Telangana, the north western region of the erstwhile Andhra Pradesh and a separate state now, has a culture that is quite distinct from the other Telugu-speaking regions. The festivals celebrated in this state are marked by colour, veritable customs and legends and have well-defined rituals, steeped in myth and symbolism. There are two things that are very striking about Telangana’s festivals. One, the exceptional veneration of female deities and participation of women, and two, the universality and secularity of the festivities, which encompass people of all castes and faiths with equal and uniform fervor.

Apart from the major festivals such as Makara Sankranthi, Dasara, Deepavali and Ugadi, the Telugu new year, there are innumerable festivals and fairs that make the calendar in Telangana a multi-hued tapestry of celebration. Also noteworthy is the way the major festivals are customized in the region, adding lore and legend to it, making the occasions as much a local celebration as a festival to most regions of India.

Saurabh Chatterjee
Flower tier, Bathukamma festival
Flower tier, Bathukamma festival

Bathukamma Festival

The State Government has declared Bathukamma as a state festival, recognizing the uniqueness of the way the female deity, Durga, is worshipped as an embodiment of feminine valour and benevolence.

The festival is celebrated in the Bhadrapada month of the Telugu calendar, which falls between September and October. Concurrent with the Durga Navratri, Batukamma has floral worship as its centerpiece and has women defining the many rituals that constitute the observance of the festival. Beginning on Mahalaya Amavasya, the festival culminates on the eighth day of Navratri with a ceremony called Saddula Batrukamma. The festival marks the beginning of Sharath Rutu and typically has floral worship by women with different flowers arranged on a plate in seven tiers. The arrangement is called the Bathukamma and signifies the holy gopuram of Hindu temples.

The stack, symbolizing the Goddess Durga in the form of Gauri or Bathukamma – a live goddess – is placed in the centre and women, dressed up in their best, move around in circles singing traditional batukamma songs, seeking blessings and prosperity for their families and their villages.

While its historicity is unknown, legend has it that a Chola king took away a large Shivalinga to Tanjore from the erstwhile Vemulavada kingdom in Telangana and Bruhadamma, as Parvati was called here, was left in Telangana. Bathukkama, a derivative of Bruhadamma, is worshipped and consoled for being alone, away from her husband Shiva. The Bathukamma arrangement has a small symbol of Gauri made in turmeric. There is another story that speaks of Bathukamma as a symbol of Sati, whom the women of Telangana, beseech to come back alive. And she does that as Parvathi by the end of the festivities.

G Bhaskar
Women and children in colourful attire during Batukamma
Women and children in colourful attire during Batukamma

Bathukamma festival is a particularly wonderful sight in rural areas where courtyards are cleaned with cow dung and are decorated with rangolis. Various kinds of seasonal flowers are used to adorn the Bathukamma. If you plan on visiting Telangana during the Dasara season, it is certainly worthwhile to arrange for a visit to a village. The flowers and stalks, which include marigold, pumpkin and celosia, are said to have medicinal properties. The bathukammas are also given food offerings, naivedyam, of various kinds on each day of the festival. Saddula Bathukamma, on the eighth day, is the culmination with five kinds of saddi (cooked rice offerings).

Women of each locality unite across various social denominations to bring their own bathukammas to the centre of the locality or village and then immerse them along with a lamp in a water body, thus bringing the ceremony to a close.

Bonalu

Another major festival is Bonalu. Interestingly, Bonalu is as much an occasion of devotion as it is an expression of affection for the almighty, especially the Mother Goddess. Durga is worshipped in the form of Mahakali at this time, all over Telangana and especially in the twin cities of Hyderabad and Secunderabad.

The festival falls in the Ashada month, coinciding with the months of July/ August, and is celebrated in a month that is traditionally considered an inauspicious time for happy occasions, when women spend the month away from their husbands. It is a thanksgiving to the deity and has the offering of bonam, a rough dialect term for bhojanam, meaning a meal. During this festival, women cook rice with milk and jaggery in a new vessel, decorate it with neem leaves and turmeric and vermilion and carry it on their heads to the Mahakali temple. The food, along with kumkum and turmeric, a saree and bangles, are offered to the deity.

Ganesh Chaturdhi festivities
Ganesh Chaturdhi festivities

Like Bathukamma, Bonalu is all-in-all a feminine phenomenon and involves the worship of Kali and her various forms, by women. The local deities include Maisamma, Pochamma, Ellamma, Peddamma, Poleramma, Ankalamma, Nookalamma etc.

Bonalu is a spectacular affair in the twin cities of Hyderabad and is celebrated over a month, each week in one area of the city – Golconda, Old City, Secunderabad and Balkampet. It is said that Bonalu evolved from a thanksgiving ceremony when the plague broke out in the twin cities, which led to numerous deaths. Mahankali was implored to save the cities from the plague and it is believed that she eradicated the deadly disease.

Apart from all the colour and pomp, Bonalu festivities also see many women going into a trance, dancing to the rhythm of drums and purportedly speaking the word of the Goddess. The festival also involves sacrifice of roosters at some places. Women, walking in a procession, are accompanied by men carrying thottelu, frescoes made with bamboo sticks and colour paper and tinsel. The procession is a photographer’s delight, especially for first timers.

Saurabh Chatterjee
A priest decorating a deity ahead of the festival of Bonalu
A priest decorating a deity ahead of the festival of Bonalu

The procession also has pothurajus, men dressed in dhotis and wearing ankle bells, dancing to the beat of drums; and priests carrying the ghattam, a copper pot decorated with flowers, which is immersed in water at the end. The festival culminates with rangam, with a woman who goes into a trance and prophesizes the future of the city and its people, while standing on a pot, the day after Bonalu.

Ganesh Chaturdhi

The twin cities of Hyderabad and Secunderabad have long played host to Ganapati Bappa, dedicating a whole 13 days to the elephant-headed god, in a celebration that is fashioned along the lines of the Ganpati festival in Mumbai. Virtually every street corner has a Ganesh pandal in the city, with strings of tiny lights, illuminating every nook and corner.

The festival is a massive affair with virtually every community getting involved and contributing prasadam to the pandal in their own street. Loudspeakers blare devotional songs, often interesting parodies of super hit film songs, and while the pooja is a solemn occasion for adults, it is a time of fun and frolic for children. Thousands of idols are immersed in the famed Hussain Sagar lake on the 13th day of the festival and in water bodies across the state.

Ramzan

The end of the holy month of Ramadan is marked by the festival of Eid-ul-Fitar, one of the most important festivals in Telangana, especially the city of Hyderabad The state’s many mosques are filled to capacity on the occasion with men offering special prayers. The diligent fasting observed by Muslims is followed by hearty feasting. It is also a month for perseverance, control, charity and goodwill amongst Muslims and is also shared with people of other communities with equal fervor.

Hyderabad is well known for its haleem, the special preparation at the time of Ramzan, that Muslims break their fast with at the time of Iftar. Made with meat, lentils, ghee and wheat rawa or pounded wheat made into a thick paste, haleem is a high-calorie dish that compensates for the long day of fasting, especially when Ramzan falls in summer. Hyderabadis have added their own special ingredients to the dish, making it a signature dish of the Old City. Thousands of haleem stalls spring up across the city and are chock-a-block in summer.

Saurabh Chatterjee
People celebrating Ramzan
People celebrating Ramzan

Another attraction at the time of Ramzan is the shopping at the Old City of Hyderabad, around the historical Charminar. Everything from clothes to trinkets to furnishings to food is available at the market that spreads across the streets around the monument.

Yet another festival that brings the secular character of the city into sharp focus, Eid-ul-Fitar sees Hindus enthusiastically greeting Muslims with hugs and enthusiastically partaking in kheer and phirni and biryani with relish and festive joy.

Sammakka Sarakka Jatara

A classic example of the hoary Indian tradition of celebrating its rebels and warriors, the Sammakka Sarakka Jatara or festival is a tribute to a mother-daughter duo of tribal origin who fought against injustices meted out by the then rulers and sacrificed their lives in the process. The main commemoration is at Medaram in the Tadwai mandal of Warangal District and a huge number of people converge at Medaram to celebrate the event. Medaram is part of a tribal agency area near Eturunagaram in the periphery of the Dandakaranya forest.

Saurabh Chatterjee
A shop near the Charminar serving customers during Ramzan
A shop near the Charminar serving customers during Ramzan

It is a biennial festival celebrated in the month of February and is considered one of the largest congregations of tribal people anywhere in the world with almost 1,00,00,000 people in attendance. It is also a showpiece for the district administration that ensures that each of the jataras passes off without an incident.

Sammakka, a tribal chieftain, was believed to have lived in the 13th century and was a brave woman who played with tigers even as a baby. She ruled over her people. Sarakka was her daughter. The mother and daughter, as well as Sammakka’s son Jampanna, are said to have fought against the Kakatiyas, who were ruling the region at that time.

The jatara is recognized by the Government of Telangana as an official festival and the administration makes extensive arrangements for devotees arriving from not just within the state but also from as far as Jharkhand, Chattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Odisha.

The ritual involves devotees offering bangaram (gold) in the form of jaggery in a quantity equal to their own weight. The jatara also sees animal sacrifice and food offerings. Devotees also take a holy dip in a tributary of the Godavari, named Jamapanna Vagu, after Sammakka’s son who died in the stream while fighting the Kakatiyas.

Monthy Jataras

The cultural and religious calendar of Telangana does seem to be populated with a number of festivals and fairs. Some of the most important are the Brahmotsavams of various temples across the year, including those at Bhadrachalam Sri Sitaramachandra Swamy temple, the Vemulawada Raja Rajeswara Swami temple (see p287), Yadagirigutta Laxmi Narasimha Swamy temple, Dharmapuri in Karimnagar District, Bheemgal in Nizamabad District, Basar Saraswati temple are some of the more noted. Gudem Satyanarayana Swamy temple in Adilabad District is considered a must-visit destination for newly-weds and has many special occasions around the year.

Saurabh Chatterjee
Sammakka Sarakka Jatara
Sammakka Sarakka Jatara

Every month of the Hindu calendar, especially the Karthika, Shravana and Magha months see prolific celebrations across the state with Shiva and Vishnu temples especially preferred. Kondagattu Anjaneya temple has a season of deekshas, similar to the Ayyappa deeksha, and Edupayala Kanaka Durga in Medak District is another site where Vana Durga is venerated in the best traditions of Kali worship.

Urs at various dargahs, including the Bada Pahad in Nizamabad District, are secular festivals that see large numbers of people flocking to the dargahs. The Bara Pahad urs is organized by the Wakf Board and has as many Hindus as Muslims attending the urs.