Hailed as one of the largest all-women gatherings in the world, the Attukal Pongala sees hundreds of thousands of women congregate to offer Pongala (a cooked rice offering) to Attukal Bhagavathy in Thiruvanathapuram district of Kerala. Defying the hot sun, women from Kerala and from outside the state assemble on the roads around the temple where the deity presides. They then prepare a delicious mix of rice, jaggery and grated coconut garnished with nuts and raisins on makeshift brick stoves and metal or earthen pots. The temple’s Chief Priest commences the ritual by lighting the main hearth called Pandara Aduppu from the divine fire lit of the sanctum sanctorum. This fire from the main hearth is then transferred from one stove to another among the women gathered. It is indeed a sight to behold because the boiling pots and closely packed brick stoves give the city an ambience of a yaga-shaala. As a testimony to the sheer number of devotees who throng the city, in 2009, the Guinness Book of World Records declared it as the largest religious gathering of women on a single day. It is impressive to note that the day saw over 2.5 million people taking part in the ritual.
The Pongala festival brings the curtains down on the 10-day ritual at the temple which begins in the Malayalam month of Makaram-Kumbham (February- March) on the Karthika nakshathram (star). The Pongala ceremony falls on the Pooram nakshathram which is also a full moon day, making it all the more auspicious. The presiding deity of the temple, the Akkukalamma is believed to be an all-powerful and divine incarnation of Kannagi, the central character of the Tamil epic Silappadikaram. Tracing the legend and the belief of the devotees, the festival is said to be celebrated to commemorate the day when Kannagi passed through the city. She was on her way back to Kodungalloor in Central Kerala after burning down Madurai city in her anger against the injustice meted out to her husband Kovalan who was wrongly implicated for a crime. On her way, she is said to have rested at Attukal and the womenfolk had cooked the delicacy in order to please her. The Attukal Temple is also known as women’s Sabarimala. Similar to how men are primarily allowed entry into the Sabarimala temple of Lord Ayyappa in Kerala, it is mainly women who perform the Pongala ritual at Attukal.
According to tradition, women dress in new clothes and prepare the offering using freshly bought materials. Some of the women also cook delicacies like manda puttu (made of powdered rice, coarsely ground green gram, coconut, jaggery and cardamom powder) and therali appam (rice delicacy steamed in aromatic vazhana or bay leaves). The state transport department facilitates easy passage of the crowd of devotees by arranging extra buses. The Indian Railways also operates special trains for the occasion, keeping in mind the large numbers of tourists and devotees thronging the city. Various clubs support the cause by arranging water kiosks, free breakfast and lunch. The festival symbolizes a coming-together of the city’s residents and tourists to uphold a divine, age-old tradition.