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Bonalu at Golconda

The clapping feature at the Golconda Fort never fails to amaze me. I don’t know how far the palace at the top of the hill is from the main entrance gate, but walking up the steep incline it feels like it must be a kilometer at least. I have no idea how, in the 16th century, they constructed an edifice that can carry the sound of clapping at the gate all the way to the palace entrance. Guards would announce the entrance of a visitor, friend or foe, using this method so that the king, one of the Qutb Shahs, could respond appropriately.

I pass the gate, marveling at this architectural achievement, when I realize that all is not as I expected in the fort. There are way more people than I have ever seen there. As we proceed up the stairs, I perceive that there is a festival going on. Bonalu. A festival celebrated throughout the Telangana region (soon to be state, apparently, but more on that later) in honor of one form of the divine Mother. Her most terrible form, Kali. In Hyderabad, it begins at the Golconda fort and then proceeds throughout the twin cities. I have never had the privilege of witnessing this festival at its very beginning, and definitely appreciate what I am seeing here. Throngs of people. Freshly slaughtered chickens (for food, not a part of a ritual sacrifice, though Kali rituals are known for that). Women carrying earthen pots on their heads, making their way to the temple at the summit. Other women dancing in front of the procession.

There are many forms of the mother goddess. I prefer Durga. She rides a tiger and carries much weaponry. Gotta respect that. There are innumerable forms of the Mother across the innumerable villages in India. A form particularly important for Bonalu given the region that celebrates the festival is Yellamma. Yellamma is worshipped in Telengana, parts of Karnataka, and probably parts of the Rayalaseema region of Andhra Pradesh. I am reminded of Yellamma during the parade we have joined. Not because I know anything about her. Actually I know very little. But because what I do know comes largely from the essay in AIDS Sutra “The Daughters of Yellamma) by William Dalrymple. Young girls in a village in Karnataka are given to the Yellamma temple at around 10-11 years of age. There they become temple dancers. This is essentially a euphemism for sex workers. They do not see themselves that way, it seems. But they exchange sex for money (or in kind). And they are an important part of the HIV epidemic here.

I highly recommend AIDS Sutra. It is a collection of essays about the HIV epidemic in this country. Some of it is hard to take, but it is very illuminating.

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