A troupe of musicians play the traditional temple instruments nadaswaram and thavil in a procession, while carrying Lord Venkataramana, an avatar of Vishnu, in a golden chariot through a pathway studded with lights. Temple priests accompany the chariot as devotees prostrate before the deity.

These clay dolls form the centrepiece of a large golu arrangement this Navratri at the home of Anuradha Rao in Ashok Nagar, Chennai. Spread across two-thirds of her sitting room, it is arranged neatly on seven steps designed specifically for this purpose.

Golu, or Bommai Kolu, is a display of figurines set up during the festival of Navratri in the southern states of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh. It represents the assembly of Goddess Durga who set out to battle the demon Mahishasura for nine days, eventually defeating him on the tenth day. This tenth day, called Vijayadashami, is celebrated as the triumph of good over evil.

A large themed golu at Anuradha Rao's home in Chennai.

During the nine days, dishes of different pulses (sundal) are made each day at homes and offered to the goddess for strength in battle. Like many other festivals, this is a time to make social calls on family, friends and neighbours and visit each other’s golu.

Over the years, the arrangement of golu dolls has changed, and so has the purpose of the practice.

From a simple tier-wise arrangement of idols worshipped during the nine days, the golu has transformed into an annual exhibit of creativity and innovation. Now, in several households, dolls are placed according to themes – right from tableaux of well-known episodes of Ramayana and Mahabharata to interpretations of abstract concepts such as Silence or We are all God’s children.

Anuradha Rao has been creating themed golu arrangements for around 25 years, and she says that each year she tries to do something unique.

“I feel this is an art,” said Rao. “I started in a very small way, but slowly as I began reading and gaining more knowledge, my golus became more complex.”

Each presentation is a depiction of the lines of a song.

Creative interpretations

Rao’s golu this year is based on the Kannada devotional song Dasana madiko enna (Make me your servant), a popular rendition of which was sung by Carnatic vocalist MS Subbulakshmi. Each line of the song is interpreted in Rao’s arrangement and depicted using a story from Indian mythology.

For instance, the line that translates to “rid me of all my sins” is depicted with a scene from the Mahabharata where the Pandavas gamble away their kingdom, fortune and their family in a game of dice. The next lines, “wrap me in the cloak of your kindness”, are interpreted as Draupadi’s prayers to Krishna as she is being disrobed by the Kauravas after the Pandavas’ loss in the game of dice.

In another part of the city, it is the stories of sages that find their way into a golu.

Vijaya Sridharan's golu arrangement.

Retired history teacher Vijaya Sridharan’s golu is based on Saint Ramanujam’s 1000th birth anniversary which is supposed to fall in April 2017. But instead of focusing solely on the saint’s life story, Sridharan picked up the theme of Sahasram or Thousand.

Part of her golu is made up of little models of lesser-known temples that are more than 1,000 years old. Over the past year, Sridharan travelled to every one of these temples with her driver Ganesh in order to capture their charm up close.

Bheeshma on his deathbed.

Apart from temples, Sridharan’s golu also features stories from Hindu mythology that revolve around the number 1,000. Bhishma, a character from Mahabharata, recites the thousand names of Vishnu – the Vishnusahasranamam – while waiting to die on a bed of arrows during the war of Kurukshetra.

Then, there is also a celebration in her golu of a person’s 80th birthday, by when one is supposed to have seen 1,000 moons in their lifetime.

Eightieth birthday celebrations.

This year’s golus in Chennai also draw inspiration from contemporary events.

At the home of Manu Vidya in central Chennai, the golu is partly a tribute to India’s Olympic and Paralympic stars. Next to the figurine of Lakshmi are images of PV Sindhu and Mariyappan Thangavelu, and next to the figurine of Veera Lakshmi, the goddess of bravery, is the Indian Army.

Contemporary references in golus.

Changing roles

As themes change each year, the dolls are repainted and redecorated to play new roles in the golu.

“The Bheeshma doll this year might have been a Muslim man last year,” said Sridharan, whose themed golus sometimes depict stories from other faiths too.

Vanisri Raghupati, a resident of Kasturba Nagar in south Chennai, buys dozens of identical small plastic dolls which cost around Rs 15 each. She then paints each of them and dresses them up as unique characters in her theme.

“I don’t have space to keep big clay dolls,” said Raghupati. “And because the themes keep changing, I switch to these small dolls that I can customise.”

Identical dolls morphed into different characters.

Every year, at least 500 people visit Raghupati’s house to see her golu. A solutions architect at an IT company and a mother of three, Raghupati begins her work for each Navratri nearly a year in advance. She takes more than six months for research, four months to craft her golu, and two weeks to arrange it.

This year, her golu is based on the life story of Shankaracharya, a saint from the early 8th century, and his teachings. Raghupati even uploads videos of her golus every year for her friends who are unable to visit.

“These days, not a lot of people take time to read up these stories,” said Raghupati. “The main reason I create themed golus is because I want to learn, and I want my children to know these stories.”

Vanisri Raghupati and her her children with their themed golu.