Buta Kola is a ritual folk dance from the coastal districts (Tulu Nadu) of Karnataka, India. The dance is highly stylized and held in honor of the local deities worshiped by the Tulu speaking population. It bears resemblance to the Theyyam of Kerala and has influenced Yakshagana folk theatre. Buta Kola could be categorized as a form of Shamanism as the dancer performing it goes into a trance and acts as an oracle for the deity being impersonated.
The Word is derived from būta (Tulu for ‘spirit’, ‘deity’; in turn derived from Sanskrit भूत for ‘free elements’,'which is purified','fit','proper', ‘true’,'past','creatures'; Anglicized: ‘bhuta’, ‘bhoota’, ‘bootha’) and kōla (Tulu for ‘play, performance, festival’).
A būta kōla or nema is typically an annual ritual performance where local spirits or deities (būtas, daivas) are being impersonated by ritual specialists from certain scheduled castes such as the Nalike, Pambada, or Parawa communities. The būta cult is prevalent among the non-Brahmin Tuluvas of Tulu Nadu region . The word kōla is conventionally reserved for the worship of a single spirit whereas a nēma involves the impersonation of several spirits in hierarchical order. In kōlas and nēmas family and village disputes are referred to the spirit for mediation and adjudication. In feudal times, the justice aspect of the ritual included matters of political justice, such as the legitimation of political authority, as well as aspects of distributive justice. The produce of land directly owned by the būta (commons) as well as certain contributions from the leading manors was redistributed among the villagers.
The ritual performance at a būta kōla or daiva nēma involves music, dance, recital, and elaborate costumes. Recitals in Old Tulu recount the origins of the deity and tell the story of how it came to the present location. These epics are known as pāḍdanas.
Types of Būtas
Thurston counts among the best known deities "Brahmeru, Kodamanitaya, Kukkintaya, Jumadi, Sarala Jumadi, Pancha Jumadi, Rakteswari, Panjurli, Kuppe Panjurli, Rakta Panjurli, Jarandaya, Urundarayya, Hosadēvata (or Hosa Bhūta), Dēvanajiri, Kalkuḍa, Tukkateri, Gulige, Bobbariya, Nicha, Duggalaya, Mahisandaya, Varte, Chāmundi, Baiderukulu, Ukkatiri, Kallurti, Shiraadi, Ullalthi, Okkuballala, and Odityay. According to some, Jumadi is the small-pox goddess Māri. The Bhūtas are supposed to belong to different castes. For example Okkuballala and Dēvanajiri are Jains, Kodamanitaya and Kukkinataya are Bunts, Kalkuḍa is a smith, Bobbariya is a Māppilla, and Nicha a Koraga." Some of them are ancestral spirits such as Bobbariya, Kalkuḍa, Kallurti, Siri, Kumār Koti and Chennayya. Some are deified wild animals such as the boar - Paňjurli (the female counterpart is Varte Paňjurli) or the tiger - Pilichāmuṇḍi.
Some būtas are Androgynous such as some instances of Jumadi who is represented as female below the neck (breasts), but with a male head sporting a mustache. There are anthropomorphic būtas, zoomorphic ones, and mixed forms (such as the Malarāya of Kodlamogaru, Kasargod, who has the head of a wild boar and the body of a woman).
Depending on the significance of the people who worship them, būtas or daivas can be family deities (kuṭuṃbada būta), local or village deities (jāgeda būta, ūrada būta), or deities associated with administrative units such as manorial estates (guțțus), groups of estates (māgane), districts (sīme) or even small kingdoms (royal būtas or rajandaivas).
According to the ethnographer Peter Claus, the Tulu pāḍdanas reveal a cosmology which is distinctly Dravidian and thus different from the Puranic Hindu cosmology. Importantly, priesthood is not the preserve of a caste learned in scriptures but is shared between the ruling aristocracy on one hand and ritual specialists from the lower strata of society on the other hand. The world is divided in two three realms: firstly, the realm of cultivated lands (grāmya), secondly the realm of wastelands and forests (jāṅgala/āraṇya), and thirdly the realm of spirits (būta-loka). Grāmya and jāṅgala/āraṇya form part of the tangible world, whereas būta-loka is their intangible counterpart. As grāmya is constantly threatened by encroachment, disease, hunger and death form jāṅgala and āraṇya, so is the tangible world under constant threat from the intangible world of the spirits. The world of the forest is the "world of the wild, unordered, uncontrolled, hungry beings of destruction".
The world of the forest and the world of the spirits are therefore seen as mirror images of each other. The wild animals threatening the human cultivator and his fields such as the tiger, the snake, the wild-boar, and the bison, find their mirror images in their corresponding būtas Pilli, Naga, Paňjurli and Maisandaya.
The relationship between these three worlds is one of balance and moral order. If this order is upset by the humans, it is believed that the spirits become vicious. If the order is maintained, the spirits are believed to be supportive and benevolent. Thus, the spirits of Tulu culture are neither ‘good’ nor ‘bad’ as such; they are "neither cruel nor capricious. They methodically and persistently remind a lax humanity of the need for morality and the value of solidarity". Nobody is believed to be above the moral and cosmological norms of this threefold universe, not even the spirits or the gods. Thus the būtas are not whimsical or arbitrary in their judgement. The būtas are their patron’s protectors with regard to a system of moral norms, not despite them.
Feudal relations of tribute and fealty mark the relations among the humans in the tangible world, among spirits in the intangible world and between humans and spirits across tangible and intangible worlds. While the world of humans is ruled by a mortal king, the world of the spirits is ruled by Bermeru, the lord of the forest and of the būtas. And just as the landed aristocracy depended on protection and support from their king, the world of humans depends on protection and support from the spirits. Thus once in a year at the time of kōla or nēma, the lord of the human world (patriarch, landlord, king) has to be reconfirmed in his authority by reporting to the spirit to which he is accountable. While the temporal lord’s authority is dependent on the spirit; the authority of the spirit is guaranteed by the active participation of the villagers in the ritual. Thereby a certain degree of political legitimacy is upheld by the active participation of the villagers. Their withdrawal from the ritual can seriously affect the authority of the landlord.
As Claus observes, the principal mediators in this network of feudal transactions are communities who once upon a time may have led a liminal life between grāmya and jāṅgala/āraṇya. Tribal communities living in and off the forest and trading in forest products were predestined to serve as spirit impersonators as their life world, the forest, is only the tangible side of the world of the spirits. In pursuit of their livelihood they regularly transgress structural boundaries between village and forest. They live on the margins of the village, in the wasteland between forest and field, thus they are themselves, in a sense, liminal. That such liminal people should be mediums for the spirits seems entirely apt. Today communities like Nalike, Parava or Pambada who impersonate different kinds of būtas and daivas can no longer be characterised as tribal. They are mostly landless agricultural labourers in the wet season and spirit impersonators in the dry season.
Today feudal relations no longer obtain and thus former ruling families no longer hold any political or judicial office. But still the village demands that they sponsor their annual kōla or nēma to honour the village deity. The people believe that the neglect of the spirits will make their life miserable. Even though they may have changed, būta kōla and daiva nēma still serve secular as well as religious purposes. In fact the two cannot be separated in a world where the tangible is suffused with the intangible. As the cosmology underlying the pāḍdanas suggests, the very order of the human world and the order of the spirit world are interdependent.
Būtas and daivas are not worshipped on a daily basis like mainstream Hindu gods. Their worship is restricted to annual ritual festivals, though daily pūjās may be conducted for the ritual objects, ornaments, and other paraphernalia of the būta. Unlike with the better-known Hindu gods of the purāṇic variety, būta worship is congregational.
The secular function of the kōla or nēma has been described as a "sacred court of justice" where traditional (feudal) moral ideals are brought to bear on difficult real-life situations. Būta kōlas and daiva nēmas are assemblies of the entire village. Thus they become an occasion to resolve conflicts in the village. The royal daiva (rājan-daiva) rules over a former small kingdom or large feudal estate. He or she is mostly the family deity of rich land-owning patrons of the Baṇṭ caste whose position and power they reflect, confirm and renew. The relationship between the būtas, manor heads, and the villagers forms a transactional network which reaffirms the caste hierarchy and power relations in a village. The duty assigned to every category is differential but based on mutuality. The manor head by staging the nēma seeks to symbolically proclaim himself to be the natural leader of the community.
The villagers offer sēva during the nēma in the form of service and prostrations and in doing so also offer their support to the nēma and their recognition of the leader’s status. In return, the villagers expect justice and resolution of disputes by the daiva during the nēma. In the nēma, the leading manors offer a part of their farm products to the daiva, which are then redistributed to the villagers. The nēma thereby underlines the mutuality on which feudal relations used to be based and, in a limited way, takes care of the problem of social (distributive) justice. The būtas receive these offerings and in return give oracles and blessings to ensure the future prosperity of the village (humans, animals, fields). Finally, a part of these offerings will be distributed as prasāda among the heads of the guṭṭus and other villagers according to their ranks. The system of entitlements is constituted in, or embodied by, the mutual gifting activity between the būtas, as the ultimate owner of the land, and people in rituals, creating a transactional network among them.
The script of the ritual changes from one nēmā to another, thus the following description is somewhat ideal-typical. The ritual begins with the paraphernalia of the būta being brought to the shrine which serves as a venue for the festival. They are placed on an altar or on a swinging cot, which is the insignium of a royal būta (rajan-daiva). The Nalike, Parava or Pambada medium prepares for the impersonation of the spirit with a recital of from the pāḍdana of the būta or daiva. After this, the medium starts putting on make-up and dressing up in his costume which may include an elaborate ani (a giant halo stringed to the back of the dancer). Finally, the medium is given the ornaments from the hoard of the shrine. As he enters the arena, the attendant of the spirit (pātri) gives him his sword, his bell and other paraphernalia and the patron (jajmān) gives him one or several burning torches. As the medium begins to dance, the spirit enters his body. Two people hold the torches along with the medium at all times. Thus, the entrance of spirit into this world is restrained. The medium’s dance gains more force as the possession continues. He brings the torches dangerously close to his body. The jajmān now stands in a ritualistic circle on the ground with his assistants and offerings are made to the būta. These offerings often include the sacrifice of a chicken whose blood is sprinkled on the ground to enhance the fertility of the land. These sacrificial acts are followed by offerings of puffed rice, beaten rice, coconut pieces, bananas, ghee, betel leaf, and areca nut. In the subsequent court of justice the spirit is approached by the villagers for blessings or asked to help resolve conflicts. The judicial program typically starts once the initial rituals are finished. Complaints and judgements are made orally. The būta issues the judgement after hearing the sides of the plaintiff as well as the defendant, if both are present. The būta’s justice must be referrable to general principles. "He may take a stand, he cannot take sides”. While the būta may take the opinions of the village headman and other eminent persons into consideration, the ultimate judgement rests with the būta. Sometimes judgements are also issued by the tossing of betel leaves and the counting of flower petals (usually areca flower). Particularly difficult cases may also be adjourned to the next year by the būta. Some common disputes that come up are related to land issues, family feuds, questions of honour, robbery, debt, mortgage, breach of contract etc. In cases of theft where the offender is unknown, the būta may ask for a certain offering before finding the thief. At times the victim offers the entire value of the stolen goods to the būta. If the thief is found and penalised, the person is made to pay to the plaintiff a sum that is more than the value of the goods stolen. If the būta feels that the thief shows repentance, the gravity of the penalty could be reduced.
The art of being an impersonator is learned. Young boys belonging to the Pambada, Parava, Nalike castes attend rituals where their kin is performing; and they help out with shredding the coconut leaves for the garment of the impersonator, holding the mirror while the impersonator is putting on the makeup etc. They learn the art of the performance by observing the performance of their kin and trying to mimic it. Along with being able to mimic the way their kin performed, what is essential to be a successful impersonator is also the aptitude of being possessed by the deity. There are certain rules the impersonator needs to follow to prepare his body for the possession. This may include being a vegetarian and not drinking alcohol. The impersonator feels the sudden spirit possession only for a few seconds but after that he is filled with the deity’s energy that lets him behave as the deity for the entire ritual.
There are two types of mediators between the spirits and the humans. The first type of mediator is known as the pātri. These are members of middle castes such as Bunt (land-owners) and Billava (toddy tappers, formerly also bow-men). The second type of mediator ("impersonators") typically belongs to scheduled castes such as Pambada, Parava or Nalike. While the pātri has only a sword and a bell as ritual tools, the impersonator uses makeup, ornaments, masks etc. Both mediums are believed to impersonate from an altered state of consciousness. But while the impersonator may speak as the būta (in the first person) and about the būta (in the third person, i.e. when he recounts his/her pāḍdana), the pātri only speaks as the būta in the first person.
Pāḍdanas are major part of Tuluva oral literature. Much of the body of this literature has been built on the legends of the būtas and daivas. Pāḍdanas have numerous variations for the same narrative. As in other epic traditions, there is no single author. Pāḍdanas are orally transmitted and recited. The language of the pāḍdanas is old Tulu. Some famous examples are the Siri-Kumar Pāḍdanas and the Koti and Chennayya Pāḍdanas. The pāḍdanas sung by women while planting paddy are referred to as ‘field songs’.
The pāḍdanas recite the origins of the spirits and deities. This is one way for the rituals to reconstruct the past and render a legitimization to it. The singers act as the indigenous narrators of the history of the native land. The pāḍdanas also stand in opposition to the puranic, male based principles as they highlight the feminine principles of mother earth. The pāḍdanas also reflect multi-socio-cultural background shifts (for example, the move from Matrilineal system to Patrilineal system). The older sense of cosmology is retained through the pāḍdanas. The pāḍdanas also reflect processes of Hinduisation and Sanskritization.
Impersonator with the makeup of Jumadi, a popular deity of the Buta cult
Impersonator of Koti and Chennayya preparing himself with the makeup and tying the ornaments before start of the Kola ceremony
Household shrine of Belle Badagumane, Belle, Udupi
Impersonator of Ullalthi, the patron deity of the Banga Arasa princely family
Impersonator of Bobbarya Swami, the patron deity of the Mogaveera community
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