September 01, 2018


By Sushumna Kannan

As surprising as it may seem to some, Hinduism hasn’t been concerned with the sacred and the profane in the same way as the monotheistic traditions or the organized Judeo-Christian religions. As a result, we see the sacred appear in many different forms and as a live tradition with fuzzy boundaries. An important manifestation of this is the culture of Bhuta worship in south-west coastal India, known traditionally as the Parashurama Kshetra. The essence of the Bhuta culture as viewed and lived by the way the sculptors who make a living out of eking out sculptures of the Bhuta deities, is that it destabilizes our subjectivities by teaching us to give up our ego while simultaneously solving problems in everyday situations, resolving conflicts and offering ethical guidance—the latter function is unavailable in mainstream Hinduism. What is definitely fascinating is that the Bhutas are considered no less important than the deities of mainstream puranic Hinduism by the practitioners of the worship. ‘Ella daiva ne’ meaning ‘Everything is of divine nature’ is what Gudikar, a traditional sculptor of bhuta murtis for Temples, hailing from Kundapura says. Gudikar who has inherited sculpting from countless ancestral generations of sculptors categorically refuses to hierarchize mainstream traditional Hinduism and Bhuta culture. What is more surprising about Bhuta worship is the visual experience they bring to fore since the sculptures are nothing like the deities of mainstream South or North Indian temples.

Unlike the marble and stone sculptures of deities in temples across India, bhuta sculptures are made of wood. They are painted in vibrant red-orange colours with characteristic features. In short, they are a visual treat. The eyes are prominently carved and painted. And though the style of painting comes close to the Kathakali performer’s make-up, bhutas are distinct from them. Each bhuta has a particular name and form, with particular rules of carving and worship which are diligently followed by sculptors. Female idols are supposed to be smaller than the male ones in conformity with traditional ideals of femininity and beauty. Visually, some of the Bhuta animal bodies, like the tiger’s are exaggeratedly elongated; this is to emphasize their qualities, like agility. In the temples dedicated to them, different sets of Bhutas stand next to each other in rows; there is no sanctum sanctorum. The average size of the murtis are 91 X 22 inches. Made of Jackfruit (Halasu, 10 ft. tall) and Big Jackfruit (Hebbelasu, tree 15 ft. tall) wood, they are painted red with small intricate designs in white or other colours for clothes and jewelry. Sometimes a single temple can have up to 50 bhuta sculptures accompanied by a ‘Naga bana’ or the ‘Nagarakallu’ (Snakes) in stone, in the temple premises.

In the past, there has been a scheme of patronage from temples and Kings that gave a contribution or dakshine to sustain bhuta sculpting. Today, it has been partially replaced by IT and Dubai money, while temples like the Dharmasthala Manjunatha continue their patronage. Typically, a mythology is attached to each bhuta which defines its characteristics in relating to the devotee and dispensing justice. People of different castes, religions and communities seek out the bhutas, promise offerings in exchange for favours or for conflict resolution. Possession and trances are extraordinary features of Bhuta worship. The bhutas dialogue with devotees, responding to them, warning of possible wraths or joy, solving problems, physical as well as psychological.

The Bhutas do not exactly correspond to the meaning ‘element’ as in the word ‘panchabhuta’ or to ‘devil’ or even ‘Bhuta kaala’, which means ‘the past.’ They are housed in wooden structures with sloping roof to combat the seasons of pattering rain the South-west coastal region receives. The general belief is that the Bhutas follow the indifferent principle of Karma and provide instant justice. The Bhutas themselves are said to have no merit or vice- punya or paapa. Though Bhuta worship cuts across communities, some deities are worshipped more by specific communities. For instance, The Bete beera (Hunter) by the Madivalas through sacrifices of goats and hen and, Nandishwara (Bull) by Brahmins. Some Bhutas’ defining characteristics are their jaati and religion, such as one born of parents of different religions or through alternative sexual practices. For instance, Bobbariya is the spirit of one who dies at sea and was born to a Muslim father and Jain mother.

The Bhuta myths and stories detail sexual practices that starkly contrast with Victorian thought and the openness to various forms of sexual practices resembles that of the puranic/mythical world. Bhuta culture is thus a valuable record of pre-Victorian notions of sexuality. While Bobbariya was as real-world as a Bhuta could get, born of an inter-religious union, there are other Bhutas whose origins are fantastic and extra-mythical. Panjurli is the spirit of a boar born from an incestuous affair between a brother and sister boar, also a dead but revived boar. It is possible that such extra-mythical descriptions were the reasons why the Bhutas although popular are not entirely mainstream. The Bhuta Kola, the invocation of Bhutas, and the festival around it has such widespread influence that the Yakshagana and Theyyam dance-drama art forms in Karnataka and Kerala have traces of it.

The model of co-habitation of different castes, religions and communities in Bhuta worship does not appear to be based in known models of secularism or tolerance but appear to arise out of genuine acknowledgements of the higher power of all deities and their essential similarity, though each community must preserve its own interpretation of any number of related myths. This fascinating arrangement of practices is further complicated by the unique history of migration of the Konkani Brahmins from the north and the inter-relatedness of Jains with Bhuta culture.

In a temple, the Bhutas are treated as living being having likes and dislikes, preferences and emotions, even desires. The Bhuta murtis are given an offering of milk and water on special days but are worshipped with flowers every day. The Bhutas are offered gold and silver for the fulfilment of harakes or vows by people, and each Bhuta has a favourite object it likes to receive. Bobbariya, Jataka, Benadakki, Aihole, Nandikeshwara, Masti, Chikka, Mailaadi and Naankaali are some of the common Bhutas. The enormous power of a Bhuta is widely believed in. Gudikar insists that “If a deyya [Bhuta] wants to kill somebody, it just will.” As soon as the Bhuta image is carved, there is consecration and a life-installation ceremony. It is also believed that each Bhuta deity has a specific place reserved for it where it has to be placed exactly after a fresh coat of paint, when it is re-consecrated. Failure to do so is said to incur its wrath. Each new sculpture in a shrine is required to be a little larger than the one before so as to continuously augment the power of the temple. The larger size literally means greater power.

The sculptor who ekes them out takes on a new role in the museum, but what this is, is again dependent on the modern museum-goer’s sensibilities as well his/her interest in traditional modes of being. Far from being the subject of modern art which would represent him/her through structures of realism, the traditional artist, if we could even call him/her an artist without addressing the baggage it brings from western art historical disciplines, stands in a tangential relation to modernist preoccupations with realism and even postmodernist conceptualizations, which allows for multiple voices and multiple meanings to co-exist. It is useful to remember in this context that the Bhuta sculptor does not view him/herself as an agent in delivering the final form of the murti. The inspiration, agency and labor are all attributed to the divine and to the other participants in his/her world. It is also for such reasons that the sculptor is considered close to the divine in Bhuta culture. The protestant work ethic, its valorization of labour and leisure simultaneously, which marks all history of art in the West is clearly amiss with the Gudikars!

Note: The Bhuta sculptures were curated by Dr. Annapurna Garimella for the Devi Art Foundation’s exhibition, Vernacular in the Contemporary, held at Delhi, in 2010.  This article draws from the research and interview with the Gudikars conducted by the author as a catalogue writer for the exhibition.