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by Frédéric Rond

The Sanskrit word bhuta, meaning “passed away” or “spirit”, refers to the ancestral cult which is still actively practiced in the Tulu Nadu region (South coastal Karnataka, India). In contrast to religions in which unanimated idols are worshipped, bhuta ceremonies or bhuta kola are characterized by the interaction between the audience and the oracle who receives the invoked spirit. Through the voice of this oracle, the bhuta answers practical questions, solves quarrels and thus acts as a judge whose word cannot be discussed.

The bhuta kola usually take place once a year, the date depending on some astrological calculations and sometimes on the need to quickly solve some local problems. They are sponsored by upper-class families, usually hailing from the Bunt community (erstwhile nobility, belonging to the Hindu caste of warriors (Kshatriya)) who organize the functions lasting several nights and provide the ritual objects (metal masks and ornaments that will be kept in sthaana (“shrines”) after the ceremony) and offerings (fruits, animals for sacrifices, etc.). To prove to his audience that he is no more human but a corporal envelope hosting the bhuta, the diviner has to perform vigorous dances despite the fact that he is wearing some extremely heavy metal adornments (belt, mask, ankle bells, sometimes a plastron). Like in the Muria tribe of Bastar where, during religious ceremonies the oracle, a young girl, has to sit on a swing interspersed with erected sharp nails, the bhuta oracle is also sometimes subject to corporal hardship (lifted up with hooks stuck into his flesh) to show that, in his trance, he has become divine and thus gained superhuman power.

Antiquity of the bhuta cult

Fig. 1
As this cult does not have its own literature, its age is very difficult to estimate. However, the paddaana, the narrative legends that are sung during the bhuta kola, refer to certain facts and personalities, for instance, the King Bhutala Pandya, who lived at the debut of our era. This suggests a very ancient, probably more than two thousand years old, origin.

Other arguments tend to prove the antiquity of this cult. For instance the use of the palm leaf in replacement of textiles in the fabrication of the ritual costumes may imply that no fabric was available when the first bhuta ceremonies were performed.

The fact that some of the worshipped spirits have a totemic origin that was later interpreted and absorbed by Hinduism is an additional argument. Indeed, it seems that the Bhuta religion was already practiced in coastal Karnataka by the indigenous people before they were converted to Hinduism several centuries before Christ.

Antiquity of the bhuta masks

Fig. 2
Considering the ancestral tradition of bronze casting in Karnataka (see for example the bronze Tirthankara in the Bangalore State Government Museum, Ganga dynasty, 7th century, collected in Sravanabelagola) and the antiquity of the bhuta cult previously exposed, there is a high probability that some metal masks were already used during bhuta kola which took place centuries ago.

However, estimating the age of the pieces displayed in the collections is quite difficult for the following reasons.

From a scientific point of view, no reliable dating can be processed on metal.

By chance a consecration date could have been carved on the masks but unfortunately, till now, none has ever been observed.

Fig. 3
In addition, the lack of available graphical documents makes impossible any comparative study between the masks and the evolution of their representation (see the comparative study done by Chris Buckley between Tibetan thangka and the ornaments of the ancient Tibetan furniture (Chris Buckley, Tibetan Furniture, Floating World Editions, China 2005)).

Finally, any attempt to establish a link between the weight of a mask or the simplicity of its style and its age would be very approximate as nowadays bhuta masks of different weights and designs are still being casted.

Once all these impossibilities have been stated, it seems that the only way to go forward in this study is to consider proof by contradiction, and question why these metal masks could not have withstood the test of time.

Fig. 4
Several C14 analyses processed on some Himalayan wooden masks dated them from 15th century (See for example: Masks of the Himalaya (edited by François Pannier), 5 Continents 2009. The C14 test processed on the mask no. 123 by Archeolabs TL (Ref: FH-09-01-01-C14 on 25th Feb.09) yields the following result (in calibrated date): 1405 cal AD - 1471 cal AD).

Thus, there is no reason why a bhuta masks in thick metal, usually kept in a shrine after its, sometime, unique use, could not be more ancient than these wooden masks.

Certain Mohra from Himachal Pradesh, some of which date back to the 12th century AD or before (date carved on the object) are comparable to bhuta masks in terms of material and patina (See: Antiquities of Himachal Pradesh (M.Postel, A.Neven, K.Mankodi, Project for Indian Cultural Studies, Bombay 1985, fig.296 e.g.)).

The main types of bhuta masks

The bhuta have various origins which can be roughly categorized into three main classes:
- Those that have a totemic origin,
- Those derived from Hindu gods,
- The human heroes who became saints after their death along with the ones who died in tragic conditions and came back as tormenting spirits.

Fig. 5
As mentioned before, some channels may exist between these categories. Panjurli, the boar, probably worshipped since the origin of the cult as the spirit of the wild animal who was destroying the villagers' crops, was later integrated into Hinduism as Parvati's pet who was spoiling the harmony of her garden on Mount Kailash.

Beyond the simplified typology presented after, each bhuta has a multitude of forms, each one being linked to a particular village or even to a temple in this village.

However, from an iconographical point of view, this duplicity is not obvious as, for instance, the same mask can represent one bhuta or another one, depending on the temple in which it will be worshipped.

The five main types of masks available in the collections are described below:

Panjurli (The boar)

Fig. 6
In Tulu Nadu, hordes of boars often invaded and destroyed the cultivated lands so the farmers started worshipping and giving offerings to Panjurli, the spirit in the form of a boar, thinking that this would appease his mood and thus keep the wild animals away from their fields.

This belief was later on absorbed by Hinduism through the following story.

Goddess Parvati was keeping a boar as a pet in her garden on Mount Kailash. Unfortunately this animal was destroying everything around and one day Shiva got so furious that he killed it. Parvati became sad and upset and, in order to make her forgive him, Shiva brought it back to life and transformed it into a spirit that he sent to earth with the mission of protecting righteousness and truth.

Maisandaaya or Nandigona (The bull)

Fig. 7
The totemic origin of this bull bhuta is quite obvious in a land of agriculture and farms where ploughs are pulled by bulls and where cow milk is one of the main sources of protein.

The link with Hinduism is also easily established through Nandi the vahana (“vehicle”) of god Shiva. Nandi (“the one who brings happiness” in Sanskrit), incarnates the inner strength induced by the control of violence.

Its four legs represent truth, purity, compassion and generosity.

The fact of touching its tail is meant to deliver people from any kind of impurity.

It is interesting to note that Maisandaaya is a speechless spirit which is thus not received by any oracle but worshipped in the sthaana (“shrines”).


Fig. 8
Pilichamundi is a name composed of “Pili” (tiger in Tulu language) and “Chamundi”, a ferocious form of the Hindu Divine Mother.

As for Panjurli, the totemic origin of this bhuta is very probable as the jungles of Karnataka hosted a big population of tigers which used to feed themselves with the neighbouring cattle.

The incorporation of Pilichamundi into the Hindu Pantheon happened thanks to the following story.

A couple of birds got married under the benediction of Shiva and Parvati and one day, when the male bird was in danger, the female bird made the vow that she would give one of her eggs to Shiva and Parvati if they would save her husband. When the male bird got back to his wife, the egg which was meant to be given to the divine couple fell down and out of it appeared a baby tiger. Parvati raised the wild animal and taught it how to take care of her cattle on Mount Kailash. However, the tiger could not help killing one cow everyday, thinking that its blood, because of its colour, would taste as sweet as cherry mixed with water.

Shiva got furious when the tiger killed his favourite cow whose milk he drank and decided to send the feline to earth, in the form of a spirit which would be looking after cattle and crops.


Fig. 9
Jumadi's name has been sanskritized as Dhumavati, a ferocious aspect of Devi.

Different stories describe the origin of Jumadi. One deals with a child born from the womb of Parvati and whose thirst couldn't be quenched. After Vishnu failed in appeasing the child, he finally decided to send him to earth where the offering of the devotees, coconut water e.g. could satisfy his thirst. Jumadi is worshipped all over Tulu Nadu as the benefactor that fulfils wishes and maintains justice and harmony on earth.

Another story tells us that Shiva and Parvati were on their way to face Dhumasura, a powerful demon who could only be killed by a person who was a man and a woman at the same time, when Parvati suddenly felt very hungry. Shiva gave her everything he could, but it was never enough so he finally told her to eat him. Parvati absorbed the body of her husband till his head which couldn't pass into her throat and remained out of her mouth. At this moment the two gods merged into Jumadi, a divine being having the body of a woman and the head of a man.

As expected Jumadi killed Dhumasura and became a protecting god for Tulu people.

Bante (or Banta)

Fig. 10
Bante is a dumb spirit accompanying Jumadi and serving him. He is the grand son of Alibali, a man who didn't pay respect to Jumadi.

As revenge, Jumadi kidnapped Alibali's daughter and grand son and transformed them into spirits called respectively Mayinda Mani and Bante.

During the bhuta kola, Bante is kind of a joker who performs unusual and imaginative dances in order to entertain the audience.

From shrines to pedestals

In the Bhuta religion as well as in Hinduism, when a representation of a god is damaged, it loses its holiness and cannot be worshipped anymore.

This custom rules the life of the bhuta masks as, after the bhuta kola (ceremony), they are often kept in sthaana (temples) where they are worshipped as representations of the spirits.

The metal alloys they are fabricated with, make them very resistant in their thickest parts and very brittle in their ornaments (such as Naga crowns) and prominent elements (horns, ears, tongues, etc.).

Looking at the pieces displayed in museums and galleries, it appears that many of them were repaired several times before being removed from their shrine, in order to extend their lifetime as ritual objects.

Indeed, the purchase of such masks is very costly and only the sponsorship of a rich local family makes possible the organization of the bhuta kola.

In some rare cases, in order to save money, these expensive masks are kept by the sponsors in their house for a further kola and are repaired in the meanwhile when necessary.

Theoretically, once removed from the sthaana, these broken masks should be put into the sea but this rarely happens.

Few of them are thrown into the ponds which often adjoin the temples. They are recognizable by their very “archaeological” looking patina and the layers of mud and oxidation they are covered by (see Fig 03).

The others are usually sold by the temples or sponsors to antiques dealers and collectors.

The recent spotlight set on the bhuta masks (exhibitions (Musée du Quai Branly “Autres Maîtres de l’Inde” 2010, RietbergMuseum “Wenn Masken Tanzen” 2009) and the resulting high value of these pieces on the antiques market, have motivated some people to rob the sthaana.

This explains why some old masks in excellent condition, which should have remained in the temples, are at times available for sale.


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