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Bubbling over with devotion

Sankar Radhakrishnan

The fragrance of incense, sandalwood and coconut oil mingle... hawkers and food stalls materialise on the streets... all in readiness for the Attukal Pongala festival in Kerala.


Pilgrims offer prayers during the Attukal Pongala festival at Thiruvananthapuram (picture by S. Gopa Kumar)

In February-March each year, Kerala's capital Thiruvananthapuram shuts down for a day as close to a million women take to the streets to celebrate the `pongala' festival of the Attukal Bhagavathy temple. On `pongala' day, the fragrance of incense, sandalwood and coconut oil mingle with the smoke from hundreds of thousands of open hearths as the women cook the `pongala', a sweet porridge of rice, jaggery and coconut, in earthen pots as an offering to the Goddess.

According to local lore, the Attukal Bhagavathy temple — located a couple of kilometres off the southern end of Thiruvananthapuram's arterial M.G. Road — was built centuries ago by the head of a prominent local family who had a vision of the Goddess in a dream. In this vision, the Goddess is believed to have instructed the devotee to construct a temple, dedicated to her, in a sacred grove at Attukal.

It is also believed that Attukal Bhagavathy, the deity of the temple, is an avatar of Kannaki, the heroine of the Tamil epic Silapathikaram. Legend has it that after destroying Madurai, Kannaki travelled to Kerala, where she rested for a while at Attukal before moving on. Local women are believed to have made the `pongala' in an attempt to propitiate Kannaki during this sojourn.


Pots ready for sale during the festival (picture by C. Ratheesh Kumar).

Over the years, the Attukal Pongala has grown into one of the most important religious festivals in Thiruvananthapuram. The actual day of the `pongala' is a holiday, with many parts of the city closed to vehicular traffic.

In the week preceding the festival, the city, especially the area around the temple, takes on a different character. Temporary shops spring up along the streets leading to the temple. Peddlers selling garments, kitchen utensils, ice-cream and other snacks, cosmetics, toys and all sorts of knick-knacks, materialise on the pavements. Devotional songs blare out from a public-address system, drowned at times by the loud boom of exploding firecrackers. The streets near the temple fill with devotees, gulping down a quick snack or simply browsing through the merchandise on sale.

The most important among the hawkers who set up shop around the temple are the pot-sellers, many of whom are from Nagercoil in Tamil Nadu. "I have been coming every year for the last 10 years," says Omana a pot-seller. The pots on offer range in price from Rs 10 for a small pot to Rs 20 for a more substantial earthen vessel. "Business has been good, with the blessings of the Goddess," she adds.

Business has also been good for Rajamma, who sells cane baskets in various shapes and sizes. A regular at the Attukal temple festival, she sets up shop in the front yard of a house near the temple. "The owners of the house do not charge any rent from me, so I am able to make about Rs 600 every day till `pongala'," she says. However, some residents within the temple's precincts rent out their garages and front yards for the duration of the festival, she adds.

What sets Attukal Pongala apart from other religious gatherings is that it is believed to be the largest `women-only' religious event in the world and has been known to attract between 5 and 15 lakh women devotees in recent years. They come from across Kerala and India, and even other parts of the world to participate in the festival.

Growth has, in fact, been a constant feature of Attukal Pongala. As one devotee who has been participating in the ritual for over two decades puts it: "Twenty years ago `pongala' was mostly celebrated in the area around the temple. I remember a time when we made the `pongala' within the temple compound with a view of Attukal Amma right through." Today, on `pongala' day, all roads in a six-kilometre radius of the temple are taken over by lines of devotees participating in the ritual.

"I haven't seen any real changes during the past ten years, except that the number of women has expanded," says Dianne Jenett, who has done her Ph.D. dissertation on Attukal Pongala. Co-founder of the Web site Serpentina.com, Jenett herself offered `pongala' for the first time in 1997 and has performed it several times since then.

"The experience was very intense and I still remember the tension and great relief when my pot boiled over making sure that my offering was accepted," she says.

Another remarkable facet of this ritual is that it crosses all boundaries of class and religion, and fosters the spirit of equality. Film stars and housewives rub shoulders with one another, and strangers help each other.

"On pongala day everyone is equal, nothing is exclusively `yours' and blessings come to the greater community from helping the women. Women more skilled in this type of cooking help the majority of the women who only know how to cook with gas," says Dianne.

Similarly, on the day of the pongala, people living in the festival zone open their homes and hearts to the devotees and provide them with food, water and refreshments till the ritual is over. Social service organisations, cutting across barriers of religion and political affiliation, also provide refreshments and other support services to the devotees.

Over the years, Attukal Pongala has increasingly emerged as a beacon of harmony and an event that fosters community spirit.

Diane, perhaps, captures the essence of this ritual when she says: "I have been inspired by `pongala' and the capacity of women from all walks of life to come together in harmony and peace with a single purpose." Or as an anonymous devotee puts it: "The pongala helps us see the Goddess in each one of us."

Topic of dissertation

When Dianne Jenett visited Thiruvananthapuram during Attukal Pongala in 1993, she was struck by the power of this ritual. Intrigued by the ability of the women to garner support from the community and the Government, she decided to make the `pongala' the subject of her Ph.D., she explains.

Titled Red Rice for Bhagavathy/Cooking for Kannaki, Dianne's dissertation examines the `pongala' ritual from the eyes of a cross-section of Malayali women. "Fifty women, representing a wide spectrum of the Malayali society told me their stories of `pongala' and several themes emerged. They are actually similar to the ideas of social justice, harmony, tolerance and egalitarianism of the Onam festival," she points out.

The Attukal Pongala, Dianne believes, has affected her life too. "I have developed a relationship with the Goddess and try to remember her values, and like most women I spoke to, I too yearn to perform the ritual of `pongala' each year and feel a deep loss if that is not possible," she says.

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