Bonalu

Bonalu is a holiday celebrating Kali and the Dark Mother. My understanding is that it’s observed over the course of four Sundays, but as the Hindu calendar is lunar the months shift and I’m not clear on exactly what occurs when. Bonalu celebrations, from what I’ve read, involve a procession of decorated pots containing a sweet rice dish that are offered to Kali. Women carrying the pots often enter into a trance state from the drumming and chanting, and observers throw water on the women’s feet  – an act of purification and honor as the women are considered to embody the goddess (also known as possession, but that word is often so loaded with negative stereotypes; I prefer embody, which is more positive in my mind). There is feasting, thanksgiving to Kali for promises kept, and fortune-telling for the year to come. Like most holidays in the Hindu tradition – and in all religious traditions – Bonalu is meant to be a communal celebration. Not having any Hindu community here I had to modify greatly. In the end, it was a quiet, short and simple affair in my house. Here’s what I did:

I basically treated the pooja like regular morning devotions. I swept and tidied the dining/altar room. I readied the altar. I bathed myself and my kids (necessary anyway as the three year old had spat milk all over the baby). I put on a bright blue skirt with a white top (white being a color of purity); I adorned myself with colorful jewelry and put on some makeup  – you know, all festive like. I spent the morning cooking and preparing the luncheon feast: a roast chicken and carrots covered in curry and turmeric, a sweet potato and chili dish, home-made chai, and sweet rice pudding. I set aside some of the rice pudding and mixed it with turmeric as an offering for Kali.

Once we were ready to eat, I called in the family. The devotions were shorter even than my normal morning routine, because the three year old wanted to help. He disrupts things, but I think it’s important to let him do what he can. He bowed and lit the incense using the altar candle. He then ran around waving the incense in front of everything and refused to put it on the altar. Eventually he consented so that he could put the bowl of the rice on the offering plate and put a glass of wine on the altar too. I said a brief ‘hail and welcome’ to Kali and then we sat down to eat our super tasty meal.

After the meal, my husband and son went to go do other things and the baby went down for a nap. I took the opportunity to clean up the dining room (again, yes. I’ve got kids) and sat down to meditate and chant for about 15 minutes. It was peaceful and energetic at the same time. In fact, it was the first time since I started observing Hinduism that I felt ‘connected’ to the deity. I felt….. something more present, not necessarily more personal, but more alive. This concept of personal connection with the gods is something I want to write about later this week. It’s something I need to grapple with in a personal, public way. I’m not sure I can be very articulate about it, but I have some ideas and questions about this idea of personal connection with the Divine.

This morning during devotions I did a fortune-telling of my own: I gave myself a tarot reading. Yep, I read tarot. I’ve been practicing for about eight years now, but it’s been about 6 months since I touched my cards. My focus was on this portion of my ashram project. I received some interesting information, but nothing unusual or out of the blue.

While there was no drumming or dancing, trancing or community, I am glad I observed this in the way I was able. I got the sense that Kali didn’t care so much how I worshiped, just so long as I did! She is not a god to deny. I’m not sure she can be denied, even if we want to!

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About Niki Whiting
  • http://www.projectconversion.com Andrew Bowen

    Very cool!

  • Anuj

    Different regions in india have different traditions but they are all categorized under the umbrella of hinduism.

    “Bonalu” is a festival local to the telugu speaking region of telangana. Similarly, “Onam” is a festival local to the malayalam speaking region of kerala.

    Bonalu is not celebrated in kerala or areas outside of the telugu speaking regions. Similarly, Onam is not celebrated in telangana or areas outside of malayalam speaking regions.

    There are many hindu festivals throughout the year but only 10-15 are celebrated by all hindus simultaneously regardless of language or region.

    Regional wise, there might be a hindu festival every other day in some part region/part of india and most people in the other regions are oblivious to it.

    There are many ethnic hindus bifurcated on the basis of region, language, caste, sub-caste, sub-sub-caste, hybrid language, hybrid caste etc etc and many of them have developed their own distinct traditions over the centuries.

    BTW, Bonalu is associated with anger and power. It is observed by the people of telangana who are an interesting lot. They are a hybrid of tribals/dalits and warrior castes. What’s interesting is to note that they follow rituals and customs which are extremely vedic in nature.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/awitchsashram myownashram

      I did realize that it was regional, but I wanted something that resonated to observe during my time focusing on Hinduism! I was not aware about its association with anger and power. That didn’t come up in my research. Can you talk more about that? Nor was my research forthcoming about the Vedic background. It seems odd to have Kali be so venerated in a Vedic context. Or am I mistaken about that?

      • Anuj

        The inclination towards angry and powerful gods is a trait common among the tribal and warrior castes. Attire wise, they look and dress like brahmins. They wear brahminical sacred threads on their arms and across their bodies. Traditions are observed as per vedic rites. However, their central deities are angry avataras. One popular deity is southern india is “narasimha”. It is very common to find a male named “narasiah/narsaiah/narasimhan” in southern india.

        This complexity of beliefs might have come from large scale inter-marriages between different castes.

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