On a pitch dark night, I journey through the forests of Kenjoor in Karnataka, with stars twinkling above me and cicadas crying at a distance. I am eager to witness the Bhoota kola. Bhoota kola is an ancient ritual of spirit worship practised only in coastal Dakshina Kannada district of Karnataka, observed by its Tulu speaking rural inhabitants of Dravidian stock. The term Bhoota Kola is derived from Kannada language in which ‘bhoota’ means class of supernatural spirits and ‘kola’ means ceremony for the bhoota.
Intimate connection with nature
I am greeted to a traditional Bunt style dinner with the villagers, served on plantain leaves. The strong smell of jasmine flowers, incense sticks and camphor floats in the air as I sit among the locals like a wide-eyed kid, in an angala (courtyard) surrounded by mango and areca nut trees. This is where we witnessed the Bhoota Kola as oil lamps flicker under the starry sky.
Foretelling the future
In India, the Bhoota worship has been practiced since times immemorial. History says this event begins at the last phase of Indus valley civilisation. The Dravidians perhaps inherited these beliefs from the Indus people. The Bhoota worship was also used by the Tuluva kings of the famous Vijayanagara dynasty to instill fear of law among their subjects. It is interesting to know that Bhoota Kola involves all castes and classes of Hindus in the area.
The sound of the drums reverberate throughout the night. The villagers believe that these Bhootas play an important role in keeping them on righteous path and are believed to be guardians of the village. The event began with cutting of plantain leaves to make the dress of the bhoota, arrival of the priest and applying of make up and heavy anklets. Folk ballads are sung during the dance which narrate the stories of the bhoota cult. The bhoota performs the majestic dance which fills the atmosphere with fear and devotion. The performer also utters words of guidance and blessing. In the final part of the dance, I saw the bhoota foretelling the future, giving counsel, and resolving communal disputes of the village.
Kola is a dance drama. The ritual and drama are closely knit together. All theatrical elements — singing, dancing, makeup, masks, dialogues, stories and actor-performer are present in it. As an art form, tradition, entertainment and psycho-cultural phenomenon, spirit worship or Bhoota Kola is an example of man’s longing for an intimate connection with nature. Bhoota Kola is a celebration of Tulu community life which fosters a sense of belong which is beyond caste and creed.