Bonalu is here
July 30, 2007 3:54 AM   Subscribe

Bonalu (or Bonam in short, which means Meal in Telegu, the official language of Andhra Pradesh), is the festival celebrated in honour of the Goddess Mahankali, in the month of July/August, by women who carry a series of pots on their heads, filled with offerings of rice and milk, led by the Potharaju (image).
posted by hadjiboy (11 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Looks like a good party even without the Flaming Lips. Thanks!
posted by DenOfSizer at 4:03 AM on July 30, 2007

the traditional `bonam' containing cooked rice, jaggery and curd

sounds like pongal. in more ways than one.
posted by UbuRoivas at 4:46 AM on July 30, 2007

bhOjanaalu (భోజనాలు) => meals.
bOnaalu (బోనాలు, note that there's no hard 'bha' here) => Corruption of 'bhOjanaalu'. bOnam, per se, doesn't mean anything in Telugu.

Although you could argue that those pots individually could be called as a 'bOnam'. Purists and prescriptivists would, expectedly, disagree; they'd derisively call this usage as being a 'vkRti' (వికృతి) or 'unnatural'.

That said, I've always argued Telugu as being the most descriptivist among south-Indian languages; we've had so many loan-words from Sanskrit, English and Persian, and have had a such a long and chequered literary tradition of writing in vkRti (eg, the 14th century 'achcha tenugu raamayaNam' by an author who's name escapes me at the moment [1]), that you can be sure this usage would be accepted in less than a generation.

Additionally, there's also this conflict between Telugu-as-in-Hyderabad and Telugu-as-in-coastal-heartlands

[Yes, this is yet another Indic grammar note brought to you by your friendly vyaakaraNa nazi. :-) ]

One fine point, that may or may not be obvious in all the links, is that this is primarily an urban festival; realistically speaking, bOnaalu is an out-and-out Hyderabadi festival. I can't remember if I was explaining this here or elsewhere, but you could say Hindu festivals are of three types, pan-Indian religious ones (deepavaLi, dussehra, gaNesh chaturti etc), 'secular' ones (ie, the main 'reason' for the festival is non-religious, festivals like Pongal/ Sankranti, Ugaadi etc) and regional ones (such as bOnaalu). Note that even here, you can slice it further down; Hyderabad (Golconda-Mahaankaali) bOnaalu is on a different date from the Secunderabad (Ujjaini Mahaankali) bOnaalu. Related, but not the same, is my point.

There's also this class-distinction that virtually all of the links have avoided commenting on, but one that's central to understanding all that linguistic and religious nuance here. :-) You see, bOnaalu is, and can never be, a brahmanical festival; it pops up on no self-respecting panchaangam (the Hindu religious almanac). In fact, if I'm not wrong, even the actual date doesn't follow the lunisolar Telugu calendar, like all other festivals do.

The lead deity is a graama deevata, a village goddess if you will, who, unlike other benevolent 'mainstream' Hindu goddesses, will get angry and has strange, scary powers. She will possess you, she will demand her offerings, and she will punish you if you don't comply [2]. And no, your Sanskrit pleadings won't work; she speaks in the local vernacular, using the thickest of the local accents possible. She is a hard taskmaster, someone to fear, not be friendly with.

There are other, bigger, festivals such as this elsewhere. The generic Telugu word for festivals like this is 'jaatara', the Samakka Saarakka jaatara being the largest of them all. (I don't know why the post called it the largest 'tribal' gathering; the Telangana - Dandakaaranya region has a rich aborgine tradition, but that is mostly unrelated to the Samakka Saarakka jaatara. I suppose the poster was hinting at the festival's non-brahmanical origins. It still isn't the largest religious gathering though; that would be the Maha Kumbh Mela)

Then there's that international jaatara, if you will, Thaipusam. Notice the similarity between the Hyderabadi bOnams and the pot-offerings in the Malaysian flavour of the Thaipusam.

[1] - It is so irritatingly ironic, I can recite the verses now, but not the name of the author. Baaaah!

[2] - Another brahmanical-Telugu literary tradition; we got no respect for them gods. Other Indic languages address all gods respectfully, preferring to address each god in plural ('thou/ thee' as an English equivalent, 'aap' in Hindi/Urdu). In Telugu, it's all 'nuvvu' (a friendly, non-respectful 'you' in English, or 'tum' in Hindi/ Urdu) Which is why I didn't capitalize 'she' there; trying to make a point about being friendly with the gods.
posted by the cydonian at 9:10 AM on July 30, 2007 [2 favorites]

Here's another article for your reading pleasure. Pretty much says what I've been trying to elaborate in my earlier post, along with some additional historical context. This is as its most fascinating:
The festival’s history can be traced to as recent as the 18th century, unlike most other festivals whose ancestry can be traced back to the hoary past.

The story has it that in 1813, Suriti Appaiah, a ‘doli’ bearer in a military battalion, was transferred to Ujjain. Cholera broke out in Hyderabad around that time claiming thousands of lives.

Appaiah and his associates went to the Mahakaal temple in Ujjain and prayed that if people were saved from the epidemic, they would install the idol of Mahankali in Secunderabad.
Two things about this. First, about epidemics; there's a historical irony here that is very easy to miss. You see, Hyderabad's main icon, the Charminar, is in fact a monument to victory over plague. Quite a fascinating subtext that we Hyderabadis also celebrate victory over disease religiously as well.

(Or you could say that we've historically been a very messy city.)

Also note another subtle, but stark, cultural point: the festival always is on the first Sunday in aashaDha, the fourth month of the Telugu calendar. It's always the Sunday; the festival doesn't have a lunar-date! Why is this so fascinating? Simple; prior to the 11th century, Indian calendars didn't have a Sunday in them. I had elaborated earlier on why the seven-day week is a Greco-Chaldean import; the Vedic era calendar, the ancient Vedanga Jyotisa, reckoned personal schedules on a different scale.

You could, therefore, argue that Sundays weren't really important in a festive sense before the British came over, with their Judeo-Christian concept of a Sabbath. Secunderabad being a British cantonment for most of its history, it is quite possible that the only time the native sepoys were free was on Sundays. In fact, that is how most ex-pat Indian communities celebrate their festivals; deepaavaLi, for example, wouldn't be the start of the seventh lunar month, but the Sunday closest to it. Bonalu-on-Sunday, then, is a very early example of Hinduism adapting to modernity.

Incidentally, I'm still struck by the fact that I had no idea about bOnaalu's origins until a few moments back. Yes, I'm looking at you Hadjiboy; wouldn't have learnt all this, hadn't it been for this post. Kudos! :-)
posted by the cydonian at 9:39 AM on July 30, 2007 [4 favorites]

Apologies for flooding this thread with multiple posts, but another very quick, and exciting, point to make.

Notice the picture (this one too) once again. They seem to use a lot of chandan, don't they, covering virtually half their visible bodies. Chandan (chandanam in Telugu), or sandalwood paste, is very popular in India for its aroma and its beauty-enhancing properties; certainly, the main sandalwood-growing regions are virtually next-door, to the west of Hyderabad.

But why does it have such a prominent religious significance? Simple; if you're faced with a cholera epidemic, you need all the anti-microbial help you want. Whether that help is herbal or divine is a different debate, of course.

Was struggling to make sense of all that yellow earlier; had constructed an elaborate trail leading all the way to prominent maritime practices, before deciding it was all nonsense. This was the connection I was looking for.
posted by the cydonian at 9:58 AM on July 30, 2007 [3 favorites]

Thanks for the post, hadjiboy! This is really cool and I never would have heard about this. Yay Metafilter!

slight derail for the cydonian: Fantastic comments! I have a friend who has family in Secunderabad and is visiting right now and this article from The Hindu says the celebrations are today; as someone who doesn't speak Telugu, is there a phrase I can use to wish her a happy bOnaalu? Or should I refrain from doing this, since it's something that members of her caste might not celebrate? E-mail's in the profile if you'd prefer to respond there.
posted by mdonley at 10:22 AM on July 30, 2007

mdonley: bOnaalu Subhaakaamkshalu! (బోనాలు శుభాకాంక్షలు! in the Telugu script, if you so wish.)

Bonalu is such a low-scale festival (in a national sense), that, regardless of her caste affiliations, I'm fairly certain your friend will be pleasantly surprised if you wished her so. :-)
posted by the cydonian at 2:24 AM on July 31, 2007

cydonian, you rock!
I'm sad to say that my knowledge about these festivals that I keep posting about isn't very in-depth, so I'm glad to know that there is someone like you on this board to elaborate on these topics. It's always a pleasure to read your posts in one of my threads and know that there's someone out there to correct my mistakes, and to pontificate on the finer points.
Yay Metafilter!
posted by hadjiboy at 4:01 AM on July 31, 2007

cydonian totally does--you too hadji : >
posted by amberglow at 11:03 AM on July 31, 2007

from the cydonian's anti-microbial link above: Sandalwood essential oil was popular in medicine up to 1920-1930, mostly as urogenital (internal) and skin (external) antiseptic. Its main component santalol (~90%) has antimicrobial property.

posted by UbuRoivas at 5:09 PM on July 31, 2007

The lead deity is a graama deevata, a village goddess if you will

ok, assuming graama = village (as in gram panchaayat), does this suggest that deevata might be related to the russian "devotchka"?

*pages languagehat*
posted by UbuRoivas at 5:36 PM on July 31, 2007

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