When the Spirits Speak

When the Spirits Speak


A narrow dirt road veered off, to the right of the main road, from the town of Udupi to the village of Kaapu. Dusk was turning to night and the tube lights lining the road, the sound of beating drums and the distant singing of the paad-danaa, oral narrative, pointed to activity ahead. We had reached the ancestral home of Surendra Shetty, where the annual Bhuta Kola was being performed that evening. Bhuta Kola or Spirit Worship is an ancient form of animistic religion that dates back to pre-Vedic times, prevalent in the Tulunaadu region of coastal Karnataka. A highly stylized version of the ritual dance of the spirit impersonator, it has over the years evolved into a complex and creative amalgam of ritual, oral epics, music, dialogue, costume, masks and a folk theatre. The spirits, commonly known as daivas, have fixed spheres of influence and are generally associated with a family, community or village and the devotees offer them periodic oblation. In turn, the spirits protect the villagers and their livestock from impending dangers, cure diseases and even settle village disputes. There are some 350 Bhutas that are worshipped in this region of Karnataka, as a living tradition. This evening, the Shetty family, hailing from the landed Bunt community, was holding the annual kola in honour of their family deity, Dhumavathi, vanquisher of the asura Dhumasura. This daiva takes on the merged form of Shiva and Parvati and her mask is manifested in a male-female form, wearing a crown of nagas, with a moustache and a breast plate. We were greeted warmly by the yejamana, head of the household and given prominent seats at the edge of the chapra, pavilion. The orchestra seated on our side of the chapra, consisting of percussion instruments tase and dhol, wind instruments (nagaswaras) and a shruti, drone, increased their rhythm and beat.

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