On Tuesday, 7 March, lakhs of women braved the scorching sun and rising humidity to set up hearths on every road, bylane, and street in Thiruvananthapuram city, to prepare Pongala — a sweet dish of rice and jaggery — the offering to Attukal Bhagavathy, the presiding deity of the Attukal Devi Temple.
The Attukal Devi temple trust said that the hearths were lit at 10.30 am and the Pongala would be offered at 2.30 pm.
The Attukal Pongala, a mammoth annual ritual, marks the finale of the 10-day festival of the temple. Considered to be the largest congregation of women at a religious event in the world, it was reduced to mere symbolic ritualistic events in 2021 and 2022 due to Covid-imposed restrictions.
As the Pongala returned, women arrived in the city a day in advance to find space to set up the hearths. The temple trust and the city corporation have made all arrangements to conduct the event.
However, several women failed to find a space to place the hearth and were left disappointed.
Organisers believe more than 2.5 million (25 lakh) women were attending the festival on Tuesday.
Devotees from southern TN for Attukal Pongala
Several male volunteers distributed buttermilk, lemon juice, and fruits to ease the impact of the rising heat. Some organisations have arranged lunch packets as well.
In some places, different organisations and individuals set up shamianas to help the devotees escape the scorching sun.
Talking to South First, writer Lakshmy Rajeev, who wrote a book in English on the history and significance of the Attukal Pongala festival, said the event witnessed a record participation of women this time as it was a muted affair in 2021 1st 2022 due to the pandemic.
During the past two years, women were forced to offer sweet porridge to the deity Attukal Bhagavathy from the safety of their respective homes.
The symbolic events in the previous years permitted offering only from the Panadara Aduppu — or the main hearth — within the temple premises.
Ahead of Tuesday, women were seen booking spaces on footpaths in advance by placing bricks, strings, and small slips of paper with their names written on them.
The event attracts women devotees not just from across Kerala, but also from southern Tamil Nadu.
For the first time, the Southern Railway operated two special trains for devotees attending the Attukal Pongala.
Also read: Koda festival begins at Tamil Nadu’s Mandaikad Bhagavathy Amman temple
Counterpoint to Thrissur Pooram
Lakshmy Rajeev said the festival is a cultural counterpoint to the celebrated Thrissur Pooram, where the teeming male crowd makes it difficult for women to actively engage in the celebrations.
Attukal Pongala found its way into the Guinness Book of World Records in 1997 and 2007, when 15 lakh and 25 lakh women, respectively, participated in the festival. For Kerala society, Attukal is the Sabarimala of women.
The hilly forest abode of the celibate god Ayyappa still remains out of bounds for women aged between 10 and 50.
Festival for Attukal Bhagavathy at Devi Temple
According to Thiruvananthapuram’s historian Malayinkeezhu Gopalakrishnan, the Attukal Pongala festival is the celebration of the myth of Kannagi, who suffered injustice and humiliation of a patriarchal society for no fault of hers.
The Dravidian festival subverts the prevailing Hindu conduct of rituals in which women seldom have any role.
The Attukal Bhagavathy temple festival allowed several women to sleep on the roadside for a night before the event, spend a day leisurely without any family responsibilities, and return home late.
“The festival brings in certain sorts of empowerment to women from ordinary homes where conservatism matters,” Lakshmy Rajeev said.
She observed that it also celebrates community bonds and prompts people to share shelter and food.
“It’s a rare celebration of feminine spirit and camaraderie,” writer Sreedevi Kartha said.
“Absolute strangers are offering food, water, and other essentials to women participating in the festival. And it allows men to help women in need,” she added.
Celebration of harmony beyond religion
For the people of Thiruvananthapuram, it is an occasion to celebrate harmony beyond religion.
Mosques, churches, and religious organisations are throwing open their premises to the devotees to meet their personal needs. A festival spirit and rare kinship are visible everywhere.
For example, a cultural organisation, Muslim Samskara Vedi, is offering refreshments and lunch to many attending women through its kiosks set up across the city.
Several churches are also offering water, juice, and food to the devotees.
According to mythology, the annual festival at the Attukal Bhagavathy Devi temple celebrates the hospitality accorded by women of Thiruvananthapuram region to Kannagi, said to be the divine incarnation of the heroine of the Tamil epic, Silappadikaram, who destroyed Madurai city to avenge the injustice meted out to her husband, Kovalan.
The temple authorities have insured the festival for ₹14 crore. As a huge increase in devotees is expected, the insurance amount could be utilised for the benefit of devotees facing emergencies, said office-bearers of the Temple Trust.