Telangana’s capital Hyderabad wears a vibrant look in Ashada Masam, the month of Ashada, with festive street decorations and the rumbling sounds of drums marking the processions of the Bonalu festival. This festival has always featured women at the helm both in a conventional religious mould and within a political setting as witnessed especially during the Telangana movement. However, after the new state was formed, the inaugural customs of the Bonalu festival have witnessed a new trend in the twin cities. Trans women have entered this arena, reclaimed temple traditions associated with Bonam and carved out an empowering space for this marginalised community.
Myths and origin stories surrounding Bonalu
Hyderabad witnesses a tremendous tribute to this age-old cultural tradition of celebrating the mother goddess in local forms like Yellamma, Pochamma and Maisamma. Devotees express gratitude to these local goddesses for protecting their neighbourhood. At least one legend goes like this – Adishakti visits her maternal home in the month of Ashada and rests there for a month. Here, she is pampered like any married girl who returns to her birthplace. Therefore, Bonam becomes a ritual of marking the love and affection of people for the mother goddess. The word Bonam is a contraction of the Sanskrit word Bhojanam, meaning meal or feast. In terms of beliefs surrounding the significance of the feast, solemn vows pronounced to the mother goddess, and the food prepared, the festival is marked by rich differences. Typically, Bonam consists of a rice dish cooked with milk and jaggery in a brass or earthen pot decorated with neem leaves, turmeric, vermillion, and a jyothi or a flame lit on the top. Traditionally, women carry Bonalu dishes in their ethnic attire and offer them at temples to consecrate different forms of the mother goddess.
Another story can be dated back to 1813 during the plague outbreak in Hyderabad. A military battalion from Hyderabad that was deployed to Ujjain came to know about the pandemic and vowed to Kali that they would install her idol in Hyderabad if she ended the plague. As a result, a temple of Mahankali was born in the Regimental Bazaar in Secunderabad, and a festival marking the grace of the goddess began and spread over Telangana.
Historically, women have played a significant part in upholding Bonalu culture. For instance, they staged Bonalu during the Telangana movement and led protests to secure political recognition for their culture. It is critical to note that women protesters marked Bonalu celebrations not only as a demonstration of oppressed culture but also as a symbolic act to foreground the cultural sentiments of the people of Telangana. According to a myth, the Shiva and Parvathi couple adored women because they always wanted to have a girl child. As a mark of love, they blessed women with the power to embody Shivashakti, a bhakta or a devotee of Shiva who gets possessed by Adishakti. Therefore, Bonalu has been a celebration of women and adored by Shivashaktis.
Trans women commemorate Bonalu with their energy
After the formation of the new state, the government of Telangana recognised this popular tradition of its people and awarded state festival status to Bonalu along with Bathukamma on June 26, 2014. Since then, the government has started releasing funds for the festival and sending new clothes and ornaments to citizens. Last year, 3,020 temple festivals in Hyderabad and Ranga Reddy districts received Rs 15 crore for conducting Bonalu events. The events for the festival took place in some of the famous temple centres like the Sri Jagadamba temple atop Golconda Fort, Ujjaini Mahankali temple in Secunderabad, Yellamma temple at Balkampet and Matheswari temple in Old City’s Lal Darwaza. Some of the spectacular names that these festival events went by were Edurukolu Utsavam (homecoming of the goddess), Oori Bonam (village Bonam), Rangam (oracle) and Ghatam Saaganamputa (immersing the pot) on a caparisoned elephant.
Jogini Avika performing at Komuravelli Jatara 2020
On June 26 this year, Nishakranthi led the procession of Bangaru Bonam (golden Bonam) to the Jagadamba temple on behalf of the Bhagyanagar Sri Mahankali Jatara Bonalu Utsavala Ummadi Devalayala Uregimpu Committee (Sri Mahankali temple Bonalu celebrations and processions committee) to launch the Bonalu celebration with Edurukolu Utsavam. The committee has approached her since 2018 to head the Bangaru Bonam for different temples like Mahankali temple (2018), Yellamma temple (2019), Muthyalamma temple (2019), and Jagadamba temple (2019 & 2020). She feels fortunate to have the blessings of Yellamma who has guided her through unpleasant restrictions and stigma at home to becoming a trans woman and Shivashakti. It is worth listening to her journey from Gujarat to Miryalaguda, Cheruvugattu to Hyderabad, and male to female.
Nishakranthi was born to a rural Gujarati family that migrated to Miryalaguda in Telangana for survival. As a child, she was enraptured by the rhythmic beats of the Oggu drum and the overwhelming presence of Shivashakti in the Bonam processions. Her brother took her back home several times after he found her dancing along with Shivashaktis and beat her up for her girly behaviour. She ran away to Gujarat when her family stopped her from wearing sarees during Bonam processions.
On her way back home, she found Hijras on the train. She saw them as messengers of Adishakti and travelled to Bombay with them where she underwent sex reassignment surgery. A year later, at the age of 14, Kranthi became Nishakranthi and came back to Hyderabad. As a trans woman, she found it hard to survive without a support system. What she didn’t anticipate was that her visit to Secunderabad in the year 2013 to witness the Bonalu festival would change her life. Along with her guru Kumaraswami, she underwent possession when a procession was passing nearby. After she completed the Bonalu ritual, people crowded around her to find out more about her. She says that she never expected a call from the Utsava Committee the following year to head the Bangaru Bonam. She credits Yellamma for slaking her thirst to become a part of the mother goddess.
The roaring of the massive drums and verses of the priests are synchronised with Nishakranthi in a brocade saree and glittering ornaments such as the gavvala darshanam (shell necklace) around her waist and neck, jodu kankanalu, a silver ring on the neck, right wrist and upper arm. She holds a trishul (trident) and a talwar (sword) in her hands that sport bangles. It is breathtaking to see her balancing the Bonam on her head effortlessly and perform stunning feats.
During the festival, people get to witness this tremendous energy embodied in other trans women like Jogini Pooja Kumari, Jogini Navya Sri, Jogini Vaishnavi, Jogini Harini and Jogini Avika. Their stories are not different from those of Jogini Nishakranthi, and they too have found a place for themselves in distinct parts of the city. The term jogini is used to refer to devadasis and has temple ritual meaning attached to it. These trans women have, however, claimed this term to give cultural expression to their performative selves and secure standards of respectful living and popular recognition like Jogini Shyamala who is a devadasi.
The presence of trans women in the Bonalu culture has been on the rise because this folk cultural tradition does not restrain them. The Utsava Committee is approaching trans women who wish to commemorate the ritual events with their energy. Their vibrant performance renders Bonalu into a site of empowerment, with more trans women becoming Shivashaktis, constructing and reconstructing their identities. This social and communal transformation is visible in Hyderabad and is slowly spreading to other parts of Telangana.
Watch an interview with Nishakranthi in Telugu where she talks about her journey:
A graduate in Combined Humanities from Azim Premji University, Jagadish Babu writes poems and short stories in Telugu at kalapukoralu.