Reclaiming traditions: How Telangana’s Bonalu festival is creating an empowering devotional space for the transgender community

This traditional festival of Bonalu, which offers respect and admiration for the feminine form of the divine, now includes and embraces the transgender community.

ByShailaja Tripathi

Published Jul 27, 2023 | 10:00 AMUpdatedJul 27, 2023 | 10:00 AM

After the formation of the state of Telangana, various pooja committees and Bonalu posters by the state government highlight the transgender and Shiv Shaktis leading the processions. (iStock)

Draped in a vibrant brocade saree, wearing sparkling jewellery, and holding a painted earthen pot on her head, transwoman Premleela leads a parade, accompanied by the rhythmic beat of drums. However, this pot is no ordinary one. It is brimming with cooked rice, jaggery, curd, and water. Neem leaves, turmeric, vermillion, and a lit flame adorn the pot.

As she performs the traditional ritual of Bonalu, a few passersby treat her with both reverence and dread. Premleela, in this form, is the divine feminine, guiding them towards their goddess.

The state of Telangana celebrates Bonalu, an ancient festival dedicated to the feminine form of the divine during the sacred month of Ashada.

Traditionally, the responsibility of making and carrying a bonam to the temple fell upon the woman of the house.

However, now, the festival actively includes and embraces the marginalised and often misunderstood transgender community in these rituals.

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New ways for old rituals

Bonalu, a vibrant and culturally significant festival celebrated in the Telangana region of India

Bonalu, a vibrant and culturally significant festival celebrated in the Telangana region of India. (Jagdish Babu)

Hyderabad-based drag artiste Patruni Chidananda Sastry says, “After the formation of Telangana state, their presence has become more visible. Various pooja committees and Bonalu posters by the state government highlight the transgender and Shiv Shaktis leading the processions.”

Following this, Premleela was invited to lead a Bonalu procession on the premises of a corporate office, he adds.

This year, she has five bookings, including one at the Bangaru Maisamma Temple in Secunderabad. However, she wants to make it clear that she is not a “Shiv Shakti”.

“I am just a transwoman,” says Premleela, who earns between ₹3,000-₹5,000 for a Bonalu procession.

Sastry asserts that the inclusion of trans persons in the festival increases their visibility in the community and promotes public understanding of their legal rights.

Participating in Bonalu can be life-changing for trans persons, he adds. It enables them to appreciate their uniqueness, recover their cultural history, and honestly express their gender identity.

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Origins of Bonalu

Derived from the Telugu term Bhojanalu, which means a meal or feast, the festival’s origins are deeply rooted in Hindu mythology and folklore.

Several stories are associated with the origin of the festival.

One prevalent belief is that during the Kakatiya dynasty, a severe plague outbreak afflicted the region. To seek relief, the rulers and people of the area offered Bonam (a ritualistic meal) to the deity, with the promise of conducting this offering annually.

Miraculously, the plague receded and the festival of Bonalu was established.

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A gender neutral offering

The community, as a gesture of gratitude, started honouring Goddess Mahakali and her different local manifestations, such as Yellamma, Pochamma, and Maisamma.

Furthermore, over the years, in addition to women, anyone who became possessed by Goddess Shiva Shakti would be eligible to lead the procession. Notably, this included men and joginis.

Cultural historian Jagadish Babu shares that before the formation of the state of Telangana, people celebrated the festival in the main temple of Ujjaini Mahakali in Secunderabad.

Making way for unbiased devotion

After the formation of the state, a profound transformation unfolded. Various temple committees and individuals organised Bonalu processions.

Recognising the unique spirit of the transgender community, these committees have warmly welcomed them to lead the festivities.

This marked shift has heralded an era of greater acceptance and understanding within society for the community.

“What probably happened was that the temples and individuals began highlighting the presence of trans persons leading the march to draw attention. They had funds to make it grander and we would only hear the names of Matangi Swarnalatha and Jogini Shyamala. As the festival evolved, more names like Jogini Nisha Kranthi, Pooja Kumari, and Avika became known,” says the Hyderabad-based researcher.

He adds that under the regressive Jogini ritual, they married girls as young as 10-15 years old to a certain god.

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Writing a new narrative of inclusivity

“Today, several transwomen claim to be joginis to culturally express their performative identities and ensure standards of decency in life. Jogini Shyamala is a prime example of that. She charges ₹50,000 onwards for Bonalu performances,” shares Babu.

In recent years, transwomen have become the hallmark of the festival, performing dramatic acts with vigour and energy. According to Babu, it benefits the government to highlight it. “The state festival gets attention and that too as inclusive,” he adds.

Moreover, this opportunity transcends mere representation for trans persons who lead the processions. It is a chance to reclaim their space in society, to assert their identity, and inherent worthiness as integral members of the community.

“The space of inclusivity has economically and socially uplifted the community and imparted them with dignity,” adds Babu.

Thanks to the contemporary changing times, the trans community is no longer a spectator but, rather, has become active in shaping the narrative of their lives and those around them.