Millions of women from different walks of life participate in Attukal Pongala, at Attukal Bhagavathy temple, Thiruvananthapuram, making it the single lar gest gathering of women in the world
The March air is hot and humid in Thiruvananthapuram, yet it is infused with palpable fervour as the annual ten-day Attukal Pongala festival, centered around the Attukal Bhagavathy temple, commences. On the festival’s ninth-day, hundreds of thousands of women, from far and near, prepare a ritual offering on temporary hearths, for their beloved Attukal Amma enshrined at the temple. And their sheer numbers – an estimated four million were present in 2016 – has had Attukal Pongala being recognised as the single largest gathering of women in the world.
The origin of the faith is traced to moment in centuries past, when a radiant young girl appeared before the deeply devout head of the respected Mulluveedu family at Attukal, Thiruvananthapuram, in physical form and later in a dream as goddess Bhagavathy. Pleased with his devotion, she indicated a spot in a sacred grove at Attukal to build a temple where she would reside as the presiding deity. A temple for the goddess was thus built, her icon enshrined and she was called Attukal Amma or Mother of Attukal. Her presence brought prosperity to the area and the shrine evolved to the present day temple built with a superstructure graced with brightly painted figures. Over time, the legend of Kannagi was integrated into the faith of Attukal Amma. A native of Madurai, Tamil Nadu, Kannagi was the devout wife of Kovalan, who was mistaken as a thief and was put to death by the king. Devastated by his death, Kannagi cursed the king and his kingdom that burned on account of her virtue. She left the city and reached Attukal where she was welcomed and offered her pongala – a preparation of rice, jaggery, coconut, nuts and raisins – and a temple built in her honour.
As faith in Attukal Amma grew she came to be deeply respected and loved for her divine power, for bestowing blessings and granting boons, and delivering justice. The highlight of her worship is the ten-day festival held during the Malayalam month of Makaram – Kumbham (that falls in February/March), with specific rituals for each day. The most important event is the ninth-day ritual of preparing pongala, on temporary hearths by women to offer their beloved mother goddess. Some devotees also prepare other traditional sweet specialities.
The festival commences with the Thottam Pattu ritual that involves the singing of a narrative related to the goddess. Each day a part of the legend is sung and on the ninth-day, the ritual song describes the goddess vanquishing the king. And after an announcement from the temple, it is time to light the fire, passed down from the temple and from one devotee to the next, to start preparing the pongala. As the festival has grown exponentially, local temples also pass a fire to women in the vicinity.
Preparation of Attukal Pongala
The preparation for the festival starts days in advance with women reserving a spot with bricks (later used to create a hearth), sourcing ingredients, firewood and a pot for preparing the pongala. On the ninth-day, they take their places – fanning out from near the temple, along roads, lanes and pavements, at courtyards of homes, sitting close to each other, in seemingly endless rows.
The women pray to the goddess for good health, success and harmony for their families. In the individual yet collective act of devotion, they cherish the moments of ritual, prayer and bonding. And with their offering, lovingly cooked by own hands, they forge a precious direct connect with the deity. The priest sprinkles holy water on the pongala. The women wrap up their hearths to return home with the pongala, a blessed food to be shared.
Written By: Brinda Gill