Columns of smoke rise up in the area around the Attukal Bhagavathy Temple in Thiruvananthapuram, the capital of Kerala, on a certain day every February. The smell of sweet jaggery wafts through the air. Clay pots and brick stones are stacked along the pavement. The roads leading up to the temple are decked: tender coconut leaves framed around a wooden structure stand in the vicinity, temporary stalls fill the temple grounds. Three thousand (or thereabouts) police personnel patrol the area. Clearly, it isn’t an ordinary day.
If you ever want to confirm the statistical claim that women outnumber men in Kerala, visit Trivandrum on this special day. Attukal Pongala falls on the 9th day of the ten-day long Pongala festival which happens during the Malayalam month Makaram-Kumbham (February-March) when offerings are made to the Goddess and blessings are sought. The most extraordinary thing about the whole affair, however, is the sheer number of women present. In 1997, 15 lakh women turned up. This number when up to 25 lakh in 2009. 2013 saw 37 lakh female devotees.
So what is it about women and Attukal Pongal? For all these years, I wasn’t too sure myself. I have lived in Kottayam all my life, which is about 4 hours away from Trivandrum. My cousin, who has attended it ever since she moved to the capital city, has been calling me to visit. And this time, I finally decided to go. Much like other festivals across the country, people participate in Attukal Pongal to fulfil an ardent wish or prayer they have. Legend has it that Kannaki, an incarnation of Goddess Parvati, conquered Madurai (in Tamil Nadu) when the King of Madurai had wrongly imposed the death penalty on her husband. After the victory, Kannaki stopped by at Attukal in Kerala, where women of the region gathered together and cooked payasam as an offering of respect to her. Thousands of years later, women of the region still gather together and cook payasam in their earthen pots remembering the bravery and sacrifice of Kannaki.
Payasam flows frothy, thick and delicious on the day of Pongala. Made with rice, jaggery and banana, it is a sweet broth-like dish sometimes garnished with coconut gratings, nuts, and raisins. Pongala literally translates to ‘boil over’ — and refers to this ritualistic offering of payasam to the goddess.
Last month approximately 50 lakh women, in their sarees and with they clay pots in tow, were present. I happened to be one of them — well, let’s say I was more of an observer than a participant. And what a sight to observe it was: the rush of devotees didn’t remain confined to the temple grounds. Roads, bus-stands, homes, fields and offices were milling with people that morning, probably covering a perimeter of approximately 7km. It was as far back as 1997 that the Attukal Pongala festival made it to the Guinness Book of World Records as the largest annual gathering of women. And since then, the number has only increased.
For the city, the ritual is a major occasion for which preparations start a week in advance. Police personnel (men and women both) are arranged to ensure smooth functioning of the event. All the transport buses plying from the city are reserved for women on Pongala day. Budget hotels, free of cost, open up their rooms on an hourly basis for devotees who want to freshen up. Stages are set up where devotional and cultural programs are staged. “The whole city practically turns intoia puja ground,” my cousin says, “Even the smaller Bhagavathy Temples in the area mimic all the rituals happening in the main Attukal Bhagavathy Temple.”
The ritual began at around ten. The priest symbolically lights stove from a fire brought from the sanctum sanctorum — which is then passed on to the devotees who begin cooking their payasam, seated on both sides of the road. On the side young boys are taking part in something called Kuthiyottam — a sort of a ritualistic ablution and bowing before the goddess.
This was my first time at Attukal Pongala, and only a few experiences in my life come anything close to the atmosphere there. As I watched my cousin cooking the payasam bending over the clay pot, I wondered what made her attend the Pongala, year after year. “Well, it’s obviously about devotion,” she told me later, “but there is a sense of satisfaction in making an offering from scratch right till the last step, when the broth boils over and spills out of the pot.” And the charm of doing it together with thousands and thousands of other women, of course.
The festivities continued till late afternoon, after which the women packed up and left by trains, buses and cars back to their respective homes.
With inputs from VG Raghunath and VG Meera.
Attukal Pongala: An annual congregation of women in Attukal Temple in Trivandrum to offer Pongala to the goddess.
Payasam: A South Indian rice pudding made by boiling rice, broken wheat, tapioca, or jaggery. Often used as offering in a ritual.
Kannaki: Incarnation of Parvati.
Kuthiyottam: A symbolic/ritualistic representation of human sacrifice in front of god.