Kolu dolls go up in shops and homes as Navaratri fever grips Madurai

Maakolams and thoranams adorn doorsteps. Mommies make sundal and payasam. Kids get dressed up and go around homes to sing songs and collect goodies. Every other shop in town is doing brisk business in dolls for the festival of Navaratri.

The streets around the temple and the Periyar Bus Stand are awash with bright-coloured dolls. Apart from the Poompuhar and Khadi Gramodyog showrooms that have stocked a large collection sourced from various parts of the country, the Tiruchirapalli Sarvodaya Sangam has brought in exclusively handmade and eco-friendly dolls made out of clay in the traditional way.

“Over three lakh dolls are stocked in our store and we make nearly 150 sales every day. We have been doing the expo for 22 years now,” says Shanthi, the sales secretary at the Sangam. “All these dolls are triple-coated with paint and will remain in good shape even for decades.” Much of the collection is sourced from artisans in Kanchipuram, Pondicherry, Cuddalore and Trichi. Local varieties are brought from Velacherry and Nilayur near Madurai. “Dolls from every place have some typicality and unique features,” says Shanthi. “There are also dolls made of terracotta, bamboo or banana shoots, glass and metal. The price ranges from Rs.30 to Rs.30,000.”

The new additions this year are dolls depicting scenes from folk tales such as the popular crow and vadai story and sets of Madurai-specific rituals like Meenakshi Therottam and Kallazhagar ethirsevai. Apart from these, customers are snapping up sets of 12 Azhwars, Mysore Dasara processions and models of Ravana’s court. Among the vast range of individual characters are Tenali Raman and Kurangukullan.

Aruna Vidyashankar, who has been putting up Kolu at her home for the past 16 years, says, “I have a collection of 250 dolls and every year I add a new set and broken ones are disposed of. I still retain dolls that belong to my paati that are over a century old. Last year, I brought a Tirupati Brahmotsavam set.”

The dolls of Navaratri are not just playthings. “For the Saivites, Navaratri symbolises Durga’s triumph over Mahisasura, while the Vaishnavites link the festival to Rama’s victory over Ravana,” says Aruna. In Madurai, the abode of Goddess Meenakshi, it is more about welcoming the Devi all nine days. And the steps on which the dolls are decorated also imply a deeper meaning. “The arrangement shows creation,” explains Pavithra, a homemaker celebrating Kolu for two decades. “The Gods of Hindu pantheon are placed on the top steps and as we come down, saints and leaders are shown. And in the end, the human world is depicted including markets, households, common rituals and everyday life.”

Even star hotels in the city have put up Navaratri displays in their lobbies. “It is a way of showcasing our culture to foreign guests,” says Senthilkumar, GM at Germanus Hotel.

“Kolu is also a great way of educating modern-day kids about our mythology and culture,” says Banumathi, a teacher at a private school. “These days, children don’t know the names of various gods, the myths and history behind temples. We may explain them through dolls. For example, Andal is shown with a parrot on her left while Meenakshi is shown with a parrot on the right and many get confused.”

Navaratri is also fun time for families in the city as companies and media houses visit households and give awards for the best Kolus. For Akilandam, setting up the Kolu is a passion. “I nearly spend two days in doing the entire thing. I also try innovativeness every year by adding some current topic to the Kolu,” she says. In 2001, when the twin towers were attacked, Akilandam made a replica of the towers in her display and won a prize.

And no Kolu is complete without that pair of fat thalayatti chettiar dolls. Explains Kala, a Kolu-lover, “The Valayal Chettiar dolls are said to mean prosperity and wealth. In the modern take, the dolls can be viewed as business, market and economy. It is a way of praying for better financial prospects for the coming year.”

If you want to set up a Kolu, simply head to any of the Kovil Kadais or the huge expo opposite Crime Branch on TPK Road.