Celebrating Attukal Pongala Festival in Kerala

Women gathered for the Attukal Pongala festival
Women gathered for the festival

The world’s only largest annual congregation festival of women  is called “Attukal Pongala”. During my visit to Kerala’s capital , I was keen on experiencing this festival, as I had learnt about it from the Guinness Book of Records back in 2009 . More than 3.9 million women come together every year for this religious act where  they  offer their devotion , dedication &  obeisance to the deity of Attukal Bhagavathy temple.

Women gathered for the Attukal Pongala festival
Women gathered for the festival

The  festival is about offering a sweet dish called “ Pongala”, which literally means “to boil over”, porridge made of rice , sweet brown molasses, coconut , jagerry, nuts , raisins. etc. This is offered to the deity residing in one of the most religious ancient temples,  Attukal Devi (Attukal Bhagavathy) – small temple  situated two kilometres away from  Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple in Thiruvananthapuram City.

You can visit this festival between February and March as it commences on Karthika star of the Malayalam month. The coming year it would be celebrated on 5th March  as calculated by local authorities but can change  according to the customs and  rituals of the temple.

Area filled with smoke while cooking in Attukal Pongala
Area filled with smoke

The history of this festival is about a century old , when Kannagi, popularly known as Kannaki , the  famous heroine of Chipathikaram, met the head of Mulluveettil family and asked to help her cross the Killi river. He was performing his rituals and offerings to Killi  river at that time , and decided to help  her  to cross the  river. She was also welcomed by the whole family after crossing the  river, but she disappeared while the household members were amidst  preparations for a warm welcome  to the vanished girl. That night Karanavar (head of family) saw  the  same girl in his dreams , and the  girl told him to give  her an abode in the nearby grove where  shrubs  and  herbs grow . The old man erected the  temple where the girl said  he  would find three lines  marked on the  ground the very next day. The  temple was later on called as Attukal Bhagavathy, where Goddess Attukal Devi resided in her abode.

Kannaki  is supposed to be the incarnation of Parvathy.  This story was narrated to me as early as 6 am in the morning while I was on my way to experience the religious zeal of the devotees for the deity. Many devotees also had the photos of the Goddess since the  temple premises cannot take even more than 100 devotees.The picture of the goddess had a varied mix of colours, like pink & gold  and she was portrayed carrying a spear, sword, skull and  shield in her four hands, symbolising destruction. There was also a picture of Mahishasuramardini right below her feet , and various offerings for the Devi covered the photograph.

Women performing their rituals in Attukal Pongala
Women devotees around the sacred area to perform their rituals

While I chatted with some of the ladies who could speak English apart from Malayalam, they said “Attukal temple” was devoted to Kannaki, the heroine of the Tamil epic Chilappadikaram by Ilangovadikal. Folktale says  that after the destruction of Madurai town, Kannaki travelled to Kodungallur in Kerala. It is believed that she stayed at Attukal on the way and local women offered her pongala.That is why thousands of women devotees from far flung areas flock to the temple with invocations to the supreme power to nurse the kids just like  Devi does for her devotees.

The euphoria of religion, faith and belief is observable not only among the devotees but also among the locals as they support the devotees irrespective of caste, creed and religion by helping them to setup their area while performing the ritual.The locals even help them stay in their houses for a ten-day programme to play a role in this festival. The ritual is performed on the streets where some of them  book their spot of around 15 inches, days in advance while these women devotees assemble together from different parts of Kerala and outside. That is why I was told that this place is called Sabrimala of women. Pot sellers, women hawkers carrying baskets sell various things before the rituals starts to make that extra buck during the festival.

Woman selling items to needy devotees in Attukal Pongala
Women sellers stroll to sell items to the needy devotees

The bricks are installed by the devotees in their areas, spots are marked with chalks by their family members . Women of all ages dressed in off-white , some in bleach white saris , with golden border or brown borders which is the traditional attire , sit across the marked spot to perform the rituals. Some of the members of younger generation or creative devotees hand paint the saris with peacocks and artistic designs to bring innovation to the tradition.

Traditional saris designed with new prints for Attukal Pongala
Traditional saris designed with new prints

Some of the devotees along with earthen mud–brown pots also bring colourful pots to differentiate from the other goddess aficionados. Raw wood is used to light fire to make the Pongala which starts together around 10 am. Pongala is experienced as ane inner chemistry of the body, mind and soul; recharging the devotees with sublime happiness and make them spiritually and mentally equipped to face the challenges of the future. The entire area with open fields, entrance of the shops, government establishments, premises of houses, etc are filled with smoke as soon as the fire is strong enough to cook the pongala in the earthen pots. The loudspeaker starts blaring devotional songs from days in advance for this celebration and each local authority, committees, residents of the area sweep the area clean to decorate it.

I even got to  see various decoration of flowers made from palm leaves and flower decorations with their stem bearing new rice, amongst other things. As part of the tradition, Pongala is prepared with different kinds of gruel mixed with jaggery & coconut either in a thick liquid format or ladoos. After it is prepared , the devotees offer it to the goddess and then share it with family members and neighbours and visitors who come from all parts of the world to observe this festival.

Designed earthen pot for Attukal Pongala
Designed earthen pot made colorful to stand out
Traditional setup to lit the earthen pot to cook Pongala
Traditional setup to lit the earthen pot to cook Pongala
Making ladoos from Pongala
Making ladoos from Pongala
Pongala served in other form with leaf
Pongala served in other form with leaf

The only men you would see around this festival are the local policemen who stroll around with blood colour bikes to check on the health and security of the festival participants. The local and government bodies offer dedicated health care services during the festival as devotees might get heat stroke while performing the ritual in scorching heat. My memory of this festival was very smoky and sugary from the offerings which I had.

Policemen bikes patrolling the Attukal Pongala festival area
Policemen bikes patrolling the festival area