Tasveer Ghar: A Digital Archive of South Asian Popular Visual Culture

Kottokka Devathallu

One Crore and One Goddesses

Joe Christopher and Alice Samson

The vibrant festivities of Bonalu are unique to the Telangana region of Andhra Pradesh. The shrines of the mother goddess around which Bonalu is centered, and the rich tradition of myths and legends that have sustained them through the decades, provide definitions of community organization, religiosity, and belief that are yet to find a place within what has now come to be understood as the modern way of life in India. In this essay, we explore the Bonalu festival and subaltern shrines of Hyderabad as a contemporary critique of the hegemonic yet popular understanding of religion, secularism, and other modern formations in India.

The visuality of Bonalu’s icons, the proliferating oral cultures of its myths, and the seeming absurdity of belief and believers remain a challenge to the rigid, fact based, script oriented rationality that is toted as the normative way to organize life. In examining the repertoire of icons, stories, and practices around the Bonalu festival, we seek to understand the prevailing idea of religiosity in Telangana society in new ways.

Although we have adopted a variety of documentary and ethnographic methods to explore this topic, we term our attempt a narration of the story of ‘non-standard’ Hindu shrines in Hyderabad. As story tellers, we are aware of the multiplicity of views regarding these shrines, some possibly more revealing or informative than ours, but choose to narrate our own take. Our rendition of the contexts and events of Bonalu is informed primarily by the accounts of the people of the city who have been involved in or have been a witness to these phenomena for many years now.

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Fig.02

The two main and interrelated foci of this essay are: (1) the shrines dedicated to the mother goddess that are popular with the subaltern populations of the region (Fig. 1); and (2) the important annual festival of Bonalu celebrated at these shrines (Fig. 2). These shrines remain dormant for a major part of the year. Come mid-July, though, the shrines come alive in all their celebrations and revelry for Bonalu. This is largely a non-Brahminical, immensely popular, local festival, and festivities continue through the first week of August with each shrine celebrating at a grand scale. While the shrines largely lie low for the rest of the year, with the festivities of Bonalu they erupt in religious fervour and take centre stage in the city. Songs blare from microphones attached to street lamps, and various shrines are decked with turmeric paste, neem leaves etc., and devotees throng the numerous small and big shrines across the city. An analysis of the proliferating myths that sustain the shrines themselves is not an easy task, especially because there is practically no literature on them that is accessible to researchers. An even more difficult endeavour is to bring out the vibrancy and richness of the festival and provide a singular account of how it unfolds or the legends behind it.

Shrines of the mother goddess

Unknown to the modern conscious and its often disparaging eye, numerous, usually small, shrines dedicated to various mother goddesses are hidden in the interstices of administrative divisions in Hyderabad. Located in the alley ways of the city and at the margins of thoroughfares, most of these shrines are either inconspicuous, or are mistaken for the ‘standard Hindu’ shrine (For example, Figs. 3 and 4).These shrines are often viewed by a modern middle-class citizen as a hindrance to the traffic and as remnants of a feudal, irrational past. Since shrines like these are frequently demolished to accommodate development activities, their caretakers constantly negotiate with administrative officials for their preservation.
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Fig.04

Each shrine is dedicated to one of the various local goddesses such as Renuka-Yellamma, Maisamma, Poleramma, Nalla Pochamma, Maremma, Muthyalamma and Mahankalamma. According to popular legends, there are "kottokka ammallu," or "kottokka devathallu," that is, one crore and one (or ten million and one) mother goddesses, all deemed to be daughters of Shiva. These goddesses are believed to protect people belonging to different villages and castes, and hence are worshipped as reigning deities in villages. Frequently, the images of these goddesses resemble one another.
Most shrines have ‘sthala puranas’ or foundation myths that are frequently associated with stories of drought; childless women or couples; epidemics like small pox or chicken pox, and so forth. It is very hard to trace the exact histories of most of these shrines. Often the institution of the shrine is traced to a period of calamity, disaster, or disease in the region. Some devotees claim that a particular shrine have existed since the days of the first Nizam around the 16th century. Others claim that the figures of the mother goddess in these subaltern shrines are corrupt or localized versions of Durga, Kali etc. It is very uncommon, however, to find upper caste Hindus offering worship to these mother goddesses in urban pockets of Andhra Pradesh. These goddesses are primarily the deities of Dalits and tribal populations.
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Fig.06

Usually sheltered under the shade of large banyan, neem, or peepul trees, these shrines are sometimes no bigger than a small idol adorned with a colourful cloth, pasupu (turmeric paste), kumkuma (vermillion), lemons, flowers, mango and neem leaves (Fig. 5). Sanctums may be found in the more affluent shrine courtyards (Fig. 6). These additions often give the secular visitor an impression that these are smaller scale versions of ‘standard’ Hindu shrines. However, the walls of these shrines are adorned with paintings of women devotees, , mother goddesses, the brother of the goddess Pothuraja, and so on. Such images are seldom depicted on the walls of orthodox or standard Hindu temples in the city. The wall paintings on all shrines dedicated to the different mother goddesses are similar in form and theme. Elderly women are often deputed or employed to care for these shrines, while the more established ones have temple committees that cater to the devotees.
It is a common belief among the devotees of these shrines that a mother goddess should not be worshipped alone, hence most shrines exist in clusters. Frequently, the chief shrine dedicated to one goddess is surrounded by those of her companions. Even if the shrine is too small to accommodate idols of multiple goddesses, pictures of several goddesses are placed beside the idol of the chief goddess. In Figures 7 and 8, we see that three shrines have been built inside an enclosed compound. While such complexes are found in the city, the shrines that do not enjoy large courtyards often nominally represent objects or pictures associated with other gods (See Figs. 7, 8 and 9).
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