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Bhoota kola, Karnataka

Derived from būta (Tulu for ‘spirit’, ‘deity’; in turn derived from Sanskrit भूत for ‘ghost’, ‘wandering soul’; 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, Tulu speaking castes in Tulu Nadu. 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. It can be said as a form of Shamanism.

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

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.


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.

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