The ancient festival of Bonalu in ode to the blood goddess Maha Kali

This Hindu festival pays thanks to the Goddess Mahakali with celebrations, dances, costumes, rituals and offerings.

It is once again time for heralding ‘Bonalu’, the State festival of Telangana, marking the commencement of auspicious Ashada month. Women, dressed in colourful sarees and holding pots on their heads, queue up at temples of Mahakali for redeeming their vows. 

The month-long exciting and thrilling festivities of Bonalu always remain wonderful memories for one and all. During the festival temples of Goddesses across the State are decked up with an exquisite touch. Villages and towns wear a festive look and are awash in colours while devotees flock to the shrines to offer ‘Bonalu’ to the deities.

On this occasion, a Bonalu procession with nearly 300 devotees was taken out from Langar Houz in Old City to the Golconda temple amid tight security. Aiming at keeping the tradition, of Telangana alive, over 500 artists took part in procession, organised by the Telangana Cultural Department, by singing Bonalu-themed songs and beating the drums. Potharajus (brother of Goddess Mahakali), which performed dances during procession, are main attractions in the procession.

Songs like Lashkar Bonalu, Bangaru Maisamma, Dhumu Dhumu and Gali Gali Tirugu, appeasing Goddess Kali, are popular in Telangana. This is the Pothuraju ritual, named after the goddess’s brother, which opens festivities. Bonalu always takes place during the months of July and August.

Rangam

After the next morning of the actual festival, Rangam, or the Performing the Oracle, is held. A woman performs this custom, by invoking goddess Mahankaali onto herself. When devotees ask for information about future, she foretells the next year ahead.

The history behind the ancient festival

This festival originated in the state of Telangana in 1813, following a plague epidemic in the region. A military battalion prayed to the Goddess Mahakali to spare the twin cities, which by then had already seen thousands of deaths. To show their gratitude, the battalion installed a statue of the Goddess in the city temple. Each year, residents honor and worship the Goddess with dances, mostly carried out by women, and rituals in different parts of the two cities.

Drum beats, processions, buntings and festoons thrive in the streets. Things like Kumbham, Bonam, feats of Potharaju, Rangam (forecasting future) and the procession of the mother on ‘ambary’ (atop an elephant) are integral to the festivities. 

The devout believe that Mahakali visits their home during every ‘ashada masam’. That is one of the reasons why households invite unmarried girls to their homes. Most of the festivals in Telangana are related to worshipping nature and are generally mass practices. 

‘Bonam’ (meal) is offered to appease Gods for protecting families of the devotees. They offer prayers for the well-being of people and asking for protection from diseases, hardships, droughts and other natural calamities. The pots carried by the devotees symbolise earth. Substances inside it like water and fire (lamp) denote the five elements. 

The Bonalu festival originated along with the worship of Mother Goddess dating back to the pre-historic age in India. Being women in most parts, the grama-devatas (village deities) are reverentially addressed as Mata (Mother) or Peddammaas (World Mother).

A popular story in circulation is that village gods are seven and all are sisters. They are Pochamma, Mysamma, Balamma, Ellamma, Muthyalamma, Mahankalamma, Peddamma with Pothurajuas their brothers and protectors. There is this universal belief that the Goddess safeguards all living beings from falling prey to life-threatening diseases and illnesses and rids them of ill-gotten troubles. 

The origin of ‘Adi Shakti’ is explained elaborately in two epics — Shista Puranas and Vruthi Puranas. Creation of the universe, Gods, humans, and everything in the world takes origin from ‘Shakti’. People are of the firm opinion that the knowledge and power to give form to shapeless things are also bestowed upon the Goddess Shakti.

The devotees offer ‘bonam’ to the ‘Sapta Shaktulu’ (Seven Powers) believing that Renuka lamma is the incarnation of Adi Shakti. The story of Satyanna Bonam traces the history and zeroes in on the possible origin and growth of the tradition.

Keeping the entire episode in mind, village folk still keep Bonam as a most sacred thing in their lives and in all cultural and traditional rituals. Renuka Shakti is the mother. She is the origin of Shakti worship. Woman symbolises power, which includes the boon to give birth to the maternal system. 

Sarvai Papanna built a temple in Husnabad of erstwhile Karimnagar district in 1676 and installed an idol of Goddess Ellamma, an incarnation of Renuka. 

Golconda Bonalu: The festival of Bonalu was recorded during the reign of Qutub Shahis, who ruled Golconda from 1675. Madanna, minister of the last king of Golconda, Abul Hasan Tanisha, built a temple for Ellamma on the Golconda fort and paved the way for the celebration of this exuberantly colourful festival in 1675. That is why the construction of the temple of Renuka Ellamma has become a part and parcel of Golconda history. 

It is out of this reverence that Bonalu, which is dedicated to Goddess Shakti, commences at Golconda fort every year. After being exclusive to this fort for close to 260 years, the temples of Mahankali came into existence in the neighbouring localities like Lashkar, Lal Darwaja and Dhoolpet. In course of time, they emerged as equally enthusiastic nerve-centres for the festivities in and around the twin cities of Hyderabad and Secunderabad.

Lashkar Bonalu: Culturally, if not historically, Secunderabad Bonalu started much after Golconda. Suriti Ayyappa, a doli bearer in the military, visited Sri Mahankali temple at Ujjain in Madhya Pradesh in 1815. He was aghast at seeing people die of cholera. Even people back home in Hyderabad were succumbing to the dreaded disease. It was while praying to Mahankali that he vowed to build a temple for her if she saved people from the epidemic. 

After normalcy was restored, following the decline of cholera cases, he built a temple dedicated to Mahankali at Lashkar. He prepared a wooden idol of the Goddess, which resembled Mahankali, and installed it in the shrine. An idol of Manikyala Devi was found while repairing the well near the temple. 

The idol was taken out and installed with all rituals on the right side of the sanctum sanctorum. The present idol replaced the wooden idol in 1864. The Sri Mahankali of Ujjain thus became the village Goddess of Lashkar and has been receiving Bonalu since then. The descendants of Ayyappa continue to serve as founder-members of the temple. 

Lal Darwaja Bonams: The next significant event after Golconda and Secunderabad Lashkar is the Simhavahini Mahankali temple, whose history dates back to over one hundred years.

The sixth Nizam Mir Mahbub Ali Khan donated land for the temple in 1905. Nizam’s Prime Minister Maharaja Kishen Pershad initiated Bonalu at Lal Darwaja Mahankali temple. It is noteworthy that this temple is named after Akkanna and Madanna, who was actively involved in the construction of the temple at Golconda fort. A rare ‘golden bonam’ presentation is found at Lal Darwaja Jagadamba Mahankali temple.

Dhoolpet Bonams: The Dhoolpet Mahankali temple, which is also over a hundred years old, but whose Trust Board was constituted only in 1925, is as popular as the other three. Kantam Anthayya and Balayya of Dhoolpet donated land for the temple. 

Devotees, especially women with turmeric and ‘kumkum’, wearing silk clothes, visit the mother’s temple. During this procession, three prime offerings are made.

Rangam and Veerangam: Vee-rangam by Pothuraju is the cynosure of all eyes during the festivities. After applying turmeric to the whole body, kajal to eyes, a big bindiya on the forehead, chewing lemons, wearing neem branches around waists and brandishing yellow whips, wearing ‘langoti’ and anklets to legs, dancing to sounds of drums, the Pothurajus attract one and all. 

Rangam means the decorated stage. The Mother enters into a Matangi (unmarried) girl and predicts the future. An unmarried woman, who performs pujas, will get blessings of the Mother and is chosen for this. Spreading hair, with turmeric pasted on the face, with a big bindiya on the forehead, she shakes herself as a perfect emulation of Mother, and narrates future, including about the village, country, health and natural calamities. While climbing a clay pot (unbaked), she answers various questions. When she gets tired, she is offered a ‘Harathi’. 

Anyway, one looks at the evolution of mankind and the birth and growth, more specifically in India, it shows how a practice of pre-historic age is still followed with pomp by protecting the deep-rooted customs of the country. 

However, the grand festival brings all the sections together and praying for the well-being of the entire society. The festive fervour is renting the air and the devotees across the Telangana state are geared up to revel this month-long festival that celebrates faith and oneness of humanity.


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