Thiruvananthapuram (Kerala) witnesses the largest women gathering festival, Attukal Pongala that has been celebrated at the Attukal Bhagavathy Temple which is also known as ‘Sabarimala of women.’ Attukal Pongal is an annual 10-day festival. This year the festival started from February 12 and Thursday will be the last day of the festival which is February 21.
On the ninth day of the festival, lakhs of women worship Attukal Devi and prepare food to offer the Goddess for prosperity. The origin of the age-old observance has various myths and stories attached to it. This year, a gathering of 40 lakh women is expected to witness on Attukal Pongala.
During the festival, people make an offering of ‘Pongala’, a sweet porridge of rice, jaggery and coconut in earthen pots.
The grounds of the Attukal Bhagavathy Temple cover an area of a ten-km radius in the state capital, lined with the makeshift stoves, turning the entire region into a festival zone. In 2009, Attukal Pongala entered the Guinness Book of Records as the largest gathering of women as 2.5 million women gathered on the day. With an increasing number of women devotees participating in the festival every year, there are registrations wherein exact location and a token number where a devotee can make their offering is given.
Devotees worship goddess Bhadrakali, the fierce incarnation of Devi also known as Attuakal Amma on this day. Attuakal Amma is worshipped by the Sinhalese Buddhists as Goddess Pathini in SriLanka.
The significance of Attukal Pongala:
Among the various stories related to the celebration of Attukal Pongala, one of the popular stories has Kannagi, a Tamil woman’s character as the central figure. According to the story, Kannagi avenged the mistaken death penalty awarded to her husband by cursing Madhurai and setting it on fire.
According to the mythology, Kovalan who was a wealthy merchant from Kaveripattinam married a beautiful woman Kannagi. However, after getting married Kovalan fell in love with a dancer called Madhavi and moved in with her. Kovalan spent all his wealth on her. In the end, a penniless Kovalan returned to his wife after realising his mistake. Kannagi forgave him but they did not have money to survive.
The only ornament left with Kannagi was a pair of precious anklets which she gave her husband to sell it. Kovalan then went to Madurai which was then ruled by Pandya King Nedunj Cheliyan to sell the anklets. Co-incidentally Madurai’s Queen also had similar looking anklets which she had lost. When Kovalan tried to sell them, he was accused of stealing the Queen’s prized possession. He was soon presented before the King who beheaded him.
Furious Kannagi marched to the King’s court after she heard about her husband’s death. She presented the anklet seized from Kovalan and broke it open. Kannagi’s anklet was filled with rubies as opposed to queen’s anklets which had pearls. The King and Queen realised their mistake but the damage was irreversible.
It is said that she tore out a breast and threw it on the city cursing it. Soon, the curse became a reality and the entire city was set ablaze.
After setting the city on fire, she went to Kodungalloor in Kerala and later natives of Attukal built a temple in her name. Kannagi is worshipped for devotion towards her husband despite him abandoning her. Pongala is offered to celebrate the victory of Kannagi over the King. Women pray to the Goddess for prosperity, time and salvation.
Safety measures, taken by government authorities for the festivities:
The ritual began at 10.15 am after chief priest signalling the start of the ritual, lighted the main hearth near the shrine. The ritual will conclude with the sprinkling of holy water on the hearths by 2.15 p.m. On the safety front, this year 300 Railway Police Force (RPF) personnel including 100 female police officers have been deployed across the city.
Government departments and the State Disaster Management Authority have made elaborate arrangements for the smooth conduct of the festival this year. The police have deployed 3700 personnel as part of beefing up security. The police have also put the festival zone under surveillance using CCTV cameras and drones.
The Health Department, Fire and Rescue Service, Kerala Water Authority and the Power Department also have made arrangements for the conduct of the festival. The Kerala State Road Transport Department is conducting special services for the safe return of the devotees. Green Protocol which bans the use of plastic items around the festival zone is in the place like the previous years.