Tiger in the Mirror
Around the months of September and October each year, as the ten days of Dussera near, boys and men in the region of Karnataka known as Dakshin Kannada prepare to become tigers. Goddess Durga’s steed, the tiger is an animal that is at once fierce and beautiful, an emblem of wild majesty. It so happens that the thick forests of the Western Ghats that run through the area are among the few landscapes in India, identified as home to Panthera tigris tigris, the Bengal tiger.
Hulivesha, which literally translates to ‘tiger mask’, is a folk dance form that honours the Devi and her favorite animal. For years, folk dancers of Hulivesha have embraced the spirit of the animal, painting its stripes on their skin, allowing themselves to be moved by the drumbeats to celebrate the animal’s qualities.
For the men and boys who partake in the dance, it is an extraordinary time, a period when they cease to be ordinary people engaged in the mundane routines of everyday life, if only for an evening or two. Donning the tiger stripes is a form of worship, a mode of penance, and a path to wish fulfillment. The group photographed in this series, for instance, came with a diverse set of hopes and prayers. One member wished for divine blessings to build a house, another for a match for his daughter. A child with a leg problem prayed for his leg to heal; if it did, he promised to participate the following year.
The painting of the body is a long and laborious process that often starts early in the morning. The painters begin with the colours yellow and white. All the dancers, often 30 to 40 people, queue up to get painted, and then wait for a couple hours for the paint to dry. Only then is it time for the colour black. They wait for their turns patiently, and are rewarded with glistening black stripes. The final round of paint is for the eyes, and then the last bits of touching up. Waiting for the paint to dry is part of the test. Hands must not touch the body, and so they spread their bodies out to dry, sometimes holding onto a line strung across the room for support.
The dancing ends way past midnight and the dancers spend the early hours of the morning removing the paint off their bodies, using turpentine or kerosene. They cannot sleep with it on as it is very uncomfortable. (Talcum powder is often used during the dance to provide some relief.) Many of them are left with rashes. Yet, each year they do it again. The idea of the tiger as powerful, spiritual and unknowable captivates and mesmerizes us. It elicits reverence like no other animal does.
Traditions and practices give us a glimpse of our past and ancestors and how they functioned as a society. They could be subtle like the Thirtha to a massive congregation of people and rituals spanning days. Daivaradhane belongs to the later: celebrated annually in Tulu Nadu a region of coastal Karnataka. Local spirits (daivas, būtas) are invoked and the spirits lodge themselves in the body of an impersonator. The impersonator is invariably from scheduled castes like Pambada, Nalike or Parawa.
Kōla is the enactment of a single deity where is Nēma involves impersonation of several spirits in a hierarchy. Kōlas and Nēmas also provide a platform for effective dispute resolution. A strong belief that Kōla or Nēma must be conducted annually exists in the villages. They fear the angry god will make their life miserable. Daivas and Buta are not worshipped everyday like other Hindu gods, but restricted to annual ritual festivals, on the other hand ritual objects, ornaments and other paraphernalia of the buta are worshipped daily.
The ritual is brought to life with music, dance, a gripping narrative enhanced further by elaborate costumes. The stories take us through a journey in time form the origins of the deity to its current avatar and its current geography. These epics are known as pāddanas. The deities have their own unique traits probably making them more human complexity and qualities. For instance Okkuballala and Devanajiri are Jains ; Kodamanitaya and Kukkinataya are Bunts. There are only two female Bhūtas namely Ukkatiri and Kallurti. Wild Animals too are deified such as the boar (Panjurli) or the tiger (Pilichamundi).
Dugganna Kaveri was the first deity to reside in this region of Karnataka known as Dakshin Kannada and further 5 deities followed suit Ullayadeva,Kodamanitayi, Kanthiri jamudi, Sarala Dumavathi, Jarandhaya and Pilichamundi. The ritual begins by bringing in all the accouterments of the daiva into the shrine. The shrine is where the festival is conducted. An altar or swinging cot is used to place the paraphernalia. These are symbolically important, as they are the insignia of the royal daiva.
A lot of preparation is done be it for the costume or helping out with the costume. Males from Pambada, castes help out their kin who is the impersonator of the daiva. Their tasks includes shredding the coconut leaves for the garment, holding the mirror while the impersonator is putting on make up and assist with any other allied need of the impersonator. The helpers are observing and perfecting the art so that they can one day, be capable of invoking the spirits. Apart from learning the nuances of costumes and make up they have to follow a strict regimen, which prohibits them from eating meat and consuming alcohol.
The people from a chosen set of communities invoke the Daiva and offer up their bodies as the medium for the daiva. Make up and costume provide strong cues for the person invoking the daiva . Sometimes a halo, which is elaborate, can be attached to the back of the dancer (Ani). Ornaments from the hoard of the shrine are handed over to the person invoking the Daiva , he walks towards the arena, an attendant of the spirit known as Padri hands over a sword, bell and other paraphernalia and the yajaman (Patron) gives him burning torches. The spirit enters the body of the impersonator after the dance commences. Two people hold the torches along with the medium, restraining the spirit. The dance picks up speed as the daiva hold over the invoker gets stronger and stronger.
The yajaman along with his helpers make offerings to the daiva. Offerings include the puffed rice, beaten rice, coconut pieces, bananas, ghee, betel leaf and arecanut. A subsequent court of justice provides a chance to the villagers to obtain blessings and ask for relief for their problems. The judgment is given after hearing out the aggrieved parties. The judgment is pronounced orally. Sometimes tossing a betel leaf and counting the number of petals of an area flower are also used to give the judgment. Judgments can also be adjourned if the dispute is a complex one. Land disputes, family feuds, robbery, debt, mortgage, breach of contract are the most common grievances put forward for resolution.
By Pradeep KS