I’ve often pondered if all the Myths that we know of are just stories made by a group of old, experienced intellectuals who possessed a vivid imagination, centuries ago or do these Myths have a purpose, a message that we’re unable to decipher, a message embedded deep inside it like seeds inside a fruit, waiting to be found and regrown for the nourishment of the society.
While walking on the narrow gullies of Hayathnagar, I seem to have deciphered an ancient myth, I seem to have understood the purpose of a small, obscure story.
Hayathnagar is a suburban town in the Ranga Reddy district of Telangana, India.
Since I’d come back home (Hyderabad), my friends naturally wanted to meet me. It was a long gap after all.
One such friend, Jagath Sanghi, a resident of Hayathnagar, invited me there for celebrating Bonalu with his family.
Sunday, 14th August, 5:30 pm.
*Phone rings* (Unknown number)
“Hello, Samay here”
“Hello Samay bhai (brother), where are you?” asked the voice in a tone that clearly indicated that the caller knew me well.
“Hello bhai, I’m home, where are you?” I replied in a similar tone, thinking it would be awkward to ask him who he was after he addressed me as a brother.
“There’s a Bonalu at Hayathnagar tonight, do come here, it has been quite some time since we’ve met, it’ll be fun.”
I understood it was Jagath speaking, the moment he mentioned Hayathnagar. He was my only friend from there. I felt relieved not having faced the typical Indian phone-call question ‘Did you recognise me?’ until then.
“Yeah Jagath bhai, I’ll definitely come but I really don’t know what a Bonalu is.”
“You’ll get free food and drinks,” he said, jokingly, not emphasising on what a Bonalu was.
“Alright, I’ll be there by 8 pm,” I said and hung up after some small talk.
I saved his number to my sim.
At 8:30 pm, I arrived at Hayathnagar‘s bus stop. Jagath was already there, a dark, thin, jovial teenager, he was wearing a bright red kurta and a white paijama. His forehead wore a small black Tilaka in the centre, symbolising his participation in some religious activity. We did a dramatic hand shake followed by a side hug and talked about how our lives were going.
Entering the gully that led to his home, i noticed a horde of people surrounding a woman. Few of the females carried a rack of coloured earthen pots on their heads, few people had garlands in their hands, one or two were dressed and face painted like demons, while the rest were just the onlookers.
“What the hell is going on here?” I asked Jagath, astonished by this strange display.
“That’s the Bonalu being celebrated,” he answered, casually.
“What is a Bonalu??” I asked again, with the same enthusiasm.
“It’s a festival celebrated only in Telengana” he replied, taking his chappals off and pushing the door of his home, open. His house was a concrete one, unlike many kutcha houses in Hayathnagar.
Bonalu being celebrated in Hayathnagar.
I took my shoes off and followed him to the hall. I could see a picture of his grandmother, with a garland over it, hanging on the wall. There were many other pictures and a huge LED T.V right in the centre of the wall that we were facing. He belonged to a pretty well-off family compared to others living in Hayathnagar. We sat on the couch and my attention drew back to Bonalu.
“So tell me about this festival, I might write about it, it looks really interesting with all these earthen pots and people dressed as devils, tell me all you know about it,” I asked, in a professional tone. (Teenager friends don’t generally talk about Festival history.)
“Alright listen,” he began, after giving me a confused look, “long ago, during the time of Nizams, in the 1800’s, diseases started spreading in the region that is now, Telangana, during the time of monsoons, people died.” “It happened every year,” he added.
“Hold on, let me get something to eat for the two of us, I’ll continue, don’t worry,” he said as he walked to the kitchen bare-feet.
At this point I was wondering how a 200 year old epidemic could be the reason I was here, in Hayathnagar, 200 years later to dine for free. Whatever it was, it seemed interesting. I was interested.
“Do you like mutton?” Jagath asked loud and clear from the kitchen.
“No, not really, get me a few pieces of chicken with rice and gravy, that’s all” I replied. Being a Kashmiri Pandit, it was hard for me to digest that non-veg was being served during a religious festival.
He came back with dry chicken curry in a bowl with no forks in it.
“Starters,” he joked. (The concept of starters isn’t generally practiced in Indian suburbs, I’m not sure about the concept of forks)
I smiled to indicate I’d got the joke.
“So you were saying…” I said, indirectly asking him to continue.
“Yes, where was I? Yeah, people were suffering from diseases, they were helpless. So the people built a temple outside every village and planted neem trees around it thinking that the diseases came in from outside the village. The women used to go there every month and pray to goddess Mahakali, offering clothes and food in earthen pots that you saw stacked on the heads of those women. People planted neem trees on the outskirts of the village and spread neem leaves on their beds too. Neem has got medicinal properties, basic science you see.”
“Is that all?”
“Yeah, then the diseases faded away gradually due to these trees, it was pure science, people thought it was a religious miracle,” he said,”it was misinterpreted, that’s all, have food now, I’m done talking about Bonalu for an year, i suppose,” he said, jokingly.
“Haha, yeah, chicken is the real miracle we’re blessed with,” I added, to lighten the mood as I picked up a boneless piece delicious looking chicken.
Jagath, with the neem tree that was a part of the Bonalu, in the background.
We kept on talking, laughing and eating for another half hour after which, an old, weak man, walking slowly, stopping at every step, entered the hall.
“He’s my grandfather,” Jagath replied plainly.
“Are you done eating?” Jagath asked, stretching out his hand towards the bowl.
“Yeah, completely,” I replied, still looking at his grandfather who was now sitting idly on the bed.
Jagath picked the empty bowl from the table and pointed me towards the wash basin, he told me that he’d be back in ten minutes, after serving starters to his friends who’d just arrived.
Having washed my hands, I went back to sit on the couch, as I waited for Jagath to return.
I looked at the old man again, he was still there, sitting silently. He was very weak and his silence was uncanny. His old, expression-less face indicated he had stories to tell, stories that no one cared to listen to, stories that wouldn’t interest many people, stories that i was interested in.
The silence was getting unbearable now. I kept staring at him thinking that our eyes would meet and words would spill out of his dry, motionless lips but he did not move a muscle. I was at the peak of my curiosity and end of my patience. I stood up, shakily. Moving towards him slowly, I managed to get his attention.
“Namastey, Uncle,” I said with a smile as I brought my palms together.
He replied with a toothless smile.
“Are you Jagath’s grandfather?” I asked, in Telugu, just to initiate a conversation.
“Yes, I am his father’s father,” he said, in a scratchy, old, loud voice.
“Ohh, I am his friend”
“Yes, his father’s father,” he repeated, shaking his head.
His ears were too old to understand my soft, dull voice, maybe.
“I am Jagath’s friend, I write for a newspaper,” I said, loudly this time.
I was pretty sure it would be impossible for me to make him understand what a blog was so I had to lie, we all lie for little things, don’t we?
“Oh, god bless you, son,” he said, coughing.
“Umm, Uncle, I’m from Kashmir so I don’t really know what this Bonalu is…could you tell me something about it?” I asked loudly.
He leaned forward and flexed his arms, looking at the effort it took him, it was clear that he liked being spoken to. I just sat in front of him, smiling.
“It is a Pooja of Goddess Mahakali, it happens only in Telangana”
“What exactly is the reason behind it, Uncle?” I asked, enthusiastically.
“Hmm, it’s a long story,” he said, giving me another one of his toothless smiles.
“Please tell me about it, It sounds really interesting.”
He stretched his legs forward and gently massaged his knees, making sure he was in a comfortable position.
“So a long long time ago, Lord Shiva, (Hindu God of destruction) had a daughter named Savadamma,” he began.
‘A classic myth,’ I thought to myself.
“Her time on Earth as Savadamma was almost done and she had to leave her Avatar, so that she could return in a different Avatar, later (Avatars, or forms, are an integral part of Hinduism)
“So she tells her father, Lord Shiva Father, I have to leave, I’ll return in Mother Parvati’s womb in my second Avatar, Pochamma, I promise
Years pass and Shiva eventually forgets about Savdamma’s promise and on one chilly eve, Goddess Parvati gives birth to Pochamma”
I was having trouble understanding the science behind all this, but I kept listening with constant enthusiasm and repeated exaggerated gasps.
“Shiva gets really furious, you know about his anger, right? He’s known for his short temper”
I nodded gently, not wanting to divert his flow.
“He tells her that the child is not his and forces her to give him the test of her purity, the Agni Pariksha (Trial by fire).
She successfully passes the test but Shiva is not satisfied, he keeps bothering her now and then until one day, Pochamma reminds him of the promise she had made to him as Savadamma.
Shiva instantly remembers it and realises his mistake and in order to make up for it, gives all his weapons and knowledge to Pochamma and tells her that he will have her married to a young man from a reputed family, where she would live happily but she declines his offer, Pochamma is kind of stubborn, you know,” he added, and let out a giggle.
I could not believe it was the same old man who was sitting silently, frozen with his thoughts minutes ago, giggling now. I felt good.
“And then what happens, Uncle?” I asked, sounding more excited than I was, to make him know that I was indeed, listening.
“She asks lord Shiva to build a temple for her outside the village where she’d live for the rest of her life, alone, watching over the people. She also asks him to assign her one of each;
Magicians, Priests, Musicians, Guards, and so on, I don’t remember the exactly, but she asks for 12 different types of people.”
“Oh, Does he agree??”
“Of course, He’s her father, he had troubled her and her mother unnecessarily, he had to only agree. So he agrees to all her wishes and proceeds accordingly and in return of the protection she’d give the villagers, she just asks them to get her food in Earthen pots, once a month, along with a few clothes too.”
So once every arrangement is made, she takes blessings of Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvati and leaves along with the Guards (Potharajus), towards the temple. There, she plants a Neem tree right opposite to the temple.”
“You might be able to see some people dressed and painted as Potharajus tonight, they look really scary, don’t get too close to them, they’re very aggressive,” he adds, softly.
The people who I thought were dressed as devils were actually guards, Potharajus.
“From that temple, using Lord Shiva’s knowledge and weapons, she protected the village ever after from calamities and diseases,” he added with a loud and dramatic stop.
The pieces were fitting,
I could see the entire picture form. The neem tree, the temple in the outskirts, the people dressed as Pothurajus, everything seemed to be fitting in both Jagath’s and his grandfather’s story.
The question was which one of them was right? But then another question struck my mind….
‘Was it really necessary to find out which one of the explanations was true?’
Having thought about it for a while, I realised that the purpose of both the stories was same, to cure and prevent the diseases, just the stories behind it were different.
Maybe it was difficult for the people to make the villagers understand the science behind the Neem tree that required for this story to be created, maybe it was something else. The diseases were gone long ago, all that is now left is the tradition that these villagers follow, every year.
What if this story did not exist? What if the villagers had just planted Neem trees and let it be? The diseases would still fade away, but so would history. We would never know what happened then, maybe this myth was just a way of preserving history, there were a lot of ‘Maybe’s, but maybe, it didn’t matter.
Indian mythology and culture is so rich and meaningful, be it our tradition of throwing coins into holy rivers, be it our tradition of eating while sitting on the floor, every Myth, every Tradition has a purpose waiting to be found and spread, waiting to be understood.
I thanked the old man for his time and knowledge and he replied with his beautiful toothless smile again as he escaped back into still silence, into peace. His face looked like he had more stories to tell, stories that nobody cared to listen to, stories that wouldn’t interest many people. Stories that I had taken a glimpse of.