Cultures of Karnataka

Karnataka is a splendid amalgamation of cultures that are native and adopted. On its own, the state has a large number of cultures and folklore that are typical to the area that they are practiced in; and each tell a tale that depict the history and growth of the civilization they flourished in. Karnataka is also home to a number of folklores and cultural art forms that are unique to the area, and are still kept alive by the current residents of the state for all the good reasons.


Yakshagana and Karnataka have stood as each other’s identities since times immemorial. This folk form originated centuries ago, and is even today the favourite form of entertainment for the people of coastal and malnad Karnataka.

Yakshagana is a distinct form of theatre that can be distinguished by its performing hours, the unique form of music, plots of the play, and of course, the majestic costumes and make-up resembled by no other art form in the world.

The theatre consists of two parts – the himmela and the mummela, which we can recognise as the set of singers and the set of actors on the stage. Together, they enact night long piece of poetic play from any of the Indian epic stories. Alongside the ravishing costumes and the plots of the play, what keeps the viewer enchanted is the form of music used in Yakshagana. It consists of a narrator (called the Bhaagavata) who narrates the play through his strong, yet surprisingly melodious voice, supported by stronger musical instruments like the maddale (hand drum), the kombu (pipe), the harmonium (organ), and the chende (loud drums).

Yakshagana is till date taken very seriously by the residents of coastal Karnataka, and has been kept alive by the ever-increasing number of young people seeking to learn the skill. It is an art form distinct from all others as it seems to borrow nothing from any other culture – not the music, not the costume, and not the style of performance. Karnataka has always been, and shall continue to be recognised by Yakshagana.

Dollu Kunitha
Dollu Kunitha

Here is a dance form that is in itself a representation of immense strength, and dedication of the Kannada people towards their ancestral epic stories. As the name itself suggests, this is a form of dance that involves the ‘Dollu’ or the drums as the central piece. It is performed by men, at least a dozen of them at a time who are modestly clad in simple clothes that leave their upper body bare and cover their lower part of the body in black dhoti. They carry a drum and sing along as they form beautiful and surprising formations in accordance to the music they produce. Dollu Kunitha is full of surprises, as men gracefully form strong formations with precise coordination, as well as sing and produce pleasant music – all at a time.

Alongside being a feast to the eyes and ears, Dollu Kunitha also has spiritual value to the performers. It is mainly performed by Kuruba Gowdas, who are dedicated devotees of Lord Shiva in different forms. The story behind the dance form can be found in the ‘Kuruba Purana.’ It states that Lord Shiva happened to be swallowed by a demon named ‘Dolla asura’ who sought immortality. However, Lord Shiva grew in the demon’s belly until he emerged out of his body, shattering the demon into pieces. The Halu Kurubas believe that Lord Shiva gave their ancestors drums made from the skin of Dolla asura, and till date pay respect to their Lord by rejoicing his victory through Dollu Kunitha.

However, the folklore has now spread all over Karnataka and we can today find expert Dollu Kunitha teams that do not have a history in the Kuruba community. The state has accepted the form of art as its very own, without marking it as a folklore of a particular community.

Bharata Natyam
Bharata Natyam

Bharata Natyam is a classical dance form that the entire country recognises and appreciates. Though originated in the temples of Tamil Nadu, it is today a form of art that every state considers its own. Initially performed by women, today Bharata Natyam is pursued and practiced by women and men alike.

This graceful form of dance employs Carnatic music in order to entertain and express one’s love for God. Bharata Natyam is the basis for most sculptures that can be found in Karnataka and India. This form of dance involves story-telling through the elements of ‘Nritya’ (dance),‘Naatya’ (portrayal of a character) and ‘Abhinaya’ (expressions).

This cultural form is recognised by the beautiful costumes, jewellery and make-up, and the rhythmic dance steps that go in accordance to Carnatic music. It is one of the most famous forms dance forms in Karnataka and India, and has since long stood as the representation of the cultural richness of the country.

Art forms in Kodagu

Kodagu is a part of Karnataka that has its own style of traditions, celebrations, dressing styles, and forms of art. Dance folklore of Kodagu mainly has its origin at the various times of the year when the people observe the harvest season, and other such occasions of value. Like most other folk forms, men and women dancing to celebrate the seasons came to be recognised as the folklore or culture of the area in Kodagu.

Bolak aat

Bolak aat is a dance form performed by Kodava men, and can be seen in two types. In one of the forms, the men dance with ‘Chavari’ (yak fur) in their hand, in an open field lit by oil lamp. In another form which can be called the ‘Kattiyaata’, the men also hold a traditional short sword typical to Kodagu, called the ‘Odi-katthi’. The music is provided by an hourglass shaped drum called the ‘Dudi’.


Kodava women perform this form of dance as a respect to river Kaveri, that serves as a lifeline of Karnataka. Adorned with beautiful Kodava traditional dress, Kodava women dance in a circle, holding brass cymbals in hand. In the centre of the circle stands a women holding a pot of water. She is the representation of ‘Kaveri taayi’ or mother Kaveri, that Kodavas worship.


‘Kombu’ means the horns and this form of dance is performed by Kodava men who wear deer horns that represent the horns of a ‘Krishnamruga’, an animal similar to a deer. This dance form has a religious value and is generally performed in temples. The men perform martial art moves to music produced by wind instruments and drums, thus representing Kodava expertise in warfare.

Somana Kunitha
Somana Kunita

A purely religious form of folklore, somana kunitha is a mask oriented form of worship. It is popular in the areas of Hassan, Tumkur, Bangalore, Mandya, old Mysore and Chitradurga. Performed during the times of Ugadi and Maha Shivarathri, it involves the worship of spirit deities. The performers of the ritual wear masks made from red sandalwood, and a few other props such as sticks, peacock feathers, and small hats made of flowers and neem leaves are also used.

The kind of deity being worshipped is represented by the colour of the mask worn by the performer of the ritual. Red symbolizes a benevolent deity, while yellow and black masks symbolize the opposite. Music is provided by thedoonu (percussion), mouri (pipe) and sadde (a pipe for melody). The ritual is performed by the performer in a trance like state at the temple of the ‘graama devate’ (village Goddess) and blood offerings are made to the spirit at the ceremony.

Jaggahalige Kunita
Jaggahalige Kunita

Particularly popular in the Hubli-Dharwad region, the Jaggahalige Kunitha is basically a procession of 15 people marching with ‘Jaggahalige’. It is a percussion instrument made from a bullock cart wheel wrapped in buffalo hide. The team follows a director who plays a smaller percussion instrument called the ‘Kanihaligi’, made of clay and covered with calf hide. The procession can be found on the streets during Ugadi and Holi.

Bhoota Kola

If there’s one thing that Tuluva people are extremely serious about, it has to be Bhoota kola. Bhoota kola is a folklore of coastal Karnataka, which is just as beautiful to see as it its intense devotional value to the Tuluva people.

Bhoota kola is basically a form of spirit worship where certain people from backward classes like the Nalike, Pambada, or Parawa communities impersonate the spirits and perform the rituals. Kola is generally where a single spirit is worshipped, whereas ‘nema’ is an event where impersonation of several spirits is done in hierarchical order.

This annual ritual also involves the procedure of sorting out justice aspects that concern the village, starting from distribution of political authority to resolving disputes.

The bhoota kola is particularly the most famous and beautiful folk form of Karnataka because it is an amalgamation of majestic costumes, loud and energetic music, its intense devotional significance, the variety of spirit worship and the commitment of the Tuluva people towards the ritual. Bhoota kola has essentially to be the first preference of anyone taking a cultural tour of Karnataka.


Though snakes have always been considered as deities in India, no one celebrates snake worship like Tuluvas and Keralites. 'Nagaradhane’, next to bhoota kola, is a snake worship ritual performed by Brahmins but respected by every community. Popular in the areas of Udupi, Dakshina Kannada and Kasargod, Nagaradhane is yet another ritual that these people are very serious about.

The coastal Karnataka and Kerala people claim to have descended from kshatriyas of Nagavamshis, and hence it can be believed that they popularized Nagaradhane. However, no evidence is available to state where this ritual originated from.

Nagaradhane also serves the purpose of preservation of ecological diversity. Since snakes, particularly cobras are believed to be deities, no one dares to cause them any harm. Also, ‘Naaga banas’ are areas where snake worship is generally done, and religious regulations do not permit anyone to tamper the flora of the area.

Hindu mythology has a number of references to snakes being deities, and so does Tuluva culture. Snake worship is a vital part of Coastal Karnataka folklore, and also very unique in its form.

Popular places in side Karnataka