Odisha’s Tulsi Chauras – Devotion in Terracotta

Oh Tulasi

You who are beloved of Vishnu

You who fulfil the wishes of the devout

I will bathe you

You are the mother of the world

Give me the blessings of Vishnu

 

Oh Tulasi

Within your roots are all sacred places of the world

And inside your stem live all the Gods and Goddess

Your leaves radiate every form of sacred fire

Let me take some of your leaves that I may be blessed

 

Oh Goddess Tulasi

You who are the most precious

Of the Lord Almighty (Vishnu)

Who live according to his divine laws

I beseech you to protect the lives of my family

And the spirit of those who have died

Here me, Oh Goddess!

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In villages around Puri, dawn breaks with the humming of women as they sing folk songs praising Goddess Tulsi, kneeling before a planter shaped miniature temple. Locally known as Tulsi Chaura it is a splendid creation in terracotta adorned with sculptures and holding the Tulasi (basil) plant. Rising to their feet, they pour holy water from their small polished brass pots held in their cupped palms and sprinkle it upon the leaves of their bush. For these women, the Goddess that embodies the virtues of duty, dedication and love lives in this Chaura whom they bow before to be blessed to lead a life like she did.

This is a 365 days affair, but it becomes more elaborate on the first day of the holiest Odia month, Kartika (October-November), a month particularly sacred to Vishnu and his goddess consort, Tulsi.

According to a legend in Odisha, Tulsi is the fourth incarnation of the Goddess who in Satya Yuga was known as Satyavati. In Ramayana, she was the Goddess Chandra who was abducted by Mahiravan (son of Ravan). He tried to rape her but the she was too strong willed to let her character be tarnished. Luckily, Hanuman came to her rescue and slaughtered Mahiravan and later brought Chandra in front of Shri Ram. It was love at first sight for Chandra but Shri Ram was already married to Sita. He promised Chandra that they would be together in the next life and so she waited for him for a millennia, alone and a virgin.

Chandra was reborn as Pripura, a beautiful milkmaid and was seduced by Lord Sri Krishna, the next incarnation of Vishnu. For Krishna, the God of Love, Pripura was one of his favourite consorts and together they had many amorous adventures.

In Kali Yuga, the Goddess was born as Tulasi (also known as Vrindavati). This time she became the wife of Jalandhara, an evil demon, son of the sea and lord of the underworld. He owed his strength and power to the purity and dedication of his wife towards him. Jalandhara was insatiably greedy and decided to become the lord of three worlds, earth, heaven and the underworld. After defeating Vishnu he took on Shiva and during the battle, heard tales of the unsurpassed beauty of Parvati and decided he had to have her. Jalandhara disguised himself as Shiva and slipped away to Mount Kailash. Parvati– thinking she saw her husband arriving, rushed out of her place to embrace him, but her beauty was so radiant that before they met, Jalandhara felt to the ground unconscious.  Vishnu, when he heard this, assumed Jalandhara’s form and travelled to Jalandhara’s underworld palace to meet Tulasi. Upon seeing Vishnu in her husband’s garb, Tulasi assumed him as her husband and kissed him. With Tulasi’s unconditional dedication compromised, Jalandhara lost his immortality and was killed by Shiva. Tulasi overcome with shame and anger as she was a devout Vishnu worshipper and felt betrayed. Vishnu realising his folly granted her a boon and transformed Tulasi into a Basil bush to be worshipped every day by men and women in their houses.

Having these stories in my mind and after seeing the display of traditional OdiaTulsi Chauras in the newly opened Kala Bhoomi – Odisha Crafts Museum in Bhubaneswar, I drove down to Balikondala Village near Konark to meet Dibakar Muduli. The man behind the Tulsi Chaura exhibits at Kala Bhoomi. Balikondala Village is located at a distance of 55 kms from Bhubaneswar on Konark Highway, just 10 km before the world heritage monument. Dibakar Muduli  is one of the few surviving potters possessing the skill of making terracotta Tulsi Chauras, a tradition continued from the medieval time in the history of Odisha.

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Dibakar Muduli, is in his mid 60s and one among the 72 families of potters in Balikondala, a village surrounded by lush green paddy fields and coconut groves in the heart of rural Odisha. Like the traditional houses of that village, Dibakar’s house is constructed of mud walls with a thatched roof. Outside the front wall of the house is a narrow verandah where family members frequently sit to gossip with neighbours. However, in recent years most of the traditional houses have been replaced with concrete structures, but the pattern followed remains same. Inside the house is a central courtyard surrounded by living, kitchen and storage rooms. With an increased demand for his pots (Dibakar also supplies earthen pots to Jagannath Temple at Puri for cooking and serving Abhada, the holy prasada to the devotees),Dibakar has now moved his workshop to a larger space, about 100 metres away.

In front of Dibakar’s house, across the road, is an old Tulsi Chaura from the time of his forefathers. There is another one in the village on the main road towards the highway and two in the neighbouring village Tini Tiara, all at least 5 generations old. All these Tulsi Chauras are elaborately sculpted standing in small cleared areas.

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Once a year, in Margasira (November-December), the Muduli potters of Balikondala celebrate the five day festival of Kurula Panchami. Chaka Puja (worship of the wheels and all other tools used in pot making and sculpting) is the major focus of the festival. Prior to this festival, the women folk resurface the front walls of their houses with a thin layer of mud mixed with cow dung. With a rice paste then, they paint the walls with murals of lotuses, elephants, peacocks and trees. During this festival, the Muduli Kumbharas worship their ancestral deity Rudrapal, a form of Vishnu.

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Image Source – Kala Bhoomi

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It takes Dibakar 5 days to prepare a traditional Tulasi Chaura and two weeks for drying. The process begins with mixing five parts of raw clay with two parts of fine sand and one part of cow manure. The clay is then kneaded with hands thoroughly, removing impurities and then kneaded again with feet.

Images Source – Kala Bhoomi

After kneading, a thin layer of fine dry sand is used for fencing the wet clay from contamination. A rope of clay of 2 inch thickness is placed upon the sand, connecting its ends together for the circular base of the Chaura. Subsequently more rows of clay are placed one above another, gradually building the vessel wall by joining the coils with large pinches. As the wall’s height increases the potters shorten the length of each successive ring. Once complete, the shape represents a miniature temple which is then kept overnight for drying. On day 2, the pot wall is beaten using a mallet to smoothen, strengthen and give a proper shape to the Chaura. Then it is covered by a gunny sack to prevent cracking and again kept overnight to dry.

On 3rd day, decoration begins on its outer surface by making 4 separate sections. Relief sculptures including various incarnations of Vishnu, associate deities, mythological creatures, local heroes, warriors, erotic couples, devotees, horses, sun, moon and stars, cows, flowers and lions are added step by step in respective sections. There are also two pairs of musicians, one devotional couple and one horseman added in a process that lasts 3 days.

On the last day, the bowl that forms the final tier of the planter, and that which will actually contain the roots of Tulasi bush, is thrown by the potter on his wheel. Later, it is kept for 15 days to dry in the shade. Improper drying can lead to the cracking of the structure.

When dried and done, the Chaura is handed over to its patron. Before its use, the women first decorate the ground surrounding the Chaura with designs done using rice paste. Then the plant is bathed, honoured with incense, camphor, lamps and given offerings of milk and fruit. Over a two hour installation period, devotees chant prayers praising the goddess and then recite the long history of her many incarnations.

Today, as modernisation is taking over, traditional Tulasi Chauras have become obsolete.

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Thanks to the initiative of Kala Bhoomi for bringing it back into public consciousness and allow the appreciation of a tradition that has been integral to Odia culture for hundreds of years. This initiative will certainly help bring back the traditional terracotta Chauras back into urban hearts and houses reviving a lost art and livelihood.

 

Author – Jitu Mishra

He can be contacted at jitumisra@gmail.com

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