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09 May 2013

Of Daivas and Spirits.

“Are you coming for the Bhootha Kola?” was one question that was being repeated in the extended family from the past two weeks, over and over again. Everyone had their own reasons to look forward to the event, being conducted after almost 12 long years - the family elders for auspicious reasons, and we youngsters for a family get-together in the village that we would have. A night long of chatter and junk food, coupled with watching the event was something we all were waiting for. My faint memory of the Kol held last time, was as a twelve-year old sleepily watching a brightly painted man, crying out loud and running about, as everyone else watched him in awe.

Tulunadu, is the area of undivided South Canara (Dakshina Kannada and Udupi) plus a few parts of northern-most Kerala in Kasargod district. This area is famous for a few indigenous things, such as Kambla or buffalo racing, Cock Fight (which is now banned, but still continues to take place very much within the city limits), Yakshagana, and of course, Spirit Worship or Bhutha Aradhane. 

Spirit worship refers to the worship of certain forces or supernatural spirits, who are believed to guide and protect the believer in times of adversity. They are Demi-Gods, who people look upon as a guardian angel, upon whom they can rely on, no matter what. Various spirits or ‘Daivas’ are worshipped, such as Satyadevate, Varthe - Panjurli, Jumadi-Banta, Mantradevate, Kordabbu, Guliga etc. There are stories that describe their heroism, and how they came to be worshipped.

Bhootha Kola is a night-long ceremony held to invoke, worship and many a times, to ask for advice on various matters, ranging from family issues to property disputes.  It is said that the advice or judgement given thence, was even considered valid in the court of law during British times.

The area is brightly decorated with flowers, mainly jasmine and firecracker flower (Abbolige / Abboli) and alike, and also brightly lit. The various idols are placed in the tent, and traditional designs are drawn around.


A man acts as the medium for the Spirit to temporarily occupy. The evening begins with the artiste carefully applying the indigenously prepared bright colors on his well-oiled face and body, and dressing up with traditional jewelry and clothes.

There are specific communities who take up the task, with different communities for different spirits. The female members of their families recite songs and ballads in praise of the Spirit which will be invoked as the make-up is being applied.

Traditional anklets made of brass

The music of drums and the wind instruments, is hypnotizing and bewitching by itself. Quickly alternating between slow paced and rapid beats, it is enough to get anyone on his feet. As the initial beats start, the artiste slowly goes into a trance like state, followed by a dance, which is quite in tune with the beats. As the beats quicken, so does the dance, so that by the end of one cycle, he is wildly running about, with loud war cries. 

He presents himself in front of each male member of the family, putting a burning camphor on his tongue, and a respectful Namaskaar. At times he is angry, else he is happy, the emotions showing on his face clearly. Another person usually accompanies him, who interprets all the signs that he makes and also conducts any conversation when required. 
When the final beats stop, the dance stops too, and it is time for the ‘Nudi’, for people to ask him whatever they want to. 

Final advice and blessing
Likewise, another round of the ritual with a different set of Spirits is held. This time it is a pair of Spirits, sister and brother, called Varthe and Panjurli

Artistes getting ready to invoke Panjurli and Varthe

Varthe, being a female spirit is mild, while her brother Panjurli, is aggressive (representative of the boar). The cries are louder this time. 

The well synchronized dance is energetic and enchanting, the beats are faster. They circle around each other, calling out each others' names.


Coconut tree-derived articles play an important role here. Right from the head gear, to the skirt like garment called Siri, it makes its appearance everywhere. Siri is worn over the clothes, and it is quite a site to watch it gracefully swishing about as the dance goes on.

The same ritual of keeping a burning camphor on the tongue is repeated many times. But this time, the expressions are more vivid.

As the night draws on, people slowly doze off one after another, until a few devout ones religiously observe the ritual. I ask a cousin how we differentiate whether it is the actual Spirit talking, or if it is merely a trance-like state the artiste has gone into; I'm met with a stare that tells me further questions on the matter are not welcome. 

Ultimately, it is the belief of the people, and it is not appropriate to question it, and thereby hurt their sentiment. Further questions on the matter would be considered rude, if not blasphemous. Whatever said and done, the sheer energy needed for the entire act, running into hours, at the peak of summer in May, is commendable.

We try to become more "modern", more "rational", and in the process forget our own roots. By the time we realize our mistake (read stupidity), we often find it is too late to make amendments.

One thing we must realise is, like Yakshagana, Kambala, and other art forms, this also is a heritage that Tulunadu has been blessed with. Sadly, like the others, this is a slowly dying art, with many artistes pursuing other professions, or moving out in search of greener pastures. 

Encouraging these communities to preserve the culture, and to pass it on to their children, is the only way we can ensure that this rich culture of our beautiful Canara is preserved for our future generations to see!

05 April 2013

Dhansak Diaries, at Britannia & Co., Bombay

"Have you been to Britannia?"

This was one question I got from many people, which left me wondering what was so special about this place. So, I decided that on my next visit to Bombay ( yes, I still prefer Bombay over Mumbai, Kyonki Bombay ki baat hi kuch aur hai ), I must pay a visit.

Armed with a dangerous appetite, and my camera, I set out on a sunny day looking for Britannia & Co.. Located on a cosy corner at Ballard Estate, found it without much difficulty.

The first impression on entering was that I have entered a place set in the 1940's. The walls wouldn't have seen paint for years, and the furniture looked quite old too. There were pictures of Mahatma Gandhi and the Queen of England on the walls. Also, a recent looking life size cut-out of Prince William and Princess William (a.k.a Kate, she can't be called a Princess). The place looked steeped in history, quite literally so.

My eyes frantically searched for the whole purpose of my visit here, for a chat with Mr. Boman Kohinoor, the 90-year young proprietor of the place. And I wasn't disappointed, for I spotted him sitting three tables away with his younger brother, with a napkin around his neck, enjoying a bowl of soup. Simultaneously, calling out stewards' names as though taking attendance, and they'd reply with a respectful "Yes Sir!".

The food offered here is typical Parsi fare, and I settled down for the famed Berry Pulao, Sali Chicken with Chapatis, and Dhansak. Our food arrived, and so did Mr. Boman. "Enjoy your food; stay happy, be happy" was the first thing he told me, and went on to ask what I was waiting for, "Would you like some fresh lemonade, To Beat The Mumbai Heat?"- a classic dialogue of his, a friend had already told me about.

Not wanting to let him go so soon, I asked him when the place was first started. That was enough to get him started. His father had started the place when he was just 9 years old, with the idea of serving authentic Parsi food. Being British Raj times, it was easier to start a business with a western name, and hence Britannia & Company was decided on. The furniture was Polish, and hasn't been changed since the place was started, he said proudly.

Berry Pulao, the berries which give that zingy flavor are still imported from Iran.

The man is a storehouse of information, and wit. He quickly showed me some of his possessions with child-like enthusiasm, various reviews about the restaurant, and the gem of the lot- a handwritten letter from Her Highness Queen Elizabth II herself. Another letter from Prince William and Kate thanking him for his wishes on their wedding completed his collection.

He went on to talk about various celebrities who frequented his restaurant, about how the 'badmaash' junior Bachchan always came with many women except Aishwarya (" 'I will not allow you inside if you do not bring your wife and daughter next time', I've told him"), and also about his visit to Mangalore fifty years back when he enjoyed fish curry and rice.

"I will not disturb you while you eat", he said and walked on to the next table. Only to return the moment I put my fork down, ready with a little notebook, to take my order for dessert.

"Can I take a picture with you, Sir?", I asked him; "Why do you want your picture with me, young lady ? I'm ninety. You must find a Prince William soon for yourself, to take beautiful pictures with" was the quick reply I got. Nevertheless, he did oblige.

If you do not have a thing for sweetish food, you might not like it here. Yet, if only for a chat with Mr. Boman, you have to enter Britannia & Co. The thirty minutes or so that I spent talking to him taught me one thing - that age does not matter. It is the zest for life and the joy you take from little things around, that makes you young or old.

"See you soon doctor", he told me as I left the place; I will be back very soon Sir, I silently told myself, as I walked out of Britannia, back again into the 21st century.

29 March 2013

Ganges, a Water Marvel !

My first post !

They say begin every task with something auspicious. So here goes.. The first thing I'd ever post here would be something to do with the holy River Ganges.

Sunrise at Vishnu Ghat
A short break from work saw me pack my bags to visit one of the oldest living cities on the planet, Haridwar, alternatively called Hardwar. This place is one that you should visit, whenever you feel you need a spiritual awakening. The chaos around the place, and yet an order that exists in the madness is something that strikes you at the very beginning.

You can find all kinds of people here- the retired old school teacher who has decided to visit for a dip in the Ganges, the mother whose eyes gleam with tears as her son has finally fulfilled her lifelong dream of watching the Ganga Aarti, and of course the Westerners, who have heard a lot about Indian culture and just want to soak in some of it. I make friends with this little boy who follows me around with his "camera", as I walk around with my own, capturing whatever I find interesting.

Self styled Godmen greet you with "Hari Om", with arms slightly outstretched, but not too so.The river Ganga is not only a source of water, but also a source of livelihood for many. Take for example, those who sell cans, just so you can fill it up with the Ganga water and take back home. Or the girl who sells ready-made floats, calling out loudly to anyone who passes by.

The melee at Har ki Pauri at noon is amazing, which just makes me wonder what the Kumbh Mela would look like. People, and more people everywhere; people in all shapes and sizes. Mothers giving their infants a dip in the cold water, oblivious to the fact that her kid might actually be mentally cursing her ! A group of Shaivites singing in praise of Lord Shiva under a tree by the river, a guy tells me they have been doing so from twelve hours.

Brahma Kund, at Har ki Pauri
As the evening begins to fall, people around the place throng towards one point, Har ki Pauri. Everyone aims to occupy the area right opposite the banks, from where the Aarti will be performed. Officials who claim to be so, walk about seating everyone, and collecting offerings. And then there are the others, who consider it their right to ask money from others.
People begin to float Diya's, praying for their ancestors.

Priests clad in deep saffron descend on the the steps at Brahma Kund, the most sacred of the ghats around Haridwar. And the much awaited Aarti ceremony begins. Loud blaring loudspeakers are set up everywhere. Chants in praise of Ganga Maiyya are recited. An elaborate pooja is performed, with colored powder being sprinkled into the water.

As the chants draw to an end,  Pundits clad in white with beige waistcoats assemble, and the first Aarti is lit. As the darkness slowly engulfs you, more Aartis are lit up. And the moment everyone has been waiting for, begins. The Pundits perform the Aarti in neatly synchronised motions, with a background score being played. The incense-filled air, the continuous clanging bells, with the beautiful sight of the evening creates an enchanting atmosphere, leaving you spell bound. 

Haridwar is one of the three places where the Ganga Aarti is performed every evening, the others being Rishikesh and Varanasi.

Finally, after this has continued for about fifteen minutes, the evening finally draws to an end. My ears are still ringing from the bells and the chants. People everywhere in a rush to go back, others busy posing against the backdrop of the Ganges for that one shot, and yet others, who again decide to take a dip in the water, which is afloat with diyas, big and small. I spot a bottle floating at a distance, which leaves me wondering what happened to the "Ganga Sankalp" we just took a while ago, promising to keep the river clean and not pollute it. Again, I'm surrounded by various people asking for donations and offerings, but I manage to get away without being rude to anyone.

I'm quite surprised at my own energy levels, even after the whole eventful day, I'm not tired yet. So I decide to take a walk through the narrow lanes in the market adjoining the ghats. Managing to walk through the alleyways, without being hit by two wheelers, or by passing cows is an art in itself. Having heard about this old place famous for their pooris, I decide to try it out. After a ten minute walk, that seems much longer, I come upon the place, called "Mathura Waalon ki Prachin Dukhan". The menu is quite basic, offering Poori with subzi, aloo tikkis, pedha and halwa. The pooris are served piping hot, on plates made of leaves, and the subzi is something unique. Made of pumpkin, it is sweet, yet flavored enough to taste spicy as well.

Having had my fill, I call it a day and return back to my room. Before I retire, I once again decide to have a glimpse of the Ganga, and come out to the balcony. The sight of the water gushing down, continuously, day and night, leaves me spellbound. I had come to Haridwar, skeptic, having heard how polluted the water is etc., but the crystal clear water, cool and sweet has removed all such thoughts from my mind.

I marvel at Nature's beauty. The river has been flowing since creation, and still continues to do so with the same gusto, the same energy, the same force, the same divine force. I now begin to realize why people pray to her. She is truly a Goddess. She is Maa Ganga.

[Read the post on Hrishikesh, and the Aarti at Parmarth Ashram too.]