All through history, humans have constructed diverse cultural artifacts to articulate ideas, beliefs, feelings and emotions, or to exhibit their strengths. The many folk games and sports of India are some among them. Folk games are usually designed to involve multiple faculties of humanity – such as mental acuity, reasoning, strengths & weaknesses perceived in various situations, expression of thoughts & emotions, and the like – and presented in the form of an entertaining experience to both participants and observers. Among the most significant of these in Karnataka is the Tootedara game of Tulunadu (which comprises the two Kannada districts in addition to Udupi and Kasaragodu) which is played during the performance of boota kola (involving the invocation of a Deiva – usually the spirit of an animal, a dead elder or of an ancient God – channelized through a ritual specialist) or of the worship of Gods in the annual jaatre (village or town festival).
While it was a necessary part of the worship in all annual village festivals of the region in earlier decades, it is today primarily seen in its fullest form only in a few, e.g., the Durgaparameshwari festivals of Kateelu and Bappanadu (of Mulki) and the Maalingeshwara festival of Vamanjooru. Over time, there has been a gradual reduction of the spread of the game and of late, it has been replaced in many festivals by a shorter symbolic version that involves a mere procession of the participants.
While the game is usually played on the last day of the village festival, the participants in Tootedara are required to strictly follow certain purificatory practices starting the first day and for the entire duration of the festival. Considered inviolable, they include forsaking meat, alcohol, sexual intercourse, gambling, and contamination through physical contact with relatives of the recently deceased, etc. In addition, on the day of the game, they are required to eat just one meal. It is believed that violation of these practices will invite accidents, such as burns by fire, which duly punish the violator.
A mere desire to participate is not enough to be made a team member of the game. Although the Scheduled castes participate in the worship of the spirits, the Scheduled castes as well as those that wear the sacred thread (e.g., Brahmana’s, Achari’s and Konkani’s) cannot take part in the Tootedara game. In other words, only the Sudras – who do not traditionally wear the sacred thread – may participate in the Tootedara game. Among the houses eligible to participate, many follow a tradition that each house ought to be represented by at least one participant. If for some reason one cannot, a monetary fine in lieu of participation is imposed on the household.
On the afternoon of the game, the participants eat cooked white rice as part of their meal, and in the evening, take a bath in water mixed with red turmeric powder (kunkuma), termed as Okuli snana. After this, they join the procession of the spirit (in the form of the images of the Deivas) across the village, and stop often at various pre-designated spots to enable other townsmen worship the spirit, and finally reach the bathing area (jalakada katte) near the river. After the image of the spirit is cleansed by a bath, the participants of the game take another bath and wear new clothes in white. They adorn themselves with a wreath of jasmine flowers on their heads and ready themselves for the game in the nearby arena.
The image of the Deiva is now arranged so as to face the paddy fields. In the gaming area (or the gaming field), the two teams, each comprising somewhere between 60 and 100 participants, face each other while a line is drawn halfway along its length. Along the left edge of the gaming area, combustible torches made entirely from different parts of the coconut tree are piled up while a burning fire is set up along the central line in the field. Once the go-ahead for the game is given by the captains of the teams, the players pick up the torches, light them up at the center of the field and hurl them one after the other at the opposing team, shouting “Koo”, “Koo”, “Koo” while throwing. This goes on for around 15 minutes. Several rules guide the game’s progress. No torch may be aimed at a specific individual; it may only be aimed at the visible group formations, even if some individuals may be separated from them.
Usually, the participants become more and more excited as time progresses, sometimes inviting disciplinary action from the captains, which vary from warning individuals to stoppage of the game. After the game is played for a few rounds, the procession leaves the gaming area and speedily reaches the temple of the village. Carrying flaming torches, the players play the same game thrice over in the temple area. There are no winners or losers in this game since it is in the service of God. Nonetheless, spectators often have their own estimates of who won and who lost the game.
Tootedara is a dangerous sport – the players can potentially be seriously injured by the hundreds of flaming torches thrown at them by their rivals. This requires a steeling of the mind before the game starts. The preparatory phase of the game creates a strong conviction in the player that no accident will befall him because he conforms to the rules of diet, self-control and belief in divinity. This in turn is reinforced by the bath in red turmeric (kunkum) water – a holy dip indicative of blood that has been offered as sacrifice – and aids the strengthening of his mind before the fight. In other words, the various phases before and during the game ensures the ritualistic fortification of the mind which enables things to not go out of hand during the game.
While a war may have different objectives, the display of force, beliefs and emotions form its central core. Since it invariably involves loss of life, suffering and other ill effects, men usually do not desire to go to war where political motives are not involved. Games often provide a safe space for letting out hostile and violent feelings arising from competition, ego, anger, revenge, protest, etc. As with Chess, Ball games, etc, Tootedara is a game meant for alleviating War like attitudes in men.
There are many historical records and folk stories of skirmishes, fights and wars between Kings, Vassals and Guttu’s of this region across centuries. Over time, such games took root to provide a simulation-ground for letting out emotions which are associated with War like aggression. It is said that even Kings over time were won over by these imitation games – there are records to show that the Kings of Barkuru arranged these mock wars in specific areas of their kingdom in memory of the wars of the past with the Kingdom of Mangaluru.
In many ways, the Tootedara is also a celebration of the powers of the Deiva as much as it is of the inventiveness of Humans. When in full swing, the hundreds of burning torches, flying over the arena, with sparks flying all over, offer an extraordinary spectacle that symbolizes the eternal battle of the Deiva against evil. Here is what one of the Deiva’s of the Tulunadu tradition says, in one of its songs:
“I am the Deiva of great power, with which,
As you believe, I eradicate the ills that befall men;
Indeed, I provide magical cures for life’s troubles,
I push down the ball of fire from the sky to Patala (the nether world),
And feed Garuda’s mouth with a snake that slithers by my feet;
I protect you from this rain of fire with an umbrella of my weapons,
Be unafraid! I shall shelter you from the bombs that attack the black stone fort of man!”