Bhuta Worship – Introduction

In India’s rich universe of folk worship (‘Arādhane’ in Kannada) that have left a legacy, Bhūtārādhane  (Anglicized: ‘Bhootaradhane’ )  practised in Coastal Karnataka has a unique place. It is also known by the name of Daivārādhane or the worship of Daivas (godly figures)or ‘Divine Spirit Worship’. This form of worship largely seen in mainly three districts; Dakshina KannadaUdupi and parts of Kasargod in Kerala. The land situated between river Chandragiri of Kasargod in the south and river Kalyanapura near Udupi in the north is popularly called as ‘Tuḷunaadu‘. Tuu is the primary language of communication here in this region. ‘Theyyam‘ of Kerala is an equivalent form of Bhūtārādhane.

Bhūta, in literary usage, often is synonymous with terms like ghost, devil or demon. In Coastal Karnataka, though, Bhūta’s are spirits with divine powers. The idea of a Bhūta being a ‘protective spirit’ as opposed to being a force that haunts, must come across as a confusing contradiction to outsiders. In Tulunadu, the Bhūta’s are said to be forces on earth that are benevolent to the believers and malevolent to the unfaithful. Thus, in the Tuuva universe, Bhūta and Daiva aren’t different , in fact these terms are interchangeable.  In the mid 19th Century, when German Missionaries landed in the Tulunadu, they first documented this form of worship as Devil Worship. There is an argument that the term ‘Bhūtārādhane’ came into practice following this documentation. It must have been confusing for the German missionaries who, while documenting everyday life in the region, terms Bhūtārādhane as devil worship. To further add to the conundrum, neither Bhūta and Daiva are Dravidian terms (they are of Sanskrit origin), despite the form of worship being strictly Dravidian.  It is important to notice that Bhūta’s of Tuunadu are not ‘Evil Spirits’ but they are the ‘Protective Spirits’.

Bhūtārādhane has shaped and directed the cultural life of the people of Tuḷunadu for hundreds of years. What started off as a spiritual platform has eventually evolved into a complex system with elements of entertainment, art, devotion and alternate method of justice delivery. Bhūtārādhane is an enchanting world including colour, dance, music, sculpture and literature. In fact, every element of this tradition can be studied extensively. From times immemorial, Bhūtārādhane has provided a sense of security, protection, confidence to the Tuḷuvas. It has helped them to live in harmony and in respect with others. It is significant to note that in various stages of Bhūtārādhane , people belonging to different castes of the society have traditionally performed different functions concerning the act of worship.

Bhootha holding the ‘Jeetige’ (torch)  as a part of worship

It is difficult to give an exact number to the Daivas. However scholars identify over 400 such Daivas or Bhūtas that have a historic and cultural presence in Tuunadu. Some Daivas have different name in different regions. For instance, Dr Chinnappa Gowda , a scholar on the subject  in one of his research books says ‘Panjurli’ a much revered spirit with that comes with a Wild Boar mask, has 31 different names. Hence, they might be the same in original form, but as place change (word change repeated has been removed) so does their name, costumes, makeup and mode of worship, though slightly. If we are to observe such changes, we are bound to come across more than 1000 such types. They can be classified according to their origin, status, reach and appearance. Just like the Daivas in male forms, there are also Daivas of female forms. Additionally, there are Daivas which incorporate both masculine and feminine genders, symbolically manifest into ‘Ardha-Naari’ forms. The social stratification and the feudal practices as observed in our society has naturally influenced the way of worship. However, what’s incredibly fascinating is how the identities of Bhūtas give us an idea of the rich syncretic and cosmopolitan tradition of Tuunadu. Apart from the Bhūta’s with Hindu religious origins, there are many Bhūtas like the Babbarya (Bobbarya), which speaks of the harmony between Islam and Jainism, Ali Bhūta of Muslim origins, as an indicator to the fact the world was already globalised before the word Globalisation arrived, we had Chinese Bhūta, Arabian Bhūta and many others where foreigners have turned into Bhūtas. These show Tuunadu’s long association with cosmopolitanism and acceptance of the ‘outsider’. Similarly, the worship of Bhūtas include many such Bhūtas which symbolise the harmony between different castes and religions.

One of the most important roles played by Daivas in the Tuuva a publicsphere is that of a giver of justice. To this day, it is not uncommon to see people, especially in villages preferring to approach
a Bhūta as opposed to a Court. The divinity seems to offer much more faith and courage in people about fairness of a judgement as opposed to words of a mere human judge. This belief in judgement of a Daiva is unshakable and binding for good. Thus, truthfulness and discipline in social life of this region is inextricably linked to the ‘truths’ spoken by the Daivas. Bhūtārādhane also becomes an occasion for the entire family to come together, prepare and have food together and express themselves and have a good family experience, in the context of a family’s deities being worshipped.

Daiva acting as giver of justice

Bhūtārādhane is also a centre of controlling the happenings in one family or a village. All have to obey the decision taken by the Daiva. There is also a belief that if Daivas decide to rip someone or the village of its blessing, it can turn tragic for the person or village concerned. For structures of society to function with discipline, such a faith is helpful. For people, this is not superstition or black magic or fate, but rather a living truth. Hence, they believe Bhūtas as ‘Satyolu’ meaning ‘Truths’.

To trace the history of each of the Bhūta, a very important tool is ‘dana‘. Part of Tuḷunadu’s oral tradition passed, these danas are treasure trove of the region’s folk literature. danas could be commonly brought under the ‘Ballads‘. But, there are many dana‘s which cross the boundaries of ‘Ballads‘ to become ‘Folk epics‘. There are a few more which have the features of ‘Ballad Cycle‘. As far as the theme is concerned, Pāḍdana’s fall under the category of ‘Myths’. Cultural history of Tulunadu can be seen intricately showcased in these Pāḍdana’s. Sometimes, these stories may seem hyperbolic, exaggerated but these are not just associated with ideas , they narrate a people’s history of Tuḷu land. Narratives and places of worship are interconnected with the rituals that take place in the region. Singing divine stories in a ritualistic manner is a part of worship. These Pāḍdana’s are sung by either the Bhūta artist or his companions. dana‘s describe the origin of the Bhūta, its miraculous adventures and its regional diffusion.

As every folk form has its own style, the language of Bhūtārādhane also has a particular style. The person possessed by the Bhūta (Pātri or medium of deity) as well as the performer who’s dressed up as a Bhūta, spout anecdotes that appear heavy in literary values ,a noticeable departure from everyday Tuu. This departure is evident even in the language used by person who acts as a stand-in or a liaison for the devotees in presence of the deity too is unique. They are called as ‘Madhyasta’ meaning mediators. In worships related to family matters, the elders of the family perform the function of mediators. The plea is called ‘Madu’/ ‘Madipu, / ‘Pāri’.

Mediator or Liaison person praying to Daiva on behalf of devotees

Unsurprisingly, a majority of of the tools or properties used in the Bhūtārādhane are a part of agriculture. Even various sporting activities like kambaa (racing buffaloes on a field of slush), Kōri Aka (cock fight), Ceṇḍu (ball), Tappangayi, Ambodi,Satti Kallu (Lifitngs of SattiShakti – Boulders), Sootedaare are also celebrated as a practice within Bhūtārādhane . Though these sports have grown to be independent elements, they have a close connection with Bhūtārādhane .

The two elements on basis of which we can construct the cultural conceptualisation of Bhūtas are their origin and their forms of worship. In the spiritual sense, Bhūtas exists in an immaterial world. But people strongly believe that though Bhūtas are in the immaterial world, they protect and give directions to people in the material world. This amalgamation of immaterial and material world is dependent on a particular time, place and milieu. This unique context hence built can be called as a ‘liminal space’. This liminal space is a ‘temporal realm.’ The ritual becomes an event that represents the connect between the two. It however falls on the people of this world to create a connect between the two worlds and make possible to summon the forces of the parallel universe. If people in the physical world wants to witness those who belong in the metaphysical world, then they have to enter this liminal and imaginary world. Creating this liminal space, choosing the ideal time, place and milieu as well as inviting those who belong in that space, is all performed by the people from the physical world.

For Bhūtas to enter this liminal space of worship, there are some rules that have been followed since time immemorial. For Bhūtas to manifest, there is a medium for the deity. He is known as Pātri or Māni. The Bhūta which appears in the liminal space, uses this individual as a medium. This individual who is charged up following the entry of the Bhūta into his body, communicates from the liminal space. Because of this man, the connection between the physical and the metaphysical world takes place. The conversation with the Bhūta, the sharing of happiness and sorrows and mutual well-being happens through this individual. Thus the Pātri connects the material world to the immaterial one. For an individual to serve as a medium, there are many rules to be followed such as , the person should have had a bath, must wear the clothes of ‘madi’ (pure and untouched), wear garland of particular flowers and jewelry and follow some rituals and rules in his everyday life. These specific rules help in keeping himself separated (aloof) from this material world.

Bhūta artist communicating with the person possessed by the Bhūta (medium of deity).

The time and place has to be appropriate for a Bhūta to make its appearance felt. Nights are usually when the Bhūtārādhane is carried out. Dimly lit crimson atmosphere, pitch dark night behind, an open field and the sleep deprived devotees give the place of Bhūtārādhane an ethereal beauty as well as bring a sense of other-worldliness.  In addition, ostentatious costumes, the colors, the brandishing of weapons, the elaborate song (dana), loud music,  and dance performances of the Bhūtas, the uproarious laughter and exaggerated antics make the entire experience delightfully surreal. The Bhūta is invited with gusto; a day is decided, symbolically a plantain stem is cut, pūjās are performed on the weapons, a procession carried out, a mass prayer held, and Bhūta is brought in with utmost respect and reverence.  The Pātri all set to receive the Bhūta in his body stands steady with a unique costume, people praying together inviting the Bhūta to the temporal realm, the Bhūta making an entry into the body of the Pātri with unique clothes waiting for him, gifting the Bhūta with fruits, specific things, money, food in the form of benison, listening to the Pātri with a respect and taking his words as the words of the Bhūta and practicing what he says, after all this satisfaction on the face of the people who get to see this spectacular form only few times a year , all these brings a cultural dimension to these ritualistic folk practices.

Despite differences in Caste and Class of the devotees, the Kōlā platform is a caste less platform. In the eyes of the folk communities, Bhūta’s are the culmination of powers that have the ability to manifest in human form when ideal time, place and milieu is provided. Even though the man who dons the costume of the Bhūta usually belongs to the lower caste, people from all walks of life follow his command in this context. The period between the stage where the Bhūta enters the body and the stage at which the Bhūta leaves the body is significant. At other times, this man would be like any other member of the society. By representing the Bhūta , these men command respect in the society. His art however would have changed the village and life there forever.

Since almost all fundamentals of theatre performance can be found in the arena of Daivārādhane, it can also be called as the folk worship theatre or even religious theatre. But as people still consider and believe Bhūtārādhane as a living culture, it cannot be separated from the cultural practice and used as a material practice just like a folk form or a play.

It may not be necessary to consider the idea of Bhūtārādhane and the events that take place within it as reality, but the message of it has to be given importance. In the study of the meaning and functions of a worshipping tradition it is important to observe what is the message in the process of such a worship. Hence it is not right to term Bhūtas as the evil spirits, devils or demons in the view of the folk communities. Meaning of the term Bhūta should be considered in the cultural aspect because of two reasons, namely, people’s mindset of taking Bhūtārādhane as worship of a spirit from an immaterial world and accepting and believing that the person with an artistic manifestation as the Bhūta or Daiva himself.


References :

1.”Tuḷuva Janapada : Kelavu Notagaḷu” – Dr. Amrit Somēśwara
Publisher : Prasāraṅga Kannaḍa University, Hampi, 2007

2. “Tuḷu Janapada Sāhitya” – Dr. Vivek Rai
Publisher : Kannaḍa Sahitya Parishat, Bengaluru , 1985

3. “Bhūtārādhane : jānapadīya adhyayana” – Dr. K. Cinnappa Gauḍa
Publisher : Maṅgaḷagaṅgōtri, Madipu Prakāśana, 1990

4. “Tuḷunaḍina Bhūtārādhane (article) ”  [ Book: ‘Ani Aradala Siri Siṅgāra’ ] –  Dr. Ashok Aḷva
Publisher : Sāhitya Baḷaga, Vashi , Navi Mumbai, 2016

5. “Bhūtagaḷa Adbuta Jagattu” – Dr. Lakśmi Prasād G
Publisher :  Pracēta Book House , Bengaluru , 2013


Translation Credits :  Amulya ArasinamakkiG VishnuSuman Priya

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