While most of the Hindu world is observing the nine-day Navaratri festival, in many South Indian homes there is also another joyous celebration going on. Known as kolu (pronounced as golu), in this festival the family constructs a seven, nine, or eleven tier step-structure and covers it with a nice cloth. Then on the steps are arranged – often in a particular order – every colorful doll and figurine in the house. By tradition each year one may add a new doll or set.
Auspicious decorations (kólam) adorn the arena where a traditional oil lamp is lit in the evenings. Invited guests gather and sit at the doll-filled steps after admiring them.
An anointed pitcher with a coconut on top is usually placed on the first step, and there is an idol of Ganesha on the highest step. Many of the dolls on the other steps are symbolic of the various avataras of the tradition. In the various other steps there can be dolls and figurines from various cultures, with or without religious significance. There could be a set displaying a wedding ceremony, another set consisting of an elderly couple, yet another with a cart and driver, and so on. It is also common to have traditional doll-pair made with black wood (marappácchi bommais), and nicely clothed in colorful costumes. Some of the dolls come from previous generations: from mother and mothers-in-law.
Though men and women participate in the rejoicings, the golu festival is only in homes with daughters, and is generally hereditary. That is, only families with the golu-tradition continue it.
Given that in a community many homes may set up golu, invitations are often time and day specified. So there is an open house during those days and times during which streams of guests come and go. Some of them sing devotional a song or two, sitting at the golu-steps. Every festival in the Hindu world is colorful and joyous, each associated with special snacks. So during the golu days too there is a treat consisting of some snacks: in some cases this may become sumptuous, and invariably most of it is made of protean rich pulses and cereals and therefore highly carminative resulting in excess biogas in the atmosphere, sometimes they even border on a dinner. When the women guests take leave, they are given a special parting gift.
Golu is one of the most beautiful, aesthetically pleasing and religiously least myth-laden festivities of the tradition. It brings the community together in a very unusual way. It is always a pleasure to visit a golu-home.
It may be mentioned in passing that in Japan there is a somewhat similar one-day festival of dolls known as Hina Matsuri. It is also focused on girls. One of its goals is to ensure a happy and fruitful life for the daughters in the family. On this day, it is customary to drink some sweet sake and a special type of sushi, called chirashi. One also makes a special cake with rice in a geometrical form, called hinshi-mochi, for day, consisting of a few colored layers. Two of these are also placed with the dolls.
As with golu, dolls are displayed in special arrangements, often in different tiers. Since this occurs in the season of peach flowers (March), these are used for ornamentation. One also refers to this festival of Momo-no-Sekko (Peach blossom festival). In the Japanese tradition, peach blossoms represent auspiciousness. They are also regarded as representing the qualities of gentleness, peace, and equanimity. The dolls are nicely left in place for all to appreciate for a whole month.
It is remarkable that two traditions (Tamil and Japanese), quite different in many ways, have festivals which have such parallels.