Thursday, 16 June 2011

Gods and Spirits

The main deity of worship, long before Vaishnavism spread in Tulu nadu in the 8th century, was Shiva (and Durga as well as members of their family – Ganesha and Subramanya).  Like in the rest of India, temples built before the 7th century tended to be made of wood and have long perished.  Only when the stone temples became routine after the Chalukyas and Pallavas introduced them in the South, Tulu nadu also saw a burst of stone built temple that have still survived.  However, the majority of the temples standing today were built between 13th and 16th centuries.  The Bunts of Tulu nadu were originally Shiva worshippers like the rest of the population.  Only after the visit of Shankaracharya in the 8th century and the impetus of Vaishnavism after Madhvacharya’s influence in the region in the 14th century did the Bunts, like the others in the region, embrace all forms of Hindu gods.

What is more unique to the Bunt community of Tulu nadu is their reverence of various spirits in addition to the established gods of Hinduism.  Daivas or bhutas as they are referred to do not have a set form of physical representation.  Symbolically a piece of rock is sanctified and considered as bhuta.  Figurines made of wood or metal, often crudely carved, are also used as symbols of bhutas, similar to the gods in many impoverished temples.  Planks of wood or stone pillars with a niche and a conical or a flat stone on its top also are symbols of the spirit.  Some of the stronger spirits have more elaborate stone pillars and may even have temple-like permanent abodes called bhuta stanas.  These shrines are not elaborate, but are simple structures usually single cells with projecting thatched roofs.  A number of weapons, made of wood or metal, are kept in the bhuta – stanas.

Some of the powerful bhutas have ornaments made from oblations of devotees.  These ornaments (called abharana) are displayed during the yearly festival (called kola or nema), when the spirits are propitiated by the devotees.  Dancers belonging to certain castes adorn make-up and dance to the tune of recitations called Pad-dana.   These songs tell the story of the particular spirit and its relationship with the people that it protects.  Each bhuta has its own unique costume and style of make-up.  The spirit dances away at night to the beat of drums and other wind instruments, and it is not unusual for the dancer to go into a trance and be overwhelmed by the spirit.

The Bunts and other communities seek protection from these good natured spirits.  The bhutas are classified as belonging to the whole village, or to a particular community or caste, or a family.  Some bhutas are favored by certain communities, e.g. Bobbariya has a special place in the heart of the Billava community of Tulu nadu.  Some of them are off-shoots of the more famous gods of Hinduism, e.g. vishnumurti and berme, who are identified with Vishnu and Brahma.  Others are spirits of departed souls who were prominent figures in the community and had done good deeds while they were alive.  Yet some are derived from animals, like the panjurli (pig) and Pili-chamundi (tiger).  There are hundreds of spirits named in Tulu nadu.

Worship of the bhuta or daiva gives Tulu nadu a distinct flavor.  It is thought that before bhakti Hinduism was introduced to the region, the spirits were the main deities worshipped by the local people.  Shaivism was the main religion and spirits are naturally associated with Shiva, as he is the overlord of all the spirits.  With the advent of Vaishnavism, the spirits attained a secondary role to the numerous other gods of Hindu pantheon.  Yet, these spirits did not lose their place in the history of Tulu nadu, as they are worshipped even today.  Other castes, especially Brahmins, also accepted the spirits as lesser divinities and facilitated their worship by the non-Brahmins of Tulu nadu.  It is not uncommon to see the yearly ceremonies for the bhutas conducted in the households of Brahmin landlords, attended by the local village people.

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