A Navaratri Doll Festival – the Canberra Way

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RADHA RAVI finds a creative way of engaging children in Navaratri

In South India, Navaratri is associated with Kolu or display of dolls in a hierarchical fashion. It is a very interesting and unique tradition called Bombe Habba or Golu or Kolu (Kannada), or Bommala Koluvu (Telugu), or Bommai Kolu (Tamil) or simply Dasara dolls. This tradition involves a toy festival that is celebrated by families across Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. Kolu or doll festival is celebrated through an exhibition of various dolls and figurines arranged as per the customs of the family. The dolls are arranged and exhibited on a stepped platform having an odd number of steps or tiers (usually 5, 7, 9 or 11) and usually covered with a white or light color cloth. The earlier kolupadis or steps used to be made of wood; those have now been replaced with iron kolupadis. Often it’s the furniture of the house that is dragged around to create the steps.

Most households follow a theme for the arrangement of dolls. Some households follow a simple and traditional thematic setup, while others create elaborate and extravagant ways of presenting their dolls. People use their creativity to showcase their collection in a unique and attractive manner. Some people depict stories from Ramayana and Mahabharata on the rows of the platform.

A number of South Indian families in Canberra follow this age-old tradition. In recent years it has become a time of visiting our friends, singing traditional songs or bhajans and partaking in sundal. There are many innovations on display too. Each year new dolls are added to the collection as new items come on to the market.

Author Rada Ravi

My children enjoy this kolu festival the most as it is a nine-day celebration with family and friends; with the added tadka of sundal and sweets. The main prasadam of kolu happens to be sundal – soaked lentils cooked with coconut and chillies. Every night, a different sundal variety is prepared and offered to the visiting guests.

This year we decided to add a new attraction, aside from our traditional kolu. The idea was an ‘edible village’. Everything that was created in the edible village needed to be exactly that – edible. The kids were ecstatic as they got to play with food. We created marshmallow animals, coconut greens, and even a tar road using sesame seed powder. There was an icing sugar lake, pineapple pieces shaped like animals and so on. The edible village became the talking point amongst the children and adults. There were even prizes for who guessed the maximum number of pieces correctly. As well as being enjoyable, it gave the children and adults something to think about. With a concerted effort, we can reduce or even eliminate the amount of plastic and artificial things in our lives. All in all a very creative and engaging concept.