When a thousand women walk the road to the historical centre of Trivandrum, you know it’s Pongala.
Occupying up to 5 km of streets around Attukal Temple, the festival falls on the second to last day of the month of makaram-kumbham of the Kerala’s lunar calendar. In every alley you cross, you will see women cooking a typical sweet dish made of rice, favorable offering for goddess Attukal.
This is a Guinness World Record-breaking celebration for the largest number of women gathered in a single town (2.5 millions; in 2012’s Pongala, 3 millions woman have participated).
For most of them Pongala is a time of prayer, feast and participation. Until the day before the start of the celebration, women flood in the city by car, busses and special trains, made available by the Government for this occasion.
The ritual originated in Tamil Nadu and was initially celebrated only by low-caste women. However, at present, Pongala breaks the chains of social status and becomes a vast gathering where all women hold together and share the prayers for the Divine. They praise him for wellness and peace.
Women start cooking at around 10 AM, but the road block starts at 5 AM. While you get closer to the temple, you will see even more women put down the three typical clay bricks used to hold the pot where they cook payasam, the traditional rice dessert.
There are women stuck in traffic, on trucks or motorcycles. Everyone has a little bunch of wood to burn and a bag filled with the ingredients. Nobody is left alone, and you don’t need an invitation. Houses, gardens, bathrooms and water: everything is shared. In the air you can smell joy, enthusiasm and solidarity.
Small talks and jokes jump from mouth to mouth while hands (it doesn’t matter if you’re not experienced) cook the traditional dish. Some women grind the sugarcane cubes, other are in charge to open coconuts and some have the task to fill big steel basins with coconut powder.
Loudspeakers spread prayers, chants and information on schedules for rituals. Moreover they are used to mind the women to attain to the basic safety guidelines (i.e: Remember to keep a distance between a fire and another, dress in cotton clothes and look for security staff or police in case of trouble)
Beside mothers you can see girls dressing like little goddesses, with their faces painted. It is believed the goddess, in the shape of a little girl, appeared in this place a few centuries ago. Some peasants welcomed her in their house, inviting her for supper. But when the rice was boiling with sugar, the little goddess was gone. A beautiful altar was built in her honor, subsequently replaced by the temple we can admire today. Now goddess Attukal resides there, and devotees from all over India can turn to this place to praise her.
Attukal manifested again in the shape of a woman, and faced the hardship of being so. That’s why she now helps her daughters to overcome their problems and face with pride the iniquities to be born a female.
The sacred fire burning in the hearth of the temple (lit by the minister of the goddess, a man) is took outside the temple to lit all the little cooking fires. One after another, small fires burn all over, raising a chain of smoke in the sky.
Women of all social status and caste are bent on their pots, cooking. It matters not if you can’t cook, and you can recognized the experienced by the redness of their eyes. The ritual culminates when boiling waters spills on the fire, raising smoke; then women snap their tongues and elevate their howls to the sky.
When payasam is ready, the younger are the first to look for shelter, and then, slowly, the city falls into a deep slumber. For the occasion every quarter is equipped with a dining hall that distributes free food and water – but most of the women are guest of local families. Under every shelter, every tree and veranda you can see women laughing or sleeping awaiting for 3 PM, when temple’s doors will open again to gift the devotees with holy waters to bless the food with.
And then the ceremony’s over. Goddess Attukal accepted the offerings and listened to her daughter’s prayers. Another year of harvest and prosperity has started. To seal this promise, the day gifts a little rain in a normally dry season.