Bhootaradhane or Spirit worship in a unique socio-cultural event in South Canara. Bhoota refers to the past, In Coastal Karnataka (Dakshina Kannada District) the term ‘bhoota’ means a divine spirit which deserves periodic propitiation. The cult is practiced from generation to generation. The ‘bhoota’ rituals enormously vary from village to village according to the social structure of the society. The boundaries of present day District of South Kanara in Karnataka roughly conform to the area of traditional ‘Tulunad’, the land of the Tulu speakers. The Tulu language is a Dravidian language that did not develop a written literature.

Among the religious beliefs of South India, the spirit worship of appears to be the most primitive one. This complex system of rituals and beliefs can be traced back to the tribal era. The music and narratives, dances and dialogues, trances and oracles reflects the socio-economic orders, thought patterns, artistic achievements and socio-cultural values enshrined in the rustic societies of different regions.

The origin of Bhoota Kola is difficult to trace. It can be considered as a complex mixture of beliefs, rituals, literature, music and theatrical elements. Westerners have wrongly attributed Bhoota Kola as “devil worship.” But the term “devil” has negative connotation and as such cannot be applied to Bhoota Kola. In essence, the spirits or the bhootas worshipped are considered as the guardians of the villages, blessing and protecting the villagers and their livestock.

The most important aspect of Bhoota Kola is possession, trance and the dialogue of the possessed “PAMBADA” or “Nalkedaye” or the PRIEST with the devotees. The Priest or the “Pambada” behaves like an incarnation of concerned spirit, listening to the problems, solving, warning, comforting the devotees. He acts like a healer and solves the legal and judicial problems of the village.

The people of Tulu Nadu follow a tradition of dual worship that includes worshipping the puranic Gods as well as the local spirits. The puranic Gods are worshipped in temple under the leadership of Brahmin priests and the devotees are mere spectators receiving offerings and as such cannot be approached directly. On the other hand, the spirits are the localised and personalised deities who share a more intimate relationship with the devotees. The spirits have fixed spheres of influence and are generally associated with a family or village or region and the devotees offer them periodic oblation. In turn, the spirits protect the villagers and their livestock from danger and warn them as and when necessary.

There is a veritable pantheon of the ‘bhootas’ who number around 350. ‘Bhootas’ are believed to be capable of shaping the welfare of devotees. The ‘bhoota’ cult has its own priest class and 7“Pambada” or “Nalkedaye” who act as communication channel of the divine spirit through possession act of oracle or prophecy. ‘Bhoota’ worship has different types of folk music. The Pambada dances rhythmically to the tune of musician with a heavy anklet called ‘gaggara’ and holding ‘chaury’ (Yak tail fan) in his hand. A Pambada wears either metal mask or areca-leaf mask on his head. The make-up is attractive and the dresses are made out of simple tender coconut leaves. During the performance, musical instruments like ”mouri’ (wind pipe) ‘taase’ (percussion) and ‘shruti’ (wind pipe) are used.

The ritual dance is very artistic and attracts a large number of spectators. ‘bhoota’ or divine spirits have their own myths or epics sung during the performance. Some of the ‘bhoota’ songs or epics are sung in the paddy plantation field by the women folk. They are called ‘paaddana’ in Tulu language. During the ‘bhoota’ performance women render the songs with a small percussion instrument called ‘tembere’ or ‘karande’.

The spirits treat human beings as their foster-children, safeguard their interest, grants them freedom from fear, protect their cattle and crop and look after their health and welfare.

The spirits and folk deities worshipped and the dances performed in Tulu Nadu can be classified into the following categories:

The spirits of totemistic origin: Panjurli(pig), Pilichandi(tiger), Nandikona(bull),Maisandaaya (buffalo)

  1. Mother Goddesses: Jumaadi, Lakkesiri, Ullaalti, Maariamma. Mariamma grants prosperity and fertility to the soil and controls epidemic diseases. Jumaadi, Lakkesiri and Mariamma are connected with Puranic Deities like Dhumavathi, Rakteswari and Parvathi. Jumaadi is considered as half male and half female goddess.

  2. Attendants or Ganas of Lord Shiva: Virabhadra, Guliga. Certain spirits are said to have originated from Hindu God Shiva who sends the Bootas or Ganas to earth and asks them to receive offerings from human beings.

  3. Incarnations of puranic Gods: Vishnumurti, Ermeru, Jataadhari. Vishnumurthi daiva represents Narasimha – incarnation of God Vishnu. The Bermeru is the spirit connected with puranic god Brahma.

  4. Spirits of cultural heroes who met with tragic death: Kotí-Chennaya, Kalkuda-Kallurti, Siri, Kooddabbu, Koraga-Taniya, Bobbarya. Koti-Chennaya, the twin heroes who became divinities after their heroic death are worshipped as martial gods. Sculptor Kalkuda and his sister Kallurthi, Bobbarya of maritime achievements, Koddabbu the champion of downtrodden have all become spirits after their death.

The spirit Annappa, Abbage-Darage, Kalkuda, Koti-Channaya are raja daivas.The Guliga and Chaundi are ferocious spirits and keeping with their ferocious nature, in the ceremonies associated with them, sucking of the blood from a live chicken can be observed. The Koraga, Taniya, Kamberlu, Koddabbu and Tanimaniga are the spirits exclusively worshipped by Harijan communities. According to the beliefs, bhootas are believed to be residing in special places called as Stana. Kola is the unique form of worshipping the bhoota.

The Ritual

The nightlong 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[Pambada] who invokes the bhoota or the spirit dresses up in a colourful costumes, complete with a sword, bells and other such accessories. He is slowly prepared for self-hypnosis 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 Pambada. Different colors are used to symbolically display the characteristic features of the spirit. His wife, sister or mother sings the ballad or paad-danaas 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 for certain acts of commissions and omissions on part of the devotees. While settling the quarrels or disputes the Priest or Pambada assumes the role of a tribunal and conducts himself in a dignified manner as upholder of truth and righteousness. The decision of the Priest or Pambada is final without provision for any appeal.

 Spirit Possession

 There are dozens of words in Tulu which are used in the context of Bhoota Kola. The most usual are bhoota pattundu (the spirit caught) and maytu battundu (came into the body). Several verbs describe the physical appearance of the possessed (e.g. kumbarunu= shaking) and the internal experience (e.g. ersuntu = rising) are also used. In a cermonial context, possession of the spirit is more usually referred to as darsana or appearance/revelation.The spirit in question may be one of a number of different categories: bhoota, daiva, kule, preta, sirikulu, cikku, and others. They include spirits of cultural heroes, animal spirits, ghosts, and anthropomorphic divinities of various sorts. Many spirits and categories of spirits have only vague identities, but the character of some is elaborately described in long oral narratives or paad-danaas which describe their birth, “adventures”, and death. Many other spirits are incorporated into these cults under specific conditions.The affliction caused by a spirit is usually described as upadra, or trouble. This term may be applied to certain cases of unwarranted possession, but more frequently used to label violent diseases brought about by spiritual attack on humans, animals or crops. In many of these circumstances there is considerable ambiguity as to whether the spirit is an external agent of affliction or whether his internal presence is the cause of the trouble. Some afflictions are said to be caused by the spirit’s “touch” or “scratch.” Eg: Pilichandi.The Bhota Kola’s are regularly performed even today in Dakshina Kannada. People who have migrated from Dakshina Kannada to other parts of India or abroad still visit the “sthanas” and pay obescience to the Bhoota’s by way of rituals like Bhoota Kolas etc.