Some time back when we started planning the trip, we read up a lot on Bonalu. But as far as research on the internet goes, we weren’t sure if the information we got was correct or not. We had also called the Telengana Tourism department confirmed that the festival was happening on that sunday we had very little other information about the time and place. The incessant pouring rain made it almost impossible to take the bus. We finally boarded the bus, drenched because of the rain. As it was a sleeper we could thankfully change into dry clothes. Once we settled down I started to read up on Bonalu again as recent news articles had been published by various local newspapers and it seemed to give us a better understanding of the festival.
Bonalu is a Hindu festival where Goddess Mahakali is worshiped. It is an annual festival celebrated in Telengana. Hyderabad and Secunderabad and other parts of the state host this month long festival where thousands of devotees gather to worship and celebrate other festivities. The word ‘Bonam’ has been derived from the word Bhojanam (a Sanskrit loanword) which means a meal or a feast in Telugu and is an Offering to Mother Goddess. Women cook rice with jaggery and carry it in a brass or earthen pot on their head to the temple to make an offering.
As the arduous 15 hour bus ride from Mumbai came to an end we were greeted by the lovely Hyderabad! We took an auto rickshaw to go to our hotel and on the way could some places where preparations were being made for ‘Bonalu’. We reached our hotel in the evening and quickly put our cameras to charge so that we didn’t have to worry about it the next day which was the day of the shoot. We freshened up and left the hotel to get a feel of the city. Hyderabad, famous for their food, treated us well! We had biryani for dinner and met up with a few friends in Hyderabad. We got a lot of new information about the festival as well since one of them was a photographer who, coincidentally had shot Bonalu a few years back.
Bonalu is celebrated in various parts of Hyderabad and Secunderabad. On the first Sunday of Aashadham, celebrations are held at the temple at Golconda Fort. On the second Sunday, at Balkampet Yellamma temple in Balkampet and Ujjaini Mahakali Temple in Secunderabad and the third Sunday, at The pochamma and katta maisamma temple of chilkalguda and the Matheswari temple of Lal Darwaza in Old City of Hyderabad. Akkanna Madanna temple in Haribowli, Muthyalamma temple in Shah Ali Banda are among other temples where Bonalu are celebrated. Since we had arrived on the third Sunday we decided to head for Lal Darwaza. I got up early and went to a nearby temple called ‘Bhulaxmi Mata Mandir’ in Begum Bazar. It was drizzling that day and I was a bit worried if devotees would show up for the Puja or not.
On my way to the temple I could see hundreds of women walking to the temple with earthen pots balanced on their head. It was reassuring. The women were impeccably dressed in sari and jewelry while teenage girls wore legenga choli. The men usually wear new shirts and trousers on the special occation. The temple was beautifully decorated with flowers and people were offering their Bonam to the shrine. It is believed that the Goddess comes back to her maternal home during Ashada Maasam, so people come to see her and bring offerings of food to show their love and affection, just as they would prepare a special meal when their own daughters visit them. I shot photographs of the festivities for around two hours. It was still drizzling but the weather shield on the Canon 7D Mark II held well. A non-vegetarian family feast follows after the great the offering. The meat used to prepare the meal is the meat of a goat or a chicken which is offered ceremonially (Bali in Telugu) to goddess and it is considered sacred. Offering alcohol is also considered a must. Women carrying earthen pots are accompanied by drums as they get into a trance and dance to the beats. Many also carry more than one pot on their head.
In the afternoon, after another Biryani lunch, we arrived near Charminar where the main festivities are to take place. It was surprising to see a small temple right on the walls of the Charminar – a monument and mosque in Hyderabad. The diversity of culture was a sight to see! We came to know from the locals that we could find something interesting if we headed towards Lal Darwaza, so we did.
As we were walking towards Lal Darwaza we came accross another festivity that has been a big part of Bonalu. We came accross a procession that was just about to start and it was being led by a well-built, bare-bodied man, wearing a small tightly draped red dhoti and bells on his ankles, and anointed with turmeric on his body and vermilion on his forehead. Potharaju, as they are known, is the brother of Mother Goddess. Dancing ahead of Palaharam Bandi, the procession, he is considered the initiator of the festivities and the protector of the community. Leading the female dancers who are under spell of the Mother Goddess (known as shigam) to the temple he lashes his whips around, as people in the procession try to dodge it, accompanied by trumpets and drums. The locality also celebrates with songs and dance as many places host cultural programmes in the evening. Thottelu, a small colorful, paper structure supported by sticks, is also offered as a mark of respect. The Thottelus are decorated with flowers and carried to the temples on the following day. Sri Ujjaini Mahakali Temple and Sri Devi Pochamma Temple Somasundaram Street are two of the most prominent temples as these are government owned and the festivities are visited by Government officials and legislators as well. The near carnival like atmosphere with processions from different parts of the city arriving in regular intervals is a sight to be seen! People spend their afternoons and evenings looking at the processions from their balconies in specific parts of the city. Unlike Ganpati Puja in Maharashtra and Durga Puja in West Bengal, Bonalu is only seen in specific parts of the twin cities as other areas run normally.
We covered the procession and festivities and were ready to head to the station for our bus back to Mumbai. Even though we wished we could have covered the month long festivities we did end up seeing and experiencing the ‘essence’ of the festival in all its glory. After a 15 hour bus ride, the Bonalu festival did not make us feel tired or unwelcome. The spirit of the people coming down to the temples even in the rain, the children in new clothes, the smiles, the baloons, the Pothraju and their whipping while people run around them, the drums – all added up to one of the many exciting and little known festivals that this great country has to offer – Bonalu.