Bhuta Kola, a living tradition of spirit worship in the Tulunadu region of Karnataka that goes back to pre-Vedic times and combines a mix of theatre, spectacle and religion was performed in a ceremony in Udupi.
Bhoota Kola or Holy Spirit Worship is an ancient ritual form of worship prevalent among the Tulu-speaking community in Udupi, Dakshina Kannada districts in Karnataka and Kasaragod taluk in Kerala altenatively known as Tulu Nadu. It has close resemblance with Theyyam, a ritual form of worship common among Malayalis of the North Malabar.
The coastal Karnataka is known for two art forms, namely Bhuta Kola, a highly stylised version of the ritual dance of the spirit impersonator and a fine tradition of Yakshagana, creating a world of divine and supernatural beings with all the paraphernalia of costumes, make-ups, music, dance and dialogue.
The night long ceremonies begins in a well decorated arena or pandal that gives the appearance of a ritualistic stage with the image of the deity and other objects of worship well arranged on one side and the disciplined devotees on the other side. The musicians, accompanied with drums and wind instruments are seated on another side are ready to provide beats of varying tempo for different stages in the processions. The pandal is well decorated with various figures made from palm leaf, mango leaf and areca flower.
The person who invokes the bhuta or the spirit dresses up in a colourful costumes, complete with a sword, bells and other such accessories. He is slowly prepared for self-hypnotism and for imposing the spirit on him. He is ceremoniously given oil for a ritual bath to make his body physically purified and mentally calm. Pastes from plant extract are used as a makeup for the impersonator. Different colors are used to symbolically display the characteristic features of the spirit. His wife, sister or mother sings the ballad or paād-danāas which narrates the birth of that spirit, its descent into the land, heroic deeds, its travels and sphere of influence etc.
He now assumes the role of the spirit himself and starts calling the authorities to inquire the reason for his invocation. He addresses everyone according to his rank. The organizers propitiate the spirit and beg protection, prosperity, good crop and wealth for the entire community. If pleased, the spirit through the oracle conveys the pleasure and promises protection and prosperity. If the spirit is not satisfied, then he prescribes certain punitive rituals for acts of insult or impurity to the holy place or certain acts of commissions and omissions on part of the devotees. While settling the quarrels or disputes the impersonator assumes the role of a tribunal and conducts himself in a dignified manner as upholder of truth and righteousness. The decision of the impersonator is final without provision for appeal.
Bhoota Aradhane continues to hold sway over Tulu Nadu as it has done for centuries. As an art form, tradition, entertainment and psycho-cultural phenomenon, spirit worship stands as a grand example of man’s longing for an intimate connection with nature.