A Celebration of Womanhood


This is a previously article of mine, on a quaint celebration of womanhood which takes place in my city annually.
The Guinness Book of World Records accords this mammoth female mela the honour of the ‘largest religious congregation of women in the world’. But in reality the under-current of the Pongala festival celebrated at Thiruvananthapuram under the auspices of the Attukal Devi trust is much more than mere religious fervour.
A few million hearths smoke their way across creed and class barriers every year on the occasion of the full moon of the spring season, read February-March in tropical Kerala, on the western coast of India. This is Thiruvananthapuram hosting the Pongala, a woman-only celebration, which gathers women, sans barriers on her roads, each of them cooking an offering squatting on the roads, to appease a valiant super power who is also a woman whose response to injustice is legendary.
Yes, I did say ‘squatting on the roads’; this festival really does happen all along the arteries of the small city of Thiruvananthapuram, which has less than a hundred and fifty square kilometres of land area. On any Pongala day, a visitor to Thiruvananthapuram will witness a City of Sacred Kitchens. You will see rows and rows of make-shift stoves arranged in symmetric rows and women standing behind them in absolute discipline and devotion, on the roads which usually spill over with traffic.
These hearths will have just three bricks kept at strategic angles and will be fuelled by that delicate timber called the kothumbu sourced from the top of the ubiquitous coconut tree. Atop each hearth an earthern vessel will hold a mixture of rice, sweet brown molasses, coconut scrapings and water which will be cooked to perfection into a tasty and sought-after devotional offering. The ritual begins at about 10 in the morning and goes on till about 3 in the evening, during which the women stay by their hearths with prayers in their hearts and harmony in their gestures. This is actually the crux of what happens at the Pongala venue, but the ritual is again an extended one and has more ethnic meanings to it.
Pongala, which literally means an offering, is ritually made out to the mother-goddess. This rite hails from an essentially Tamil ethos and is unique to the southern border district temples of Kerala which are dedicated to the mother goddess. Attukal Temple being in Thiruvananthapuram, a city with considerable Tamil leanings for geographical and historical reasons has the stories on its origin founded around a Pongala offering. There are of course several temples in Thiruvananthapuram that follows the Pongala ritual, the Attukal temple does not hold a unique ceremony in that aspect; but the milling feminine crowds grinding a bureaucratic city to a stop is certainly unique, so is the enormous numbers of participation. And following the popularity of this unique celebration, several temples across the state have emulated the ritual, but Pongala remains unparalleled in its mammoth participation numbers.
Like any festival, there is a mythical origin and an interesting backdrop to the Pongala too. The story has a feminine angle; there are also interpretations to feminism. The heroine of the chronicle is not a local nor is she an ordinary mortal. She is Kannagi, the female protagonist of the Tamil epic Silappadikaram, or the Epic of the Anklet and a figure accorded with considerable individuality.
The fable has it that Kannagi lost her husband Kovalan to treachery and murder, and spent her wrath by burning the city of Madurai. She then left the city for Kodungalloor in Kerala, and in her trail of rage and extreme sorrow, stopped at the banks of a river of erstwhile Thiruvananthapuram. It is to be noted here that Kodungalloor in North Kerala is famed for the traditional abode of the mother-goddess with a marked personality. Kannagi was in the guise of a small girl, but her divinity was identified by a local family who propitiated her with food cooked in an earthen pot on a brick stove.
Considerably appeased by the hospitality and devotion of her host family, she left a message to them to build a home for her at a designated spot. The ‘home’ is now the Attukal temple and the annual Pongala festival is celebrated on the penultimate day of the ten-day festival in memory of the incident of propitiating the benevolent goddess and being blessed with prosperity thereafter. So much for the associated myth and that sounds very religious. But the dimensions of the Pongala extend quite beyond. The festival is marked by community participation and sharing every thing you own, including the shady place you stand on.
Pongala is no mere gathering where women chant, pray, hold frenzied religious displays and then disperse in a few minutes. The majority of these women arrive at Thiruvananthapuram from various parts of the globe by the previous evening, some even before that. Most of them have favourite haunts and regular places where they station themselves year after year to participate in the Pongala. Others just squat at whatever space they can find on the road set up their impromptu kitchen and sit guard till the morning of the great day. The fire in the innumerable hearths is lit from a single spark initiated by the chief priest of the temple from inside the sanctum sanctorum and the flame is passed from hearth to hearth in an unbelievable and superb gesture of community participation.
There is hardly any advertisement or a factor of persuasion to prompt the thronging of pilgrims. But the city grinds to a halt hours before the actual Pongala starts, because the woman-only army literally descends on the town hours in advance. The trains that puff into the Thiruvananthapuram central railway station from the day before look like scenes of exodus and the railway authorities allow several unusual stops and extra schedules to cater to the incoming crowds. The roads are clogged with vehicles chartered for the purpose, and many make their temporary homes for the night in the vehicle after canvassing the spot for the hearth and a visit to the temple. The queues are serpentine and extend to miles, and that is not an exaggeration. The hours spent in line are surprisingly handled with extreme patience, considering the tolerance Indians in general have for queues.
To the hosts, the preparations but start several days before. The city authorities know the responsibilities of a host only too well now, so the cleaning of the city is done well in advance. The entire city wears a festive look and the ‘kettukazchas’ or idols reminiscent of the Ganapathy idols in Mumbai during Ganesh Chathurthi or Kali mata during Durga Puja at Kolkota travel with much fan fare from various points in the city as a part of the celebrations. Unlike the Mumbai and Kolkota procession, there is no specified day when an idol travels and there is no immersion of idols at the concluding point, which is the temple compound.
The outstanding feature of the whole process is the community participation in the kettukazchas. This is in fact the only event in the whole Pongala festival where men can participate. So they do it, minus borders of religion. It is not unusual to see believers in non-Hindu religions dance to the percussion accompaniment of the kettukazcha or devoutly follow the idol for several miles from start to finish. It’s a virtual competition between localities on who make the best idols, and religion doesn’t interfere in this contest. The boys under the age of twelve however have an event for which they fast for several days and pay obeisance to the goddess on the final day of the festival. Otherwise, the festival is through and through a woman’s event.
Attukal Pongala was literally unknown outside the state and a very local affair, till the seventies. The eighties saw the numbers jump by double and treble every year and finally by the time the Guinness Book of Records put down the Pongala at Attukal in its book in 1997, the attendance was put at 1.5 million women. The Guinness World Record Book of 2007, page 89, records the Attukal Pongala as the world’s annual festival that has the participation of the largest number of women.
The London based Guinness World Record Limited has sent a certificate to the effect to the Attukal Temple Trust. That year the BBC and the National Geographic Channel too had reported the event with considerable importance.
The year 2009 saw a gathering of 2.5 million, says the organizers. This is not exactly a head count number, but the crowds have certainly multiplied several fold and the radius of the congregation spread hugely since the verified count of 1997.
The security concerns of such huge gatherings are colossal, and there is an army of official security from the police personnel of the state and unofficial security and help from the volunteer organisations on duty in Thiruvananthapuram days before the crowds arrive. Volunteer organisations work round the clock providing medical aid, food, water and other help. And on the D-day, the venues where the hearths operate are cordoned off as women only areas, except for boys under 12 years or volunteers wearing identity badges.
The households of the city become citadels of hospitality. There is a shade, a drink and food for any devotee in almost all houses, and many people consider the offer of hospitality in itself a devout act. The social barriers melt away and the ladies one would hardly notice on other days are welcomed with open arms. The film stars, bureaucrats and those from the lap of luxury are seen rubbing shoulders with labourers, house maids and those from the so-called lower strata of society. They stand together in the heat of the day beside a burning hearth and tend to their divine concoctions cooking in similar earthern pots.
The market, whatever the global; economy indicates, revives during the ten days of Pongala. The arrival of the earthern ware pots signal the opening of the market. A series of small scale shops that cater to anything and everything open across the city. Cotton dresses, to be worn fresh for the important day is in hot demand and the marketing strategies woven round this are curious to watch. One year, an innovative shop keeper offered a towel and a vessel free with every Pongala saree purchase, and another year, it was two saris for the price of one.
The day is also a media heyday. Channels vie to telecast the event live across the globe. There are several celebrities who visit the city without fail to attend the Pongala. Indian play back singer K S Chitra who is a native of the city is one of them. Last year, the limelight was on the Miss World runner-up Miss Parvathi Omanakuttan who was seen sweating in the sun beside her make shift stove on the road.
There has been considerable interest generated in the event abroad too, especially among scholars and researchers who work on women and cultural studies. Professor Dianne Elkins Jennet, a Professor at the New College of California has done her doctoral studies on this unique aspect of devotion that is essentially Dravidian and indigenously ‘dalit’ but now adopted by all communities. This definitely shows an advancement of society with religion as a unifying factor, the long-time residents of Thiruvananthapuram certainly remember that a few decades ago, they identified Pongala with an occasion when their maids took an off day. Now the maid and her madam stand side by side in their devotion.
Every year Thiruvananthapuram gets visitors from overseas who come with the special intent of being a part of this unique congregation. Diane Jennet herself has participated in the Pongala for more than a decade. Her study is an ethnographic and organic enquiry into the ritual of Pongala. She studied the event over a long period and from the viewpoint of thirty women from different religions. In her six trips to Kerala she has also documented the festival on video to record the intense experience that the devotee undergoes.
Diane has presented her work at numerous conferences, authored “Red Rice for Bhagavati” Revision, Winter, 1998 and co-authored a chapter in “Honoring Human Experience: Transpersonal Research Methods for the Social Sciences.” She continues to lecture on the subject across the globe.
The egalitarian nature of the Onam festival of Kerala spills over to Pongala too and makes the land a curious mixture of paradoxes to an outsider. There is a social message of the inherent tolerance, harmony and underlying spirituality rather than religion among the population, which co-exists with the bandhs, the politics and communal divides in the state initiated by the political and community leaders with vested interests. In spite of the negative connotations Kerala has remained a model of equality for women, high quality of life, low use of resources and high religious tolerance.
Perhaps it is festivals like Pongala that maintains the delicate balance between culture and anarchy and holds the woman as a fulcrum of society. The very symbol of the devotion offered here is the simple every day act of cooking. The only difference is that here she cooks for the goddess, in an act that represents her faith, her oneness with society and declares herself free of all barriers of money and caste at least on that day.
The Pongala festival is a spectacle of brilliant organising. The participants cross millions in numbers and the hearths although temporary are within such close and confined spaces, that it requires extreme discipline and watchfulness to keep catastrophes at bay. The traffic management on the days preceding and on the day of the event also requires considerable expertise to avoid huge jams and keeping spaces cleared for evacuation in case of emergencies. The number of women present is itself a security concern considering the atrocities against the female gender and the terrorism incident that have become wide spread. But barring individual and minor incidents of chain snatching and stray incidents where carelessness of individuals cause burn injuries, Pongala has always passed off uneventfully over the years.
Environmental pollution and wastage disposal are concerns that hover over the culmination of such events. Not for Pongala, the city corporation usually ensures the removal of all garbage in connection with mela by the next morning.
The festival is not without other concerns. The dust generated in the city by the sun-baked earthen bricks for making hearths to offer Pongala is a grave concern for any motorist. Devotees are made aware of the necessity of avoiding these bricks by both the organizers as well as the authorities. They are also advised beforehand to use only cotton clothing, to reduce fire accidents. These awareness campaigns have made a positive difference to the pollution and security levels.
Another factor that should be relevant in this era of food security issues is the wastage of food materials.  Some devotees offer multiple numbers of Pongala in auspicious odd numbers like 11, 51, and 101 and so on. The number of hearths managed by a single woman goes up considerably in these cases, and except a few pots of the offering, the rest of the food is half cooked and disposed off. Wastage of food materials can run to enormous proportions here. The fire security concerns also loom large in such cases.
The bridging of myth and literature is a delightful and outstanding component of the celebration, Silappadikaram is a Tamil classic; the same holds for the sharing of ethos with the neighbouring Tamil Nadu. There are friendships formed and bonded over the years with the gestures of hospitality extended to the pilgrims.
In a world harassed by war mongering and hate-culture, perhaps these festivals are islands of relief and real saviours of human kind?

Suneetha is a writer by passion, profession and hobby. She writes fiction in English, poetry in her native tongue Malayalam and journalistic features in both. She can be contacted at yashovathi@gmail.com

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