The Doll festival of Japan
has many parallels to the
Kolu display in many South
Indian homes during
Navarathri. RANVIR SHAH
on this unique Japanese
tradition that has been
handed down from the
THE Emperor sits erect in traditional regalia wearing his formal head-dress. The Empress sits beside him, wrapped in the multi-layered court dress, holding a fan. The court ladies-in-waiting are besides them. Musicians are ready to play their instruments. Samurai and guards are at attention protecting their Imperial Masters.
We are transported back in time to moments of royal magic and illusion. This event is recreated every year in almost every Japanese home as the Dolls Festival. Hina Matsuri or the Dolls Festival is celebrated on the third day of the third month. The festival has many parallels to our local South Indian ‘Kolu’ festival held during the Navarathri.
The Dolls Festival has been handed down from Japan’s aristocracy of the Heian Era (794-1192 AD). It was customary for the family of the nobles to set dolls adrift on the river and then pray for good fortune. Crudely made paper dolls cast into the waters would thus be disposing off sickness and ill-fortune. This custom of “hiina-asobi” filtered down to the local people who then started celebrating this event regularly since the nineteenth century. Sometimes, magicians and sorcerers were summoned to make the paper dolls and perform the rites of exorcising the evil spirits. Over the years, the dolls were made of clay and brought into the house and placed on shelves.
Mr. Kageyama, who has a young daughter —Sarah, celebrates the festival and on being asked about its roots says. “Local Japanese people wanted to be like the Emperor and the Empress. So, they played with these dolls, so that they could aspire to better and higher lives. Perhaps like Indians wanting to be Maharajas.”
On the third of March every year, the Japanese decorate their homes with a traditional tier-stand. The dolls most highly valued are the “dairisama,’ which represent the Emperor and Empress in miniature in magnificent, ancient court costumes of brocade. They are placed on the upper-most tier of a 5-7-tiered shelf covered with bright red material. The successive levels are filled with seven ladies-in-waiting, five musicians, pages and samurai guards. Also included is an intricate array of paraphernalia; these include lacquered dinner services in miniature laid out on tiny tables, tiny chests of drawers the size of match boxes, musical instruments, lamps and a palanquin in which possibly the royal dolls might want to ride. Beautiful as the dolls are, they are meant to be displayed but not handled. Family friends and visitors come to see the doll display as in the ‘Kolu’ tradition of socialising. Special foods are part of the happy occasion and include diamond shaped cakes, fruit shaped candies, white sake and tiny bowls of rice boiled with red beans. Traditional sushi and soup are also served on this special day. ‘Sakuramochi’ or rice cake is a seasonal pale pink, soft cake of glutinous rice wrapped in a young salted cherry leaf. So special is this sweet, that it prompted the present Empress Michiko to write a poem about it.
The first dolls in ancient Japan were not toys, but representations of gods or human beings. “Ningyo” the Japanese word for doll is written with two characters meaning “human being” and “image.” In the rural areas even today dolls of woven straw are placekat doorways and entrances to villages to protect against sickness, calamities and to ward off evil influences.
After the Edo period, skilled doll-makers and competent craftsmen specialised in creating miniature articles. Some of the articles are so exquisitely made and expensive, that they have become heirlooms and are handed down from generation to generation as part of the family heritage.
A set of “hinamatsuri” dolls and doll, furniture is considered a part of the bride’s belongings. if there is a daughter in the family, gifts from family and friends are very likely to be a set of dolls for the festival to be used later. The festival day did not always occur on March 3 nor was it celebrated in the manner of today. Originally it took place a month later, after the pleasant spring season. It was a time for family outings, a time to enjoy the verdure of the countryside and enjoy the blossoming peach trees. This is why it is also known as the Peach Blossom Festival (Momo-no-sekku). It is customary to include a branch of peach blossoms in the doll display. Considered an appropriate symbol for happiness in marriage, peach blossoms traditionally suggest desirable qualities in the feminine character — beauty, gentleness, grace and serenity. Festivals such as these are the treasured customs that link generations together. With the birth of a princess to Prince Aya and Princess Kiko, perhaps they too will be able to echo the sentiments expressed by Empress Michiko when she talks about her daughter Princess Sayako in the following poem, full of the flavor of the continuity of life’s little but wonderful moments:
“On the vast meadow Ruffled with withered grass in late autumn, I’ve come with my little one — amusing ourselves Stepping on each other’s shadow.”