Invoking The Spirits With Bhuta Kola

Bhuta Kola, a ritualistic performance by the Tuluvas in Karnataka, involves the invocation of local deities and spirits
Performers getting ready for Bhuta Kola. Sampath Nayak /
Performers getting ready for Bhuta Kola. Sampath Nayak /

Since its release on September 30, Kantara has become the highest-rated Indian film on IMDB. The movie, its fame regardless, was also mired in controversy for its depiction of Bhuta Kola, cultural practice prevalent in Karnataka. An annual ritualistic performance, Bhuta Kola is at the core of Tulu culture. Away from the controversy, here is a primer on the practice 

Bhuta Kola

Tulu culture, practised by Tuluvas (speakers of the Tulu language), resides in the heartland of Karnataka, primarily Dakshin Kannada and Udupi, and parts of Kerala. Like most communities in India, the Tuluvas also worship God in many forms, such as forest deities, mountain gods, local spirits and animal deities. Bhuta Kola is a ritual which involves the invocation of these spirits.  

Panjurli, Bobbarya, Pilipoota, Kalkuda, Kalburti, Pilichamundi, Koti Chennaya are some of the popular gods (bhutas) worshipped as part of Bhuta Kola. Different bhutas are born from different beliefs and historical stories and have their castes and communities. Bhutas can also be animals Pilichamudi bhuta is a tiger and Malaraya is a boar. 

The Performance

Bhuta refers to spirit, and Kola translates to a play or a performance in Tulu. During the annual celebration of Bhuta Kola, one person performs the ritual of invoking local spirits the performer is believed to be possessed by a spirit and acts as a medium of communication between God and the worshippers. An aggressive performance, coupled with a fierce dance and rituals, promises prosperity to the community and an opportunity for worshippers to seek redressal for their grievances from the oracle. And the performance is no easy task the performers have to undergo rigorous training and observe specific restrictive measures before they take centre stage. 

Organised in December-May, the Bhuta Kola performance involves creating a pedestal for the deity. The performer is also decked up with elaborate jewellery and costumes and dramatic makeup. The entirety of the preparation is supported by continuous chanting and drums. Next come elaborate headgear, ornaments and masks. After dance performances, the oracle hears grievances about land, debt, robbery and other issues before providing a resolution. 

Unlike many ritualistic performances, Bhuta Kola is an intimate event devoid of artifice and fanfare. While there are no particular dates or places to observe the ritual in Karnataka, you can ask locals or your hotel/homestay organiser to figure out if a Bhuta Kola ritual is being organised in the area.  

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