On the Pooram star day in the Malayalam month of Kumbham (February –March), Thiruvananthapuram, the capital city of Kerala turns into a Yagasala, where we can see millions of women gathered, lighting hearths and preparing pongala in clay pots using rice, jaggery and coconut in open streets and roadsides for the presiding deity Attukal amma of Attukal Devi temple. It is believed that while they are offering Pongala nivedyam (boiled rice) to Attukalamma, they are lending their sorrows and happiness along with it. Nearly 3 million women in a radius of 5 km around the temple are gathering every year and each year number of devotees are increasing considerably. Earlier in 1997, it was reported to be about 15 lakh devotees. In 2009, it was registered in Guinness book of world records as the largest gathering of women in the world which attracted approximately 27 lakh devotees from Kerala and its neighbouring states.
Why 3 million women are gathering here?
It is quite reasonable to ask this question. Its answer lies in the strong belief held by millions that Attukalamma will never leave us and since their agonies are being answered people are returning next year the same day. No one has yet find out the reason why, people who have once come here, though have faced many difficulties to give offerings to mother, could not hold themselves from coming the next year. People who want to pay pongala in the temple premises, close to the temple will come and stay here in the temple maidan(ground) before 3 or 4 days in the severe hot month of Kumbham.
Story connected with origin of the temple
Main deity of the temple is Bhagavathi or Devi who is believed to be the divinised form of Kannaki, the incarnation of Devi Parvathy. Kannaki is the heroine of famous Chilappathikaram, the first known epic of Tamil, written by Elenkovadikal, the Tamil poet in 2nd century A.D. Let me briefly explain the story of Chilappathikaram. Kannaki was the wife of Kovalan, son of a rich merchant. They were living a peaceful and happy life in Puhar, the then capital city of Cholas. Kovalan becomes attracted towards Madhavi, a beautiful courtesan dancer. He losses all his wealth for her and after understanding his mistake, he returns back to Kannaki. She forgives him and they decide to start a new life in Madurai, the capital city of Pandyas. Only treasure they were left with was a pair of anklets owned by Kannaki. When they reach Madurai, they decide to sell one of the anklets to start a new business. When Kovalan tries to sell it to a local goldsmith, he was accused of stealing anklet of the queen which resembles Kannaki’s and was beheaded by the king without any trial. When Kannaki hears about her husband’s death, she rise to anger and reaches the palace with the other anklet in her hand. She asks the king what precious stones queen’s anklet contain. When he replies pearls, she throws the anklet into the floor in anger. Rubies burst out proving the innocence of her husband. When king and queen realize their fault, they die of shame. She curses the city and it is believed that whole city was ruined except women, old people and children.The story continues that after destructing Madurai, she reaches Kerala through Kanyakumari and on the way to Kodungallur, she took rest at Attukal. It is believed that some people worshipped and pleased her by offering rice payasam and thereafter, every year people are coming to Attukal to do this procedure. A temple was built there known as Attukal Bhagavathi temple. It is believed that Kannaki went northward, reached Kodungallur and settled at Bhagavathi temple there.
Pongala Mahotsavam is the most important festival of the temple. It is a ten day programme commencing on The Karthika star in the Malayalam month of Makaram-Kumbham with ‘Thottampattu’ and it ends with the sacrificial offering – Kuruthitharpanam. On the ninth day of the festival, world famous Pongala takes place. Usually Chottanikkara makam and Attukal pongala comes as a combo since pongala is on the pooram star and these two stars are occurring consecutive. Pongala Mahotsavam is exclusively for women. Yet, the whole city, even Muslim mosques fully co-operate, providing all help to women to make this event successful.This is also one of the reasons why devotees’ count is increasing every year and the crowd makes us remember Kumbhamela of Allahabad. This year, festival begins on 28th February and concludes on 8th March, 2012 and Pongola is on 7th. On the day of Pongala, when morning dawns, almost all open streets and houses of the capital city are filled exclusively with women who come with pots, ingredients and fire wood to prepare pongala. Hearth is made using bricks and pongala is prepared using firewood. The city citizens provide them with all help needed to prepare pongala. They not only give water, but also free food and shelter in their own homes and treat them as guests. Meals and drinks are specially made in large quantities for devotees and make them easy available. Around 2000policemen and 500 lady constables are put into duty on this day in the city.
How the rituals are conducted?
On this auspicious occasion, women make hearths with bricks and fill clay pots with water, slightly tilt to east direction and make sufficient arrangements in the early morning itself. Also they place pooja items to please Ganapathi in front of the pot. They fast till pongala hearth is being lighted. Then they wait for announcement when they can light their hearths. Around 10 o’clock rituals at temple starts with lightening of ‘Pandaara adupp’ done by Melshanthi. It is accompanied by crackers and chenda. The fire is exchanged from hearth to hearth and women start cooking, singing bhajans and praying. Once the hearths are lighted, sandal sticks are also lighted as an offering to Ganapathi. The city will be filled with smoke and fumes in midday heat of the sun. Yet women will be engaged in cooking Pongala for Mother, with tears running through their eyes. Pongala is made by cooking rice and adding jaggery, coconut and ghee in the end. Often green bay leaves, cardamom, sliced banana, raisins and cashew nut are also added to increase its taste and aroma. Sometimes it is made by cooking rice in milk and extra items like Thiraliyappam, Mandaputt are also made to please the goddess. Some ladies prepare 51, 101 and even more pots. Pongala means to boil over and hence while rice boils, each woman will wait for a few moments, without stirring the pots so that Pongola overflows which is believed to bring prosperity to their lives. Once they have completed the work, they wait till evening for the arrival of poojari to sprinkle holy water which marks the end of the rituals. Each year there are nearly 500 poojaris to perform sanctification, since it is not easy to access 3 million pots in a short time by few of them. Around the temple, since it is not easy to reach each and every pot, helicopter is used to conduct this ritual, which disperses holy water and flowers. The 9th day celebration ends with Kuthiyottam, Thalappoli and processing of the Goddess and the ten day celebrations closes with Akathezhunnellippu and Kudiyilakkal. Once sanctification process is completed, the roads, streets and even paths of city are filled with women going to home with Pongala on their heads and satisfaction on their faces and till midnight, eyes of the city remain open waiting for the next season to return when it turns to another yagasala again, filled with smoke, fumes and enchanting prayers.