While the rest of the Indian crowd is flashing dandiyas and twirling around in their ghagra cholis these couple of weekends, the Tam-Bram community in the Bay Area is quietly celebrating Navaratri with Golus, the collection of dolls arranged in odd-numbered steps.
I write this while recovering from an overdose of shundal, badam halwa, murukku and kesari, a culinary orgy that is going to take more than a few visits to the gym to correct. All the pretty salwar-kameez outfits have been put back in the mothballs, having been properly shamed by the display of kanjeevaram and raw silk sarees.
In a whirlwind tour over the weekend, I visited several Golus, meeting and catching up with friends who had taken the time out of their ultra busy lives to set up and decorate their tableaus, cook delicious sweets and savories and shop at the local craft stores for the all important vettalaipakku, which has evolved from the simple fruit, betel leaf and kumkum to goody bag proportions, containing little crafts for the kids and small household items for the married women.
My mother has an interesting theory about the origins of this tradition. Since girls used to be married off pretty early (as young as 7 years sometimes!) they usually carried their dolls and playthings with them to their new house. During Navaratri, they displayed all their precious possessions in creative ways, showing off their talents in sewing, cooking, music and art.
Only married women and unmarried girls are invited to the Golus, with the men and boys hovering around in the fringes and enjoying the food! The women sing the classical songs they have learnt over the years as they sit at the foot of the Golu and admire it.
The Golu, which is tiered in 5, 7 or 9 steps, represents in its purest form the ascendancy of man. At the bottom is the householder, tied to the mortal plane by the ties of marriage and social interaction. The Chettiar, or merchant, plays an important role in the householder’s life and is represented by a bobble-headed paunchy man and his wife. Dolls depicting various married couples are also auspicious. In the higher tiers, mythological stories and characters are presented. It is a great opportunity to tell the kids Krishna and Rama stories. The top tier contains the Trimurti, or the holy trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, representing the highest plane of existence.
Golus in India are incredibly creative. There was a recent craze for current-event Golus, depicting figures of George Bush and Osama bin Laden. But apparently the dolls have reverted to the traditional now, just bigger and flashier. Imaginative ladies use wheat and mustard sprouts to create little gardens and zoos, populated by play animals, and often have displays that spill over to more than one room.
Of course, here in the Bay Area, limited by access to new figures, the Golus are simpler, but no less enjoyable. My 6-year old daughter and I had a great time going from house to house and she was even persuaded to learn a small bhajan so she could sing in front of the displays. We successfully identified the Ganeshas and the Hanumans and used the peacock-feathered crown to figure out which dolls were the Krishnas.
The nine days of Navaratri, which celebrate the manifestation of Shakti, or the divine goddess, in various forms, are an opportunity for women to socialize without the constraints imposed by familial restrictions. For us, it was a chance to take a break from the mundane chores of shopping, school drop-offs and soccer games and revel in the friendships and sisterhood that sustain us through the rest of the year. We dressed up, we chatted, we sang and we ate. Can one ask for more from a special occasion?