The atmosphere held a festive air while the streets were a sea of yellow and green with young girls and women carrying the bonams on their head and participating enthusiastically by dancing in the procession to the rhythmic drumbeats dressed in traditional clothes. The festival of Bonalu in the state of Telangana is a matter of pride. Though this year, due to the pandemic, it has been kept low-key, the cultural and social importance of the festival is far beyond.
Bonam (bhojanam in Sanskrit) means offering a meal to the Goddess, the festival of Bonalu is celebrated during the ashada months of July and August. Special rituals are performed for the Goddess Yellamma thanking her for her blessings. Women carry brass pots of bonam on their heads, prepared with milk, jaggery, and rice. These pots are decorated with turmeric, vermilion, and neem leaves, along with the bonam. A lighted diya is placed on top of the pot amidst the neem leaves which is the bonam jyothi. Bangles and a saree are offered to the Goddess in a belief that they drive away the evil and live through the monsoons. The Goddess Kali is worshipped in her many forms as Yellamma, Pochamma, Nookalamma, Maremma, Maisamma, etc.
The puja rituals start off at the Jagadamba Temple at Golconda Fort in Telangana on the first Sunday of the ashada month. This is followed by rituals being held simultaneously at the Ujjaini Mahankali Temple (famous as the Lashkar Bonalu) in Secunderabad and the Yellamma Temple at Balkampet on the second Sunday. On the third Sunday rituals are held both at the Pochamma and Katta Maisamma temples in Chilkalguda and the Matheswari Temple in the old city of Hyderabad.
The procession is led by the Potharaju who is believed to be the brother of Goddess Kali, a well-built man dressed in a red dhoti, with garlands around his neck, bells on his ankles and turmeric and vermilion on his body. He leads the ladies carrying the bonams who are under the spell of the Goddess by dancing, thrashing around whips, and spreading neem leaves. Water is poured over the legs of the dancing women to appease the Goddess when they are in a trance. The procession moves towards the Ujjaini Mahankali temple in Secunderabad, Hyderabad
Men and children usually carry along the thottelu which are bright coloured paper structures built around bamboo sticks as a respect and offerings to the Goddess. While only the women dance, it’s usually a family affair with men and children taking part in the procession towards the temple. After each procession a sacrifice ritual (bali) is followed when a goat or a chicken is sacrificed and a meal is prepared from the meat.
The last Sunday is the concluding day of the rituals which is marked by a grand procession with the rangam and the ghatam. The rangam is the ceremony in which a woman is invoked by the Goddess, and while under the spell she has the ability to foretell the future. Many people ask about their future, this procession on the last day usually sees the presence of many government officials when the woman foretells the future of the state. This ceremony takes place in one of the Manhankali temples in the city and after this ritual is completed the final procession with the ghatam starts from that temple.
The ghatams are earthen pots decorated as the Goddess and carried by the priests, which are taken in a procession and immersed in water. This being the concluding procession attracts a huge number of people, and a government order is issued for a smooth passing of the procession. The festive air is palpable in the area where the procession takes place, with rhythmic drum beats, dancing, and loud speakers playing folk songs.
The origin of the festival can be traced back to 1813 when an epidemic broke out in the state. A battalion of military personnel were deployed to Ujjain to offer prayers at the Mahankali Temple to be free of the disease and upon returning build a statue of the Goddess. Another belief is that bonalu marks the arrival of the Goddess Mahankali to her parental home during the ashada months. This festival is celebrated by the people of the twin cities of Hyderabad and Secunderabad in Telangana, and it has been officially declared a festival of importance in order to preserve the culture and traditions of the state.
Text by Kavitha Yarlagadda
She is a Civil Engineer by profession and writer by passion. She published her first e-book of poetry collection ‘Profound Thoughts’ last year. Apart from being a contributing writer on online forums, she loves writing essays, poetry, and short stories. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter.