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Here’s everything you want to know about Bonalu, the traditional Hindu festival in Telangana state

@sahanasometimes

Hyderabad: Swaying their head and body to the acoustic rhythms, clad in vibrant color costumes and Gavvala Danda (a necklace of cowrie shells) and some with a whip draped around their neck or armed with a sword carrying The Bonam (pots) in their head smeared with holy turmeric and vermilion the Transwomen accompanied by other devotees’ parade down towards the temple in Hyderabad, Telangana’s capital city.

They enter into a state of possession with their intense gaze and tongues out, they drum and shout, beads of sweat dripping from their foreheads they call upon Goddess Yellamma (an Incarnation of Kali) to possess their medium. Devotees and passers-by join this fervent, frolic colourful procession seeking blessings from and cheering on the partakers.

Bonalu – dedicated to the Goddess Mahakali a ferocious Avatar of Goddess Durga of Hindu tradition, is celebrated every year in the south Indian state of Telangana, of the month of Ashada which, according to the modern calendar falls around July- August. This year it began on July 3 and went on until July 24.

Bonam means a feast or meal in Telugu, as an offering to the Goddess, rice cooked with milk and jaggery in an earthen or Brass pot decorated with turmeric, neem leaves, flowers, vermillion and lit of lamp placed on the top of the pot, women carry these pots on their head to make an offering of Bonam along with other offerings such as sarees, vermillion, turmeric and bangles.

The origin of the festival

While some believe it’s the homecoming of Goddess Mahakali during the monsoon season, the most popular legend of the origin of this festival started in the twin cities of Hyderabad and Secunderabad, in 1813, a plague had struck the cities and claimed many lives. An Army regiment under the British cantonment of the then Nizam ruled state of Hyderabad, had just left for the city of Ujjain from home, a military mason accompanying the regiment named Suruti Appaiah.

Hearing the epidemic back home, he prayed to the ancient Kali temple in Ujjain and vowed to build a shrine for her when he returns back, if the twin cities are spared of the disease. The plague abated. Appaiah fulfilled the vow upon returning back home, He built a small shrine in 1815 around which Bonalu began, the festival of thanks giving.

Transwomen, and other gender minorities became a predominant character of Bonalu

The state of Telangana got separated from Andhra Pradesh and was formed in the year of 2014. The caste and clan oppression combined with economic and political bias among the people of Andhra and the marginalization of the district of Telangana’s traditional heritage are articulated as strong foundation factors for the political movement that sought to create a separate state.

Bonalu being the festival celebrated by marginalized people, it has become a symbol of protests and demonstrations, women and gender minorities who rallied for statehood performed Bonalu rituals which has become a political symbol of the state. The year Telangana got separated from Andhra Pradesh, Bonalu was declared the state festival of Telangana and has been given regular government funding ever since.

The primary deity mediums, people of all gender groups who claim to be possessed by the Goddess, through whom the Goddesses speak to devotees are called Shivashaktees. However, there is another group of women and transwomen that can be seen performing the Bonam who are called Joginis. Jogini is a title given to women who are a part of ancient Devadasi tradition called Jogin system, who have dedicated their lives to the local deity through marrying the deity.

This system is banned in India after the increased cases of the marginalized women having been forced by families to join the system out of poverty or being sexually exploited by upper caste men. However, it continues in Telangana and is practiced among gender minority groups. They dedicate a certain part of their life to the deity by being married to the deity, they are becoming a vital part of the festival.

The festival committee approaches transwomen, every year, who wish to grace the event with their energy. Transwomen perform in Bonalu are held in high regard by devotees and given popular recognition in the society. This effective actionable change is evident in Hyderabad through the rise of numbers of transwomen in Bonalu in the recent years, which is setting an example and slowly spreading to the other parts of the state.

The Author Sahana David Menon can be contacted on email sahanadavidmenon@gmail.com

Sahana David Menon
Sahana David Menon
Foreign Correspondent (Sri Lanka) - Sahana David Menon is a multimedia Journalist | Researcher | Story Teller based in South Asia. Sahana is a Foreign Correspondent for TheNews21. She began reporting in 2014 from the post-Srilankan civil war-ethic conflicts and has since worked with Marginalized communities, conflicts and Environmental issues in India, Srilanka, the Bali islands, and the Middle east. Sahana has won the best multimedia report award in 2016 in the Global Press awards

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