Bonalu: Telangana’s Folk Festival That’s Going Global

Swati Kamal

Jul 27, 2019, 03:33 PM | Updated 03:33 PM IST

Photo credits Vidyasagar, L
Photo credits Vidyasagar, L
  • Bonalu, a derivative of the word ‘Bhojanam’, is a celebratory offering to the Mother goddess.
  • Now categorised as a state festival by the Telangana government, its appeal is all set to transcend peoples, regions and even nations.
  • Even the IT industry in Telangana has wholeheartedly embraced the celebration of the festival, usually held in the month of Aashadam.
  • The monsoon season in Hyderabad is known for its pleasantness. Unlike other parts of the country, the city is not plunged into humidity or muck, and the marked drop in temperatures, sans humidity, make it almost a `second winter’, often necessitating the use of woolens and jackets.

    Distinct to the place, during this time, is the feel and sound of the breeze that blows through the day. Often, the breeze will pick up from the distance, intermittent sounds of the dhol or the drumsbeating. Those are the beats celebrating Telangana’s ‘Bonalu’ festival that takes place in the lunar month of Ashadam, usually in July-August each year.

    Every Sunday of the month-long festival, has an earmarked ‘Mahankali jatara’ to specific temples of the goddess: the first Sunday is an offering at the ancient Jagadamba temple inside Golconda fort; the second Sunday sees a similar procession and celebrations at the Mahankali temple in Secunderabad and Yellamma temple at Balkampet; the third Sunday is for Pochamma and Katta Maisamma temple, Chikalguda, and the Lal Darwaza temple in Old City, near Charminar. The fourth Sunday is a round-up.

    This year, Sundays on 7, 14, 21 and 28 July will see the jataras or colorful processions, with hundreds of women dressed in colorful silks and finery, carrying steel and earthen Bonams (corrupt version of ‘Bhojanam’, meaning meal; ‘Bonalu’ in plural) on their heads to offer to the goddess Kali.

    Bonams’ are pots filled with a curd-jaggery-rice mixture, and decorated with turmeric, neem leaves, vermillion and a lamp burning on top. Saris and bangles are often offered along with the Bonam. Devotees also offer a paper structure supported by bamboo sticks – called 'Thotella' – at the temple.

    This offering is a thanksgiving – importantly, it is a prayer for safekeeping, good monsoons, bountiful crop, and protection from epidemics and calamities.

    Photo credits Vidyasagar, L
    Photo credits Vidyasagar, L

    The women are accompanied by ferocious looking men, dressed in tight, small dhotis, painted in turmeric all over, and wearing anklet bells and garlands – the “Potharajus”. The latter, brothers of the goddess who are worshipped as “protectors of dharma”, dance to the drums and lash their whips dramatically. The procession has an air of excitement and energy, with special songs and dancing forming a mandatory part. The processions end at the temples, which have been freshly painted, lit up and decorated with flowers for the festival.

    Apart from the above main temples, the smaller temples of the goddesses – Akkanna Madanna and Muthyalamma – are popular shrines. Goddesses Mysamma, Dokkalamma, Pedamma, Ankalamma, Poleramma, Pochamma and Nookalamma also receive Bonams during the festival, which is basically a feminine felicitation, a veneration of Shakti – or Mata.

    There are several beliefs around Bonalu, and one of them is that the goddess visits her maternal home this month. Women are often considered as possessing the spirit of the mother goddess at this time, and their feet are washed before they enter the temple to pacify the aggressive spirit.

    Married girls are invited to their parents’ house for one week, where they together offer Bonam to the goddess in that area; the next week, the ritual would be held in her in-laws’ place, in another locality, to the goddess there. This tradition of collective praying and sharing of fortunes extends across areas and across weeks.

    Monday, 29 July, will see an ‘Oracle ceremony’ called Rangam, by a woman who invokes goddess Mahankali into herself and foretells the future; and then the Ghatam – a Copper pot decorated as the goddess, one from each temple – mounted on an elephant and taken in a procession to be immersed in the Musi river.

    This is the spread of the month-long festival; in some places in Telangana, it extends across two lunar months, Ashadam and Shravan.

    Photo credits Vidyasagar, L
    Photo credits Vidyasagar, L

    Bonalu in the Time of Telangana state

    Once a folk – a ‘gram devata’’ – festival observed by village people, Bonalu has seen widespread resurgence after the formation of Telangana state in 2014, with the scale, activities and popularity increasing each year.

    The Telangana Rashtra Samiti (TRS) party, keen to push state icons into prominence for the sake of a distinct Telangana identity, (separate from Seemandhra and Rayalaseema), declared Bonalu and Bathukammaas as ‘state festivals’ , with a handsome amount of Rs 15 crore allocated each year for their celebration. Further, both words Bonalu and Bathukamma were accepted as part of the Oxford English Dictionary last year, upon the request of Telangana Jagruthi, an NGO for ‘cultural renaissance’ headed by Chief Minister K Chandrasekhara Rao’s daughter Kavitha,

    Bonalu has recently been going places, quite literally, with the state government’s culture department providing artists support to conduct festivities. A 200-member delegation from Hyderabad takes Bonams to Andhra Pradesh – to the goddess Kanakadurga temple at Vijayawada. In Delhi, the two-day festivities include offerings of silver and golden Bonalu, with the procession beginning from a temple near Telangana Bhawan, and ending at the iconic India Gate. Bonalu was also the icon of choice for showcasing the Telangana culture, on board the Telangana tableau, at the Republic Day Parade last year.

    Bonalu is the Mother of all Telangana festivals. It is important for three reasons: prayers are offered for composite welfare; two, it involves everyone because of its simplicity and universal appeal; three, it goes on for a whole month, and two months, in some areas”, explains an organiser.

    With the scale going up, the emphasis has also shifted to propagating the festival through short films and engaging hundreds of cultural artists to perform. The organising also includes special bus services, repair of roads, uninterrupted power supply, water and sanitation facilities, apart from police bandobast, surveillance cameras and 3D mapping.

    For the sake of Telangana pride, which comes from ‘self-rule’, Bonalu has not only been given importance, but also funds channels that would lend credence and become brand ambassadors for the festival – for these, some rules have also been bent, like allowing the festival in hitherto restricted-for-security-reasons areas.

    The propagation cause is helped to a large extent by the efforts of organisations like TITA (Telangana IT Association), which has been celebrating it in the IT corridor of the city for six years now, and involving thousands of IT professionals. TITA’s involvement ensures large-scale presence of dignitaries and delegates, and also gives it a global appeal, with members in several places in the USA, Mexico and Australia organising Bonalu each year. “Technology has united everyone in this, and we have participation across castes, classes and even nationality, because Bonalu gives the feel of a community”, a TITA member informs Swarajya.

    What was once a ritual to appease and thank the local goddess, has now become an occasion to ‘pray for global peace’, with simplicity of the rituals, the merry singing and dance, food, fun and finery contributing to its attractiveness. Slowly but surely, the appeal is catching on.

    Photo credits Vidyasagar, L
    Photo credits Vidyasagar, L

    The Underlying Rationale

    It is often said that Bonalu is not a festival for the weak-hearted. Indeed the tantric festivities for the appeasement of the dark goddess involve several fear-inspiring icons like the Potharajus, and the ‘possessed’ women. There are also rituals like the animal-sacrifice offering to the goddess, where the blood is later mixed into the rice and this prasadam is strewn on each street of the city in Secunderabad.

    Notwithstanding the current positioning and propaganda of Bonalu – that it is “a non-Brahminical festival that does not consider the position of the sun and moon” – scholars point out that this period, the lunar month of Ashadam (or Aashadh), is the month of the goddess in Indian culture, and various states practice different rituals as worship of the Mother. Reportedly, a version of Bonalu is also practiced in Rajasthan.

    There are also the Ashadha Navartri, ‘Gupt Navratri’, the significant closing of the Kamakhya Devi temple in Assam, and the Ujjaini Mahakali, who is supposed to bestow Her grace upon those who visit Her during this month.

    This remembrance and worship of the goddess takes various forms: Those who don’t know mantras or special poojas, perform Tapas by the custom of Bonalu – through the hardship endured in carrying the pots, and offer this before praying for protection and thanksgiving.

    There is, of course, a science behind all this: the use of turmeric, neem, limestone and vermillion on the pots and on the hand, feet and faces of the men and women in the procession and also its sprinkling in the air, helps to kill disease-causing microorganisms and thus prevents the spread of seasonal diseases like conjunctivitis, pneumonia and allergies that typically strike at this time of the year.

    Photo credits Vidyasagar, L
    Photo credits Vidyasagar, L

    Worship in the Time of Cholera, and Much Before

    The popular understanding about the origin of the festival goes that it began being celebrated after the 1813 epidemic of cholera (or plague) in Hyderabad. A mason – Suriti Appaiah – in a military battalion transferred from Hyderabad to Ujjain became an ardent devotee of goddess Mahankali in Ujjain. While offering gratitude for the success of their mission in Ujjain, he also prayed for saving the city from cholera, and vowed to install her back in the city.

    In 1815, he brought a wooden idol of goddess Mahankali and installed it in the place which is now the Ujjaini Mahankali temple in Secunderabad, where the famous Lashkar Bonalu takes place each year. The Endowments department of the state government now controls the management of the devasthanam.

    However, there are other versions about the origin of the festival, and some date it back to the time that shepherds lived in Golconda – even before the Kakatiyas and then Muslim rulers made it their power-centre. The Jagadamba temple on the top of the hill, now within Golconda fort, predates the advent of these empires, and the idol of the deity, who protects the land till the extent of her gaze, is supposed to have been there for at least 900 years. This is why the festivities begin with offering the first Bonalu here.

    Some records even consider it a pre-historic festival.

    Hyderabad and Secunderabad may have hijacked the glory of the festival but other districts like Warangal, Medak, Nizamabad, Karimnagar and other districts in Telangana also celebrate the festival. The declaration as ‘state festival’ notwithstanding, little has been done, yet, to take the focus beyond the twin cities.

    Telangana citizens feel that the festival and its popularity are their way of overcoming the feeling of inferiority they suffered all those years in undivided Telangana, when their culture, their dialect et al was derided by the Seemandhra people. Now is the time to vindicate their culture and give it its rightful place. Given this sentiment, and the innate attractiveness of the festival, its popularity is all set to keep soaring.

    Swati Kamal is a columnist for Swarajya.

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