India is a land of many cultures, traditions, and festivals. Navaratri (literally, “Nine Nights”) is a nine-day Hindu festival celebrated in the fall. This year’s celebrations run from September 21 to September 30 with some of the largest in Texas in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex. (2010 census figures showed close to quarter of a million Asian Indians living in Texas, and a doubling of the north Texas Asian Indian population from 2000 to 2010.)
Navaratri is one of the most sacred festivals in Hinduism, and is split into three parts to worship the Goddesses Durga, Lakshmi and Saraswathi. The festival of Bommai Kolu, known as the Doll Festival, is part of Navaratri.
Young girls and women display dolls to worship the three Goddesses. The Kolu is a collection of cloth-covered wooden stairs (usually of an odd number – three, five, seven, nine or 11) where the dolls are placed in a hierarchical order.
The lower steps hold dolls portrayed in various social and economic settings. The middle steps are dedicated to saints, gurus, religious figures, and respected people in India and the wider world.
The higher steps display many dolls of the Hindu Gods and Goddesses. Sacred writings, marriages, day-to-day life scenes, court life, toys, and any kind of miniature kitchen tools that a young girl would enjoy playing with are all displayed on the steps.
The Chettiar-Aachi doll set is a must-have in every Bommai Kolu. These bobble-headed dolls represent the rich business heritage of the Chettiar community in southern India.
Marapachi Bommai, old wooden dolls representing a couple, symbolize fertility and well-being, and are also an essential part of the Bommai Kolu. The dolls are given to the bride by her parents to wish her a happy and prosperous married life. Every year, the dolls are decorated with new wedding dresses as part of Hindu tradition.
Some of the dolls displayed during Navaratri Kolu are very old, and have been handed down for generations.
There is great underlying significance behind this ancient tradition.
Some say that Navaratri Kolu is the invocation of the Gods into our houses, while others say that it is a way of reminding us of the hierarchy in life.
Many others believe that this festival is a social event that further encourages the artisans who make the clay dolls displayed in the Kolu to continue their art.
Women in the community invite each other to their homes to see the Kolu displays and then exchange gifts. Young children get the opportunity to sing songs, recite shlokas (verses of poetry) and eat special dishes, sweets, and fruits that have been offered to the Gods.
However it is interpreted, Navaratri Kolu is a unique festival of dolls for Hindus all around the world that has been followed from ancient times and which holds great traditional value and religious significance.
Jayashree Krishnan is an Indian-born American artist based in Irving, Texas. She makes both traditional Indian and Japanese arts and crafts.