An integral part of Tulu Nadu’s distinctive culture is its seasonal rituals and festivals that take you down a road of mysticism, where dancers sway in a trance, in imitation of the spirits they represent.

Bhootha aradhane dancer in Dakshina KannadaImage credit: Dr Akhter Husain
Features Culture Sunday, April 24, 2022 - 15:25

What makes the coastal region of Tulu Nadu, comprising Dakshina Kannada and parts of Udupi district, truly unique is its rich cultural heritage. An integral part of the region’s distinctive culture is the several seasonal rituals and festivals celebrated by Tuluvas (as the local populace is known), such as the Bhootha Aradhane, also known as Daiva Aradhane or Spirit Worship, and the Nagamandala.

Departed souls, natural phenomena and animals are worshipped during the Bhootha Aradhane. Amid drum beats and bursting crackers, idols representing bhoothas or spirits are taken out in a procession. As the procession culminates, the idols are placed on a pedestal. With sword and jingling bells, dancers in colourful costumes and elaborate makeup sway before the idols, in imitation of the spirits they represent, often in a trance-like state, performing the role of oracles. Frantically pacing up and down, they enter the mystical world of supernatural beings with the aid of a unique combination of elaborate dance moves, dialogues, musical narratives, ornate costumes, and extensive makeup.

Also referred to as Bhootha Kola or Nema, the night-long ritual is a dramatically enhanced blend of literature, music and local beliefs, and is most of all marked by the piety of those participating in this ancient form of spirit worship. It is believed that the oracles, as part of the dance, summon bhootas and are temporarily possessed by them, going on to forecast future events, acting as mediators to provide moral guidance to the villagers, or even resolve their legal disputes. A great variety of bhoothas, each associated with particular castes and communities, are involved.

Bhootha interacts with devotees

The ritual comprises 16 steps meant to propitiate the spirit. This includes dancing to loud, rhythmic and hypnotic music, and offering ritualistic sacrifices including rice and chicken to the spirit. The spirit’s possession of the oracle’s body provides the latter with the energy to dance all night and even walk on coal, seemingly easily bearing the brunt of the heat. The performers also develop an enormous appetite, drinking seven to eight tender coconuts, and gorging on raw chicken blood and meat with puffed rice.

Bhootha Aradhane performer dancing with fire

Each performer has a distinctive headgear and costume made out of natural materials such as leaves and bark. The ensemble includes a skirt of tender palm fronds which is just as inflammable, meaning the dancer has to be extremely careful while performing acts with fire. The evening begins with the artist carefully applying the bright, indigenously-prepared colours in an intricate design on his well-oiled face. Once the artist is ready, the spirit of the deity is invoked, and the frenzied dance begins in the darkness of the night. Musicians and torchlights are the only props used for the performance.

Similarly, people of Dakshina Kannada perform an elaborate ritual called Nagamandala, symbolising a unique form of ‘snake worship’ prevalent in the coastal regions of Karnataka. The Tuluvas celebrate Nagamandala to remove the curse inflicted on humans. Also referred to as Nagaradhane, the festival spanning multiple days comprises programmes in honour of the serpent spirit. The ritual Nagamandala, which celebrates the union of male and female snakes, is performed by two priests – one acts as the male snake, and the other as the female. The ritual is conducted in an extravagant manner, with performers known as the Vaidyas dancing till the wee hours of the morning, dressed as nagakannikas (snake women). The Vaidyas cavort around an elaborate serpent design drawn with natural colours inside a pandal erected in front of the shrine.

Naga idols

Documenting the divine

For photographers, capturing the nuances of these divine nocturnal rituals in low lighting conditions is a daunting task. To do this well, one has to study how the lighting can vary in accordance with motion. Keep your ISO at the highest possible setting, so that your camera has maximum sensitivity to all available light. As everything moves quickly, lighting is a challenge. Anticipate and know where the action will be. Have your framing, composition, exposure and settings all ready to go, so that once that ‘decisive moment’ strikes, you are ready for it. Do your homework and ask the organisers in advance what they felt were particularly dramatic or impactful moments.

Bhootha Aradhane dancer

Talking about his experience documenting the rituals of coastal Karnataka, Dr Akhter Husain, Dean, Yenepoya University, Mangalore, says, “During my initial days of photography in the 1980s, it was a challenge to capture night-long rituals like Nagamandala and Bhootha Aradhane, especially since my camera had its limitations. Thanks to technological advancements and the advent of high-tech cameras and accessories, photographing in low lighting conditions is a breeze now. It is advisable to choose a DSLR or mirrorless camera in such situations.”

“I use a variety of lenses from wide angle to short tele lenses of 200 mm to capture the ambience of the scene. It helps capture candid shots without causing disturbance to the subject. I normally use 300 mm lenses when the organisers do not allow photographers to be in close proximity with the bhootha. This is to avoid the performers from getting annoyed and attacking the photographers,” he explains.

Bhootha Aradhane performers

Husain points out that lighting is a challenging game. “Fire is always around the bhootha, which lends a warm glow to the image. My favourite to use is the 80mm 1.4 portrait lenses. My advice to photographers is to avoid using a tripod, and instead depend on a monopod to get some additional stability. It is advisable to strike a rapport with your subject. Put it down to my luck, there have been instances when I have had the opportunity to see the bhoothas at close quarters. Some have even posed for me,” he adds.

ALSO READ: Maari to Maariamma: Brahminising local deities threatens religious ties in coastal Karnataka

All photos by Dr Akhter Husain

Susheela Nair is an independent food, travel and lifestyle writer, and photographer based in Bengaluru. She has contributed content, articles and images on food, travel, lifestyle, photography, environment and ecotourism to several reputed national publications. Her writings constitute a wide spectrum, including guide books, brochures and coffee table books.

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