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Buffalo-Headed Bhuta

c. 18th - 19th century
Artist/maker unknown, Indian
Metal "masks" like this one are used in bhuta worship practiced in Tulu Nadu, the Tulu-speaking coastal region of Karnataka state in southwestern India. Bhutas are supernatural beings or divinized ancestor spirits. Hundreds of different bhutas are worshiped, each embodied by a particular metal animal- or human-face mask. Boars, buffalos, and fierce forms of the god Shiva or his attendant ganas are especially popular.

Koola (spectacular, all-night theatricals featuring ritual possession) are held to propitiate and communicate with bhutas. An elaborately made-up and costumed medium invites a specific bhuta into himself. The medium can wear the bhuta mask over his face or on top of his head, or he can hold one in his hands during the performance. The bhuta then sings, dances, tells stories, gives advice, and solves problems for the sponsoring family or village group.


Bhuta masks may be reused but sponsors often commission new ones for a performance, while older pieces are stored in temples and auctioned off when no longer needed. Bhuta worship in Tulu Nadu probably dates back at least to the fourteenth century, although most extant metalwork is significantly more recent.

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