How well do you know your community? I’m sure I’m not alone in saying that there are aspects of the Chelmsford community that I have not accessed, and so I was very honoured to be invited to take part in Chelmsford Hindu Society’s first ‘Bonalu’ celebration. I knew it would be colourful, and I knew the people would be welcoming, but wow, what a magical evening I had.
Before I tell you my experience of Bonalu, let me give you a little information about Chelmsford Hindu Society in case you don’t know them
They were formed on 3rd September 2016 by a group of Hindus who were passionate about the values of Hinduism and how its traditions and ethos is still relevant in modern society. The initiative was started with a dream of having a temple in Chelmsford and the society have expanded to more than 600 families, which includes people from all over Essex. They have taken part in, and initiated a variety of events and celebrations and are welcoming to all.
So, on to Bonalu.
Bonalu is a religious celebration which involves a procession and ceremony, with various rituals taking place throughout. Bonalu is in honour of the Goddess Mahankali. The history of Bonalu goes back to 1813, when a plague struck the towns of Hyderabad and Secunderabad in the state of Telangana in India. At the time, the area had a military presence. On hearing about the plague, the military took it upon themselves to pray to Goddess Mahankali (a fierce, powerful Goddess) to stop the plague and if she did, they promised to place her deity in the towns. The plague did stop, and they kept their word, additionally offering the Goddess the ceremony of Bonalu. The Goddess now helps to keep people healthy by preventing diseases and sorrow.
Bonalu takes place in the Telangana state (and other places in the world) every year during the religious month of Ashada Masam (July/August), during which other religious ceremonies also take place.
The Chelmsford Bonalu ceremony was initiated by Swapna Kandhi and trustees and volunteers of the C.H.S and my point of contact was Shashiraj Marri.
The ceremony was started at Annonay Walk in the City Centre, and I was told that being by the water was particularly significant in Hindu ceremonies, so this was perfect
.A thottela (a small structure made from colourful paper and embellishments, supported on wooden sticks) was the centre of the shrine, surrounded by beautifully decorative stout brass and silver vessels called Bonam containing food and decorated with turmeric neem leaves and flowers.
I had brought a glass jar of flowers from my garden as an offering to the Goddess. Women and girls were tasked with holding the objects for the prayer rituals on puja trays.
Several Puja’s took place whilst we were at the temporary shrine, including turmeric covered coconuts being broken and their water being poured in front of the shrine.
Camphor Harati was lit in a brass bowl, and the fire was taken around the devotees who then prayed in turn.The devotees were also given yellow thread bracelets which are called Kankanam. Men, boys and children carried orange flags, some of which had the sacred ‘Om’ symbol on them, Om is a universal name of God and it surrounds all of his creation. At intervals, the flags were waved, music was played and the devotees danced and celebrated.
After a while, the thottela was picked up and carried by the men, and it was then that I understood why the vases had to be the shape they were. They were to be carried on the heads of women and girls, with a scarf to help keep them on. I was told by one of the devotees that once lifted, the thottela must not touch the ground and the vases must not be carried except on the head, until the procession reaches the temple.
Along the journey of the procession, puja’s take place of neem leaves water & turmeric water being poured at the vessel-carrying women and girls feet.
This is because the vessel (Bonam) carriers are believed to have taken on the spirit of the Mother Goddess and the water is to cool or pacify the spirit. There was lots of fun during the procession, with music and dancing in the City Centre with other members of the public joining in and having a great time.
After what must have seemed a long journey for the vessel carriers (keeping hold of a vessel on your head is hard work!), we reached the temple in Rainsford Road.
One of the women explained to me that it is important that all get a chance to take part, including the very young-it allows them to take responsibility and to get a sense of their heritage and traditions. Unlike the elders in the group, who may have seen the ceremonies take place in India, the young will not have. So whilst it is important that they learn the values of the place they now live, it is important that they are able to access their culture too.
At the temple, we all removed our shoes and entered. A beautiful shrine was laid out on a long table, flanked by other sacred objects and an offering table in front of the deity herself. Chairs were all around the hall in a semi-circle for all to see.
Flavoured rices were dished from a Bonam to plates in front of the deity to please her as she would be hungry. The ceremony is seen in a similar way to a daughter coming home and being pampered by her parents.
More pujas took place as well as people praying. At various points, a bell was rung. I was told this was to re-tune people’s minds so that they meditate and focus towards the prayers. After the pujas, the devotees went outside and more music and dancing and flag waving took place, with other members of the public not being able to resist joining in!
After this, unfortunately I had to leave. I was given some food to take as blessing to have a happy and healthy life.
It was a wonderful event, and I am very grateful to all the members of Chelmsford Hindu Society, particularly Shashiraj Marri who was my point of contact, and Ashya and Sucharitha who continuously checked that I was ok. I hope I am a little more enlightened about this part of the Chelmsford community, and hope I can continue to be more enlightened!