Dancing With Spirits: Encountering Karnataka’s Supernatural Bhoothas

Meet the ancient spirits that govern ritual life in the coastal belt.  
Bhoothas South India
The bhootha ceremony begins with the Nalike man putting on his elaborate make-up and costume as he takes on the spirit of Bobbariya, a drowned sailor. The costume is made of split bamboo and grass. Photo: Clare Arni

Outside the Panchalingeshwara temple in Barkur, 16 kilometres from Udupi in Karnataka, and the ancient capital of an old kingdom, Tulu Nadu, there is a curious, carved stone platform, worn smooth after years of use, and anointed with vermilion. If one stares at the stone long enough, curious, almost grotesque, details begin to emerge—raised bumps are, on closer inspection, pairs of severed arms and legs.

A man, sunning himself on the temple steps, tells me the ancient legend that this stone commemorates, the founding myth for the Tulu people who live in this region. Once, he says, the king of Barkur built a magnificent fleet of ships. But the ships, despite being new and expensive, sank at sea and lost valuable cargo. Soon the prosperity of the kingdom was at stake and the king tried to discover why his strong, sea-worthy ships always sank. He discovered that a powerful bhootha, a spirit with supernatural powers, was scuttling his fleet. So the king beseeched the bhootha to let his ships pass freely.

The bhootha agreed, but stipulated a price. One of the king’s sons must sacrifice himself willingly to save the fleet and the kingdom. The king approached each of his seven sons, but they all refused to do what their father asked. The king despaired. Finally, his sister came forth and offered her willing son—the king’s nephew.

Temple Bhoothas Karnataka

The Bhootha Kola ritual involves brandishing flaming torches; the Nalike man is helped by attendants to prevent him from burning himself. Photo: Clare Arni

As it turns out, it was a test. The bhootha, named Kanodevera, was appeased by this young man’s selflessness and stopped the sacrifice. Instead, he ordered that this young man, the king’s sister’s son, be named the king’s heir.

“And so it was,” the man tells me, gesturing to the stone before us, “that to honour the selflessness of the sister and her son, the [somewhat] matrilineal system of the Tulus came into being, with property and inheritance passing from uncle to nephew.” But this stone also pays tribute to another ancient and equally distinctive practice of the Tulus—the tradition of bhootha worship.

What exactly are bhoothas? Some myths speak of the bhoothas as an army of spirits created by Shiva to destroy Daksha’s sacrifice and avenge the death of his wife Sati. Terms such as “devil worship” and “demons” are often used to describe bhootha practice, but are more indicative of the prejudice of colonial-era writers and foreign missionaries. It would be more apt to describe the bhoothas as spirits that originated in a pre-Vedic tradition, closely tied to the earth, seas, rivers, and forests.

In the village of Nadibettu, a hereditary chieftain named Seetharam Hegde, shows me around his family’s 500-year-old house, a stunning, beautifully-restored example of the medieval architecture of this region. It’s a home where many families once lived together and the rooms upstairs can accommodate hundreds. The entrance opens to a large space of many levels, with floors of polished red oxide and exquisitely carved wooden pillars, where the village would gather to hear the chieftain’s pronouncements. In a small, enclosed room, Seetharam Hedge points out two bhootha masks that are possibly as ancient as or even older than the house. One is a mask of his family bhootha Panjurli, a boar spirit and, legend has it, a distant ancestor. The other mask of the village bhootha, Jumaadi, is communal property.

Mask Bhoothas Karnataka

A bronze mask of the Panjurli Bhootha, a boar spirit, considered to be more powerful amongst the bhoothas. Photo: Clare Arni

Temple Bhoothas Kerala

Mekkekattu in Kerala has a famous bhootha temple. Photo: Clare Arni

Such masks are taken out and used in the Bhootha Kola festivities. I am fortunate to have the chance to observe one the next day. With its theatrics, costumes, gorgeous masks and dancing, it is easy for a tourist to think of the Bhootha Kola as just entertainment, but it’s also about worship, governance and justice. The ritual begins in the afternoon, with an invocation at a temple, where a young man from the Nalike community (traditionally “hired” to be possessed by the bhootha), starts to spasm rhythmically. His voice changes and takes on an unnaturally deep tone. A spectator informs me that the young Nalike man is now possessed by the spirit. Supplicants rush forth to lay out their disputes and questions before him. The bhootha, through the possessed man, delivers judgement or offers advice.

In the evening, a crowd gathers in an open ground. There are musicians; off to one side, the Nalike man starts to get dressed. During intervals he hurtles around the ground dancing, still racked by spasms, displaying the ornaments and parts of the costume before he puts them on. His face is heavily made-up. A grass skirt is tied around his waist. At one point, in a frenzy, he flourishes dangerously flaming torches. Other men appear to hold his arms back—for the bhootha, having died a violent death, is in anguish now and must be prevented from burning himself. This bhootha is Bobbariya, worshipped by a fishing community (the Mogaveeras or Markalas), a Muslim sailor who died at sea. Many of the bhoothas died violent, unjust deaths and are regarded as heroes and martyrs. Like the twins Koti and Chennaya from the Billava community, who were killed by a king.

House Bhoothas Karnataka

The bhootha shrine in the 500-year-old Nadibettu ancestral home. Photo: Clare Arni

The Kola goes on late into the night and into the next day. A man tells me that in the middle of the night the bhootha’s frenzy can drive him to even bite off the head of a live chicken. With their penchant for theatrics, possession and chicken heads, bhoothas might seem antithetical to Brahmanical Hinduism, but one can find a small shrine to a bhootha in the courtyard of Sodhe Mutt, the centre of Madhva Brahmanism in Udupi. Legend has it that Swamiji Vadirajathirtha, the 15th century pontiff of Sodhe Mutt, would travel in a palanquin that moved through the air, as if by magic. It was pulled by his invisible servant and disciple, the spirit Bhootaraja. In this myth, bhoothas who could once blackmail kings, now willingly subordinate themselves to a Madhva Brahman. Yet, if Brahmanical Hinduism felt forced to provide a small place for bhoothas in their mythology, and a space to be worshipped in temples, it demonstrates that the bhootha tradition was not just popular, but had indissoluble ties to all aspects of life in this region.

Appeared in the September 2012 issue as “In the spirit of the Bhoothas”.

  • Samhita Arni is a Bangalore-based writer and author. Her graphic novel Sita's Ramayana (Tara Books) retells the Ramayana from Sita's perspective.

Psst. Want a weekly dose of travel inspiration in your inbox?