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    Bhuta Kola

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    A form of spirit worship with performance elements, Bhuta Kola is practised in the coastal districts of Dakshina Kannada and Udupi, Karnataka and Kasargod, Kerala – a cultural area generally referred to as Tulu Nadu. The primary ritual of Bhuta Kola consists of possession by bhuta (spirits) or daivas (deities). In Tulu Nadu, bhutas are believed to offer protection and blessings or cause harm, misfortune, or crop failure. “Kola” refers to a play or performance in Tulu, and the term thus signifies a ceremony for bhutas.

    Bhuta Kola rituals borrow from the indigenous practices of people outside the Hindu caste hierarchy, as well as elements from Hindu mythology. Thus, the beings invoked include animal deities, ancestors, forest and mountain deities, tribal guardian deities and heroes (often of non-dominant castes) held sacred in the communal memory of the region. They are believed to possess male performers of the Pambada, Parava, Koopalam, Paanara or Nalike Scheduled Castes. The rituals are presided over by a priest either from the same caste as the invoked bhuta, or from the Billava or Bunt castes.

    Individual bhutas are believed to represent communities, castes and religious or ethnic groups. For example, the bhutas Kodamanitaya and Kukkinataya are associated with the Bunts, Bobbariya with the Mappillas, Nicha with the Koragas and Okkuballala with the Jains. Female bhutas such as Manthra Devathe and Kallurthi are also worshipped, as are bhutas such as Pilichamudi (who takes the form of a tiger) and Malaraya (who takes the form of a boar). All these entities are represented through the use of costumes, makeup and masks.

    Bhuta Kolas take place annually between the months of December and July, either in open areas near shrines or in private homes. The rituals typically take place through the night on an auspicious date selected by the patron, typically a religious institution or an individual. Prior to the kola, the bhuta costume is prepared and paraded through the village in a procession. The ground for the performance is decorated with rice flour patterns or kolams, and the venue is decorated with birds, animals and geometric designs made from palm leaves, flowers, fruits and vegetables.

    Just before the performance, the patri (medium) dons the costume and makeup of the bhuta, while reciting paddanna (oral epic) verses. These may recount the social issues of the community, since the performer is always of a Scheduled Caste background. The ritual of possession, known as bhuta nema or kola kattuni in Tulu, then commences. The tembere (a percussion instrument) and pipes are played. A priest and the patri worship the bhuta and hand over paraphernalia such as a sword, trident, ani (waist ornament) and the mask to the dancer. The life of the bhuta is recounted through padanna verses, and gradually the patri is possessed. He dances for hours, and may move in and out of the performance space to interact with the audience. Villagers may recount their troubles or ask for help from the bhuta, after which the bhuta reenters the dancer’s body and receives food offerings. It then offers blessings to the village elders or the patron’s family. The ceremony ends with percussion and wind instruments played at high volume, requesting the bhuta to depart.

    Traditionally, Bhuta Kolas are organised by local landowning elites, especially of the Bunt caste, who offer agricultural produce to the bhuta. Other villagers and devotees offer their services during the festival and, in return, expect the bhuta to settle their disputes, dispense justice, and bless their farms to future prosperity. Some scholars have described Bhuta Kola performances as creating a “spiritual court” for devotees, as locals recount their grievances to the bhuta, who must then be appeased in order to maintain cosmic balance and prevent misfortune. Bhuta Kola may thus be interpreted as both a religious practice and a means to ensure social justice as it emphasises a network of transactional relationships within the village; however, it simultaneously maintains caste hierarchies within the community, as the status afforded to the Scheduled Caste performers during the ritual is revoked once it is complete.

    Some scholars have suggested that the bhuta cult predates the early historic period. However, the evidence available suggests that it gained prominence in the region in the medieval period as a form encompassing aspects of ritual performance, folk judiciary, and entertainment. The form is also said to have influenced the theatrical performance genre of yakshagana.

    Bhuta kola continues to be widely practiced in Tulu Nadu today.


    Baindur, Meera and H M Tapaswi. “Bhuta Kola Ritual Performances: Locating Aesthetics in Collective Memory and Shared Experience.” Asian Theatre Journal 36, no. 2 (2019): 395-415.

    K S, Pradeep. “Dance of the Spirits: Bhuta-Kola of Dakshin Kannada.” Sahapedia. April 11, 2019.

    K V, Akshara. “Bhutaradhane.” The Oxford Companion to Indian Theatre, edited by Ananda Lal. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2004: 67.

    Ashton-Sikora, Martha B. “Bhuta Kola.” South Asian Folklore: An Encyclopedia, eds. Margaret A Mills, Peter J Claus and Sarah Diamond. New York: Routledge, 2003: 63-65.

    Shetty, Rashmi. “Bhoota Kola, the pride of Tulu Nadu.” Deccan Herald, May 28, 2019.

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