Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Staircase to Heaven (Navrati Dolls)

Navrati is a time to go visiting in southern India! It is a nine day all female affair - first 3 days dedicated to the Goddess Durga (power and energy), then Laxshmi (prosperity and peace) and finally Saraswathi (art and knowledge). A tiered step like structure is erected in the living room  which is decorated with dolls/models which  may have been collected over the years, handed down from generation to generation. Friends (and friends of friends aka gate-crashers - like me!!) are invited round to celebrate the festival and admire the Kolu.

The dolls essentially represent the court of the Goddess Durga.They are some rules to the arrangements - firstly the number of steps has to be odd (it's auspicious), secondly there is a hierarchy. The most holy are closest to heaven, on the uppermost step. The top step therefore hold the gods, below are the avatars of vishnu (includes Krishna and Rama), then saints and great men. These are followed by mere mortals, perhaps wedding scenes and then tools of business, musical instruments or study books and also animals.

On the 10th night, after the ceremonial arti and prayers, the dolls are laid down and put to ‘sleep.’ And the next day, the exhibits are packed carefully away and preserved for use the next year. Some of these must take a lot of storage.

In the neighborhood, I visited, and saw the two decorations above. Casual California this is not. You don't pop round in your sweats. This is an auspicious occasion and one dresses accordingly (the faux pas I would have made without Shubha do not bear thinking about). Hospitality in India is second to none and as is par for the course I was made to feel at home and the rituals explained to me.

Another friends of Shubha's we visited had a slightly different approach. Around their conservatory they had set up maybe 20 scenarios telling the story of Rama. These were the most intricate and detailed scenes. Below is just one. I think in total there were over 300 dolls/models. The setting up took 2 weeks. Beautiful pictures of an amazing story, an inspiring example of dharma, a great love affair, a tragic exile, a horrific war, which ends in victory and a new emperor.  
Below are a few of the scenes spreading out along one side of the wall.
At the end of each visit we were given a gift bag as we departed. Each of the traditional items to wish us well. 

I am beginning to find tracking down the underlying stories behind these rituals a bit trickier than one would imagine. There are variations from region to region, maybe traditions evolving over time, the individual flourish etc.etc. But in the end the details are not important, the underlying messages of dharma - in order to find the divinely instituted natural order of things, human beings must live in accordance with justice, social harmony and human happiness - look for blessings, wisdom and peace along the way from their gods/goddesses. I maybe losing the plot a bit here!! but suffice to say there is a spiritual feeling and understanding beneath the rituals and traditions which burns strong and hence the details of which god is represented how and when is not so important.

1 comment:

  1. If you look at the first picture, at the bottom of the kollu there is a Chinese/East Asian looking doll.
    It is amazing the way that it is placed in a typical hindu spiritual setting.