out, we begin our actual structure. We make our golu staircase, usually 11 steps, using wood which we store in the garage. My dad, brother and I work on building the display, which takes about a day. My family likes to add smaller, three-step displays on each side of the large one. The center structure displays our main dolls and the side structures feature our story sets. This makes the theme more visible and makes our golu look grander.
Next we cover the structures with colorful cloths. We add LED lights on each step so that the dolls will be well lit. It also adds a dramatic touch, making the golu look truly magical. Finally, we place the dolls on the display. This is where the real fun begins [see photo left]. On the eleventh or top step is placed a kalasam (not visible in the photo because it is behind a doll), a beautifully decorated pot filled with water and a coconut on top into which Durga is invoked. This is very similar to the kalasa that are placed on top of temple gopurams. The difference is that those have grains in them.
The first dolls that go on are the Nava Shaktis. In our 2019 display, they went on the eleventh step, as the festival is to honor them and Durga. The Nava Shakti set is especially important to my family, because these were the first set my parents ever bought after their wedding. On the tenth step we placed the Siva and Vishnu figurines. After the ninth step, we place more dolls and sets that depict demigods and social life themes. Going up the steps thus signifies the evolution from human to God. On the left side display in 2019 we placed sets related to Ramayana, and on the right side we placed sets related to Krishna.
During Navaratri, as already mentioned, we visit friends and relatives. On the ninth day of the festival, we perform puja to Sarasvati, Goddess of knowledge and creativity. We bring all our textbooks and musical instruments into the prayer room. We invoke the Goddess into the stack of books and instruments so that we can do well in our education and musical journeys with Her blessings.
On the tenth and last day, known as Vijaya Dashami, we perform Punar Puja to Sarasvati. We pray to Her, then open a book and read one page along with playing a little bit on the instruments. One of the traditions of Vijaya Dashami is that children start something new that day—school, music classes, etc. This is because on the tenth day of Durga and Mahisha’s battle, Durga was victorious and killed the demon Mahisha. Because of this victory, anything that is initiated on this auspicious day will be successful. Vijaya Dashami marks the end of the Navaratri festival.
Navaratri to me means a lot. It has something for everyone and is unique compared to the other Hindu festivals. Everybody has their own way of celebrating, from fasting and praying, to visiting houses. Navaratri truly has it all.
About the Author: Krathu Sankaranarayanan is an 8th grader from Houston, Texas. He loves volunteering in his local community and enjoys writing, swimming, coding and science.