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In Conversation: The Subramanians on Golu

Akshara, Dhanya and their parents Manasa and Rajagopalan share the impact of the South Indian tradition of Golu on their family.

The soft glow of both candles and electrical lights emanates onto the walls of the room. All around the room, there are remains of what seems to have been a congregation of people. But the main focus is drawn to the middle of the room. Placed against the wall is a handmade staircase covered in sheets and lights, highlighting the room’s most prominent aspect; the sculptures, figurines, and dolls set on the stairs. Navratri is a celebrated festival all around India. Its most famous depiction of the festival is Golu, the tradition of displaying dolls and figurines that depict important stories and legends from Hindu culture and how we perceive the Gods themselves as idols. Navratri is celebrated in many different ways in Hindu households all around the world. My family is from South India, and this is how we celebrate Navratri in our home.

My mother has told me that in some parts of India, Navratri is a celebration of Lord Rama returning home to Ayodhya from Lanka after rescuing his wife from the King of Lanka, Ravana, defeating him in the process. Lord Rama also is returning home after 16 years of exile. Here, in my household, we celebrate Golu to invoke the Goddesses’ power who represents Shakti, Wealth, and Knowledge. We do this by reciting Slokas and Stotras, which are sacred hymns, and we do this with other women, who we invite to our household to seek their blessing and honor them as Devi’s Incarnates. This tradition began centuries ago when women were at-home wives who used this opportunity to socialize with other women, celebrate them, and used this as a way to express their creativity. And it’s true, go to any home displaying a Golu, and each will have its special touches. In the years I have gone out to other families, not one is the same. Every Golu has its uniqueness, and that is part of what makes Golu such a unique festival to partake in.

When we first started this tradition, I remember asking my mother how she celebrated as a child, remembered setting up for Golu, and deciding which dolls go where and how long they made the stairs and why we celebrate for nine days. The following is a written transcript of a recorded conversation I had with my mom about her childhood experience of Golu.

“As a child, I look forward to celebrating Navratri when it is right after our quarterly exams at school are done, and then we get ten days of holidays just for Navratri. We then start to unpack the boxes with all of the dolls, and we take turns setting up the stairs. If we don’t have the ready-made stairs to put the dolls on, we start piling up boxes from our house to make a makeshift staircase. My siblings and I fought on who can unwrap which boxes, and usually, the tallest person would get to keep the dolls on the first step.”

What is the significance of the steps?

“Usually, you would have nine steps to represent the nine nights that you invoke the goddesses with, and if you don’t have nine steps, as long as you always have an odd number of steps, it will be okay. This is what my grandmother has told me. Another definition that my grandma gave was that if you have nine steps or padis, it represents the 9 Planets or Navagrahas. Here in the USA, when we first started, we used our bookshelves and cabinets to make the stairs.”

How do you know where to put each doll?

“How our grandparents taught us was that the main goddess, or who we are invoking, is MahaShakti. So we prepare a Kalash, which is usually, depending on each family’s tradition, a small brass pot, or a small silver pot. We fill that with rice and grains and then have mango leaves and a full coconut. This is invoked as the Mother Goddess and kept on the first step, which is the highest step. The hierarchy/order of the Golu goes as followed: The Gods, then their Avatars, otherwise known as incarnations, then humans, then animals, because humans are considered to have a sixth sense, and then the materials of the Earth, like grain, fruit come last. It depends on each family; if they have many dolls, they can go for 13 steps, 15 steps, 17 steps, and it’s every individual family’s decision. The kids are usually given the choice of getting creative and coming up with their own ‘side projects’ that they can display on the side of the Golu. Some things I’ve seen are playgrounds, schools, or any buildings, some Golu’s I’ve seen have even had temples on the side and beaches. I mainly remember waiting for the holidays to begin and relishing the many different types of sundal that the neighboring Aunties would give us in every house that we visit. All of us and our cousins would have such a good time. And every time we’d go to someone’s house, we’d also invite them to come to our home as well.”

What is the significance of sundal?

Sundal... those days I was told that sundal was grown in the months of rain and Navratri usually falls in the Tamil months of rainfall. In the beginning, sundal started as a part of a protein-rich diet. Back in the day, when it was raining, people fell sick, and intake of these proteins would help their immunity levels. That was the objective of sundal in those days, that I heard my grandmother talk about. But off late, there have been a variety of versions, of not just sundal, but other delicious food that is served to God.”

As a child, what ways did you find a way to have fun during Golu?

“One thing I liked was that I got to dress up all fancy and wear jewelry and looked my best. I also remember playing a guessing game with my friends; whenever we went to someone’s house, we would try and figure out which doll was the newest addition to the Golu, because usually, it is custom to add a new doll every year.”

Why nine nights?

“We celebrate for nine nights because Navratri means nine nights. And every three days is devoted to one goddess. The first three to Goddess Durga(power), the next three to Goddess Lakshmi(wealth), and the last three to Goddess Saraswati(knowledge). The 10th day is called Dasami when it is the end of all evil, where good defeats evil. Some stories say Narakasura was defeated on this day, another where Goddess Kali defeated an asura. Another is that Lord Rama returned home, and the people rejoiced his return for nine nights, and on the tenth day, in some parts of India, and I’ve seen this is Delhi, they burn an effigy of Ravana, to depict that good triumphs over evil. Another tradition is that kids, adults, businesses all start new projects, hobbies, and ventures, which symbolize that the new year will be successful on this day. The day before Dasami, the 9th day is the Saraswati Puja, where all kids, and I still practice this today as an adult, write in rice. You can write anything in the rice, letters, numbers, and this is to symbolize that education is an important part of our lives; you continue to learn as you age. I had to write OM in the rice with my ring finger and keep all the books in front of the Golu. I remember as a child that right after the exams, even if we had holiday homework to complete, our mom would keep all of our books at the feet of God, and then that one day we did not have to touch the books at all and we enjoyed celebrating this. We would act up saying, ‘Amma, we have so much homework to do, but you have kept the books for puja..’ *laughs* We used to have fun that way. The day before Saraswati Puja, all the books are kept in front of the idols, and then we don’t get to do any reading that day. The day of Dasami, we take those books, take the blessings of the adults and God and read a new chapter from the book, practice some math before God, write in rice before God, just to keep our minds growing.”

What is your message to the people this year?

“This is a season of celebration. Given the pandemic, you can still celebrate virtually. All of the chanting that you do virtually will bring some positive energy and vibes to your home. It won’t help just your family, but the community around. Remember to stay safe, stay positive, and wear a mask! Happy Navratri!”

Our Golu:

Two years ago, this is what our Golu looked like.

Our Kalash is set up on the first step, along with Lord Ganesha and Lord Vishnu’s idols, with elephants carrying Lord Vishnu on their backs on the sides. The next step consists of an array of different figures. Some prominent figures are Lord Hanuman, Lord Krishna, and that year, the new idols on our Golu were those of Lord Pandurangan and his wife. The next level displays all eight avatars of Goddess Mahalakshmi, or the Ashtalakshmis’. The fourth step is about the six abodes of Lord Muruga. Humans and animals make up the final step. The Marapachi Bommai’s dressed in gold signifies a husband and wife symbolizes prosperity and fertility. The dancer on the side depicts a famous classical dance in Southern India known as Kathakali, which is known for it’s “story play.”

That year, this was one of our side projects.

This depicts many different sages and rishis performing a yagna with the Gods watching over the ceremony.

Last year, this is what our Golu looked like. Our newest addition to the Golu was the Kamadhenu idol on the second step. Kamadhenu is considered the mother of all cows and the mother of the eleven Rudras. This sacred cow was said to have provided her owner with anything that he or she ever desired. This year, our Kalash was depicted with a face to embody the spirit of Mahashakti. We had more room this year on the steps to spread out the dolls a bit so they could all be seen. We also had the mini banana trees used as decoration because banana tree trunks symbolize good luck and prosperity.

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