Watching a human transform into a tiger sounds surreal. But as Sharad ritu sets in and marks the arrival of the goddess, every street in Mangaluru, the land of devi temples, witnesses tigers on two feet roaring and prancing around to celebrate the arrival of the devi in all her glory.
Mangaluru gets its name from Goddess Mangaladevi, who was consecrated by Parashurama on this southern coast of Karnataka.
Each year during the annual festival in honour of the devi, the town turns into a den of tigers; tigers who roar, flip, blow fire from their mouths, and offer their ‘nalike’ (dance) and themselves to the mother in all humility, abandoning all sense of identity in reverence.
Painted mainly in stripes of yellow and black as the tiger ‘patte (stripe) huli’ or as cheetah ‘chitte (blot) huli’ or a few as black tigers or panthers, these two-legged tigers dance ceaselessly lifting the legs high in the air to have their toes touch their raised hands yet landing on the feet just like the tiger on its soft yet mighty paws.
The tigers paint themselves, worship the headgear and other props, bow down to the deity at the shrine and seek her blessings before they can begin their tour of the town, visiting other shrines and households. They go down all four limbs with the specially made head gear embellished with the mane of sheep wool.
Traditionally, children sport the appearance of the tiger to mark the completion of a vow in return for receiving devi’s grace in a time of distress. This is based on the local folklore where the mother of a young child who couldn’t walk had vowed to Mangaladevi that if her child were to find strength in his limbs she would have him painted like a tiger and dance at the shrine like her vahana (vehicle).
And to this day, each year, one finds ‘tiger cubs’ as tiny as six years old who wait for Marnemi (Mangalore Dasara) from the minute their parents make a vow, practising the dance steps, in absolute surrender, turning into tigers on the day of Ayudha Puja.
But the transformation isn’t easy. The entire body has to be first shaved, after which they are required to bathe in gram flour. Following this, they pour a bucket of charcoal water on themselves. And on the eve of Ayudha Puja begins the process of transformation.
To watch them stand with their feet apart and their arms stretched on two staves for over 12 hours, as the painting artists first coat them with white and then the yellow and black stripes, painstakingly waiting for each layer to dry, is a lesson in plain devotion that is beyond all physical and mental limitations.
“We at times have our eyelids shutting as we watch the little ones get painted but their enthusiasm doesn’t dip one bit, as they have almost waited for a year to turn into pilis for the devi. This also motivates us to keep the tradition alive,” says Dinesh Kumpala of the Mulihitlu Games Team, one of the key troops of Mangaladevi Temple.
This is a team that has taken folk art connoisseurs even in Germany and France by awe. Udaya Kumar, a retired professor of law and a patron of this folk dance form for the last four decades, facilitated their journey to the two countries in 2000 despite all the hurdles that the system could lay their way.
Kumar, or ‘pili master’ as he is addressed fondly by all the troupes of pilis in the town, is someone whose house all the troupes in the vicinity head to once they have performed at the temple.
For he has nurtured and guided all the pilis, from the youngest to the oldest, corrected their moves, taught them new flips and perfected their jumps and honoured all of them with each year with medals.
"There are people who shower them with money these days at times. Yet if there is one house they head to dance after the temple, it is ours, for here they say they get the respect and honour that an artist deserves," he says in all humility and pride.
"This art form gets no state recognition nor do its artists as it is still an unorganised group of people."
Dasara in the city is celebrated both in the traditional devi temples with a feast as well as the Sharada Mahotsava in various temples across the city. The tigers dance at these venues and on tableaux too during the final procession of the Sharada idol.
"Usually we have 30-40 tigers but thanks to the pandemic we have restricted it to 10 and no young ones this year," said Anil Kumar of the Kalicharan team whose tigers are performing for the 36th year.
The tigers who dance through the devi's procession are then honoured after their final mega performance as she is seated in front of the temple just before day break, with a shawl and prasada. Their journey ends along with the devi’s as she is immersed into the temple tank.
The water that now bears her is sprinkled on the children before the 'cubs’ can get the paint off them and take a bath and return home.
In Mangaladevi Temple though, Navaratri is also the devi’s annual ratha yatra and the tigers hence are ritualistically part of the devi’s journey like the jumbos of Mysuru’s Chamundeshwari to the Shammi tree where she sits and witnesses the Ayudha Puja and then heads to the ratha.
The next morning as she heads for her ‘jalaka’ the tigers accompany her, and it’s the water sanctified by her bathing ritual that is taken by the tigers as the one that completes the vow and transforms them from tigers to humans once again.
Until then, they stay as a troupe, eating only vegetarian food, observing a vratha, staying away home, sleeping only on a mat woven with leaves, so that the paint wouldn’t go off, and adhering to the disciplines required of them.
While traditionally they used charcoal, mud tiles and lime for colours, the shift to paint happened early on. The ‘taase’ the drum that is played too is a unique one made by the players themselves traditionally, so are the beats.
The stamina required is unfathomable as one is required to dance for hours on end, walking barefoot all around the city (although organisers now try to book buses). The skin cannot breathe as the only garment on the body is the underwear in either tiger print or velvet.
The stunts they perform one too many, from flipping various props, lifting a 30-40 kilogram traditional ‘mudi’ of rice and flinging it backward with just one’s teeth, but the adrenaline rush that happens with the beat of the taase simply makes it all seem like a child’s play.
Although this year, thanks to the pandemic, the streets will be devoid of this cultural delight.
As the ‘pili nalike’ which was initially banned, as it results in large gatherings, has been permitted to be conducted only within the temple premises.
"For this is a tradition that has never been broken," explains Kumpala.
"Even during the Emergency, when nothing was permitted, one of the first members of our team had kept the tradition going.”
“Despite the emergency, he put the paint on and danced solo in front of the devi, for this is a vow that cannot be broken. The devi cannot be without her tiger,” he adds, nostalgically.
So this year, although fewer, the ‘pilis’ will keep their ‘nalike’ on as the hearts of those in Tulunadu resound and make up for the missing echoes beating Dandara tatara dandara tatara and welcoming the devi in all her grandeur.
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