Bhuta worship

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The Bhuta worship or worship of the spirits is a characteristic feature of coastal Karnataka.

The coastal Karnataka is known for two great art forms namely a highly stylized variety of the ritual dance of the spirit impersonator and a fine tradition of Yakshagana, creating the world of divine and super human beings with all the paraphernalia of costumes, make-ups, music, dance and dialogue.

The most important aspect of Bhuta worship and Naga worship is possession, trance and the dialogue of the possessed impersonator with the devotees. The Bhuta impersonator-dancer behaves like an incarnation of the concerned spirit, listens to the worries and problems of the devotees, warns and comforts them, solves their mental and physical problems. He acts like a healer and solves the legal and judicial problems of the village.

Among the religious faiths of the Dravidians of South India the spirit cult or worship of semi-divine spirits appears to be the most primitive one. This complex system of rituals and beliefs, music and narratives, dances and dialogues, trances and oracles reflects the socio-economic orders, thought patterns, artistic achievements and socio-cultural values enshrined in the rustic societies of different regions.

The people of Karnataka follow a dual religious life of worshipping puranic gods as well as local spirits. The puranic gods worshipped in temple under the leadership of Brahmin priests are silent spectators receiving offerings and they cannot be approached directly. On the other hand these spirits are the localized and personalized deities who influence the lives of the devotees through a more intimate relationship. Human beings are surrounded by these spirits as their guardian angels and conscience keepers. They have certain fixed spheres of influence. The villager tries to live in harmony with these spirits associated with his family or village or region and he offers them periodic oblation. They in turn protect the villagers, talks to them and warn them as and when necessary.

The spirits and folk deities worshipped and the dances performed in interior Karnataka can be classified into the following categories

a) Village Goddesses and Mother Goddesses in different manifestations like maaramma, caudamma, pataalamma and uuramma and the ritual dances like maari kunita, suggi kunita, soomana kunita, rangada kunita etc.
b) Attendant spirits of God Shiva or certain incarnations of Shiva like Virabhadra, Nandi and the dance viiragaase, nandidhwaja kunita etc.
c) Mythological figures like Ellamma, Reenuka, Draupadi and the ritual dances like caudike, karaga etc.
d) Historical figures or cultural heroes like Kariyanna, Kempanna, Kyaate deevaru and the ritual dances like harige kunita, sooligara kunita etc.
e) Semi-mythological spirits like Manteeswaami, Maadeesvara, Mailaangalinga etc and the ritual dances like niilagaara kunita, kamsaale kunita, gorava kunita etc.

In the Tulu speaking coastal Karnataka the spirits can be classified as follows:
a) The spirits of totemistic origin; Panjurli (tiger), Nadigoone(bull) etc.
b) Mother goddesses : Jumaadi, Lakkesiri, Ullaalti, Maariamma etc
c) Attendant ganas of God Shiva : Virabhadra, Guliga
d) Certain incarnations of puranic gods : Visnumuurti, ermeru, Jataadhari etc.
e) Spirits of cultural heroes who met with tragic death : Kooti-Chennaya, Kalkuda-Kallurti, Siri, Kooddabbu, Koraga-Taniya
f) The serpent spirits : Naaga

The nightlong ceremonies are conducted in a well-organized manner with all pomp and festivity. A well decorated arena gives the appearance of a ritualistic stage with the image of the deity and other objects of worship well arranged on one side and the disciplined devotees on the other side. Pipers and drummers seated on another side are ready with their instruments to provide music and drum beats of varying tempo for different stages in the processions and dance ritual. The pandal is well decorated with various figures made from palm leaf, mango leaf and areca flower.

The impersonator is slowly prepared for self-hypnotisation and for imposing the spirit on him. He is ceremoniously given oil for a ritual bath to make his body physically purified and mentally calm. He also wears palm leaf gown. Then his facial makeup begins. Different indigenous colors are used to display symbolically the characteristic features of the spirit. His wife, sister or mother sings the ballad which narrates the birth of that spirit, its descent into the land, heroic deeds, its travels and sphere of influence etc. This prepares the impersonator to identify himself with the spirit concerned. The impersonators are hereditary singers, dancers and painters. They sing ballads in front of the image of the spirit accompanied by appropriate abhinaya or meaning gestures. This way they experience the emotions of the impersonator. This way not only is the impersonator mentally prepared through successive stages for the realization of the spirit, the devotees are also prepared as symphatetic observers or sahrdayas. Their faith and devotion contribute to reach the climax of the situation.

A sublime situation is created when the spectators remain spell bound and everything abruply stops by a hysterical cry of the impersonator. He now assumes the role of the spirit himself and starts calling the authorities to inquire why he is invoked. He addresses everyone according to his rank. There are certain cliche ridden and hackneyed expressions through which the organizers propitiate the spirit and beg protection, prosperity, good crop and wealth for the entire community. The spirit through the oracle in a highly stylized language conveys the pleasure and promises protection and prosperity if pleased with the rituals and demands future propitiation if not satisfied and prescribes certain punitive rituals for acts of insult or impurity to the holy place or certain acts of commissions and omissions on part of the devotees. Personal problems of health or disputes are presented before the spirit. Certain mental problems of possession by devils and ghosts are cured by extricating the devil out of the body. While settling the quarrels or disputes the impersonator assumes the role of a tribunal and conducts himself in a dignified manner befitting the role of a spirit as upholder of truth and righteousness. The decision of the impersonator is final without provision for appeal. It is said that during the days of the British rule, the judges took serious note of the verdicts given at certain important shrines like that of Dharmasthala and the promises made before such divine impersonators.

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