[post written by Sheela]
Aaru Padai Veedu.
These enchanting terms describing the sets of clay dolls my mom collected evoke a strong nostalgia...
Every time I sat down to write this post, I visualized a naive little girl through the gossamer veil of memory, wistfully donning the antique white pattu pavadai with royal purple zari border and a matching puff-sleeved blouse,
...hair braided and accentuated with a kunjalam at the end,
...with adukku malli flowers coiling all around it,
...bangles jingling when carefully forming the Bharathanatyam mudras with small hands while reciting 'pathaka tripathaka ardhapathaka, kartharimukaha', and 'aangikam, bhuvanam, yashya vaachikam'
...frozen at the end of the single-digit age where I can remain a child forever.
Family Traditions brings a lot of images as every festival was a reason to establish a tradition at home. And my mom was good at establishing traditions.
The one that particularly stands out in my mind is the Navarathri Bommai Golu.
A couple of weeks before the start of Navarathri, my mom goes to the wholesale stores across town to get little mirrors, combs, kumkuma chimizhs (tiny little containers for holding the crimson powder kumkumam/sindhoor), little baskets to hold the thambulam... I tag along if I am up for it. It is a tedious multi bus hop across town in the hot sun... but, highly rewarding.
And then, about a week before the start of the Navarathri, Appa brings down the bommai pottigal, yes, plural, as my mom had quite the collection - about four large wooden boxes which held the carefully padded, wrapped, packed dolls of various shapes and sizes and make. And, every year, at least a couple of new dolls are added to the collection.
Then, he sets up the 7-step golu padi: a Godrej steel gray set of shelves and adjustable stands which spends most of the year sleeping in the attic, unassembled, yet magically fulfills its destiny by hosting the gorgeous display of dolls for couple of weeks a year.
Ever since I could follow instructions, it was my duty to broom and mop the area where the golu will be displayed. Once my mom knows it is clean, she draws an elaborate maa kolam - traditional design on the floor made with diluted rice paste.
Then Appa assembles the golu padi. At which point, depending on who is at hand and up for it, we cover the steps with either simple white veshti, or Amma's old sarees, pinning up as needed to make sure the cloth drapes the steps elegantly.
If that wasn't fun enough, now is when the real festivities start: arranging the dolls and, possibly setting up more scenes on the floor around the bommai padi.
Amma is particular about the order. The tallest and biggest clay dolls go on the topmost step. Gods and goddess dolls at the top, and mythological symbols and other generic ones (like a pair of swans, elephants and such) at the bottom. If something isn't aesthetically appealing, she rearranges till things seem in harmony again.
Once that is done, more fun starts: mixing sand with color powder, we design a city on the floor all around the golu padi. A little school here, an arasamaram pillayar koil (temple) there. A little circus tent with animals here. A bus depot there. A railway station here. A playground there. Rickshaws and bicycles abound our streets. Little plastic and clay children and adults of all sizes and shapes populate our town.
Finally, I get to do a rangoli design on the floor with my cousins, in the available space, without limiting the motion in the area. And nobody better turn on the fan!
But then, the actual Navarathri has not even started yet!
On the first day of Navarathri, Amma establishes the Kalasam (a bronze/silver pot with water or rice, decorated with mango leaves that are held in place by a whole coconut), and pronounces the golu officially open. And she sets off with a kumkuma chimizh full of crimson kumkumam to invite the neighbors and friends.
Every day of the 10-day, 9-nights festival, people exchange visits, spread goodwill and cheer, sing traditional songs, share chundal and other prasadam...
On the 8th night Amma always sets up the books and instruments for the Saraswathi Pooja: my school textbooks, my favorite books, notebooks, pens and pencils, and, of course, my chalangai and veenai.
These are not to be touched or disturbed all of 9th day (and night) observed as Saraswathi Pooja.
However, on the 10th and last day of navarathri, Vijaya Dasami, we get to sit by the arrangement and write, read, play the veena or dance a little, anything at all that we want to excel in, we practice on Vijaya Dasami...
Of course, that was then.
For the last 15 years, I have not participated in Navarathri celebrations here in the U.S. Over the years, if my mom's visit coincides around the Navarathri time, she sets up a simple 3-step arrangement with whatever curios and pictures she gave me of the traditional mythological beings.
However, along the lines of Navarathri, since Ana was born, we have been celebrating Christmas with a tree decked to the gills, ornaments galore, and adding a new ornament each year (discounting the many that break each year thanks to the kitties living with us)...
But, this year, Navarathri just got over, and since my parents were not visiting us, I decided to establish a simple tradition of my own. No elaborate bommai golu, but, just a 2-step arrangement of dolls I have. Plus, a chundal or payasam of some kind every evening.
I was never the fancy dresser since my teens. But, I made an effort to cleanse myself and drape a silk saree each evening after coming home from work, which in turn inspired my 2-year Ana old to ask to be dressed up as well... then, made some chundal or payasam and offered the nivedhyam...
Somehow, it is not the same without friends and neighbors stopping by, and unless it is a weekend, I am strapped for energy and time to celebrate the way I'd like...No matter.
I am not sure I am up for the 7-step bommai golu anymore... but, if Ana is up for it as she grows up, I hope I have the strength to pass on this beautiful Navarathri Bommai Golu tradition my mom has set up for our family...