Trivandrum has virtually shut down for most of the day. Not for a hartal or strike, but for the Attukal Bhagavathy temple’s annual pongala festival.
The smoke from thousands of open wood-fed fires rises heavenward, as women cook the pongala — essentially a sweet porridge of rice, jaggery and coconut — in pots of clay and metal as an offering to the Goddess, the presiding deity of the Attukal Bhagavathy temple.
It’s a women-only festival; one that is believed to be the world’s largest religious gathering of women. When I wrote about the Attukal Pongala six years ago, around 1.5 million were estimated to have taken part in the festival. This year, it seems the organisers expect around 3 million women to offer pongala. How reliable this estimate is, of course, another matter.
What is undeniable though is that the festival has grown and changed quite a bit over the past few years. For one, what was essentially a local temple festival has transformed into an event that draws interest from across the globe.
Over the past decade or so, the number of women who offer pongala has, quite simply, exploded. Today, many of them come from across Kerala and, indeed, the world to participate in the Attukal Pongala. This growth has in turn meant an expansion in the geographical spread of the festival — this year, pongala fires have been lit in an approximately 7-kilometer radius of the temple — with the attendant logistical and security nightmares.
The Attukal Pongala’s growing popularity has also given birth to a flourishing ecosystem of festival-related enterprises — from stalls hawking apparel, cosmetics and religious bric-a-brac to those selling pots and ‘pongala kits’ that have everything needed to prepare the pongala.
Some of the growth associated with the pongala though has been less welcome — head-banging music played late into the night at little altars that have sprung up across the city to ‘celebrate’ the pongala and extortion rackets to fund these pongala ‘celebrations’.
And more changes could be in the offing. Just a few weeks ago, the Kerala High Court asked the state government to ensure that roads in Trivandrum are not blocked as part of the festival. It is debatable though whether this directive can be fully implemented. Meanwhile, the state government is working on legislation that will allow it enforce ‘reasonable restrictions on public movement’ on special occasions such as the Attukal Pongala.
It’s hard to say how these moves will shape the Attukal Pongala in the years ahead. But whatever may change, what is clear though is that the Attukal Pongala will continue to be a vibrant, if smoky, celebration of the Goddess. So check out this story I wrote in 2004 to learn more about this very unique celebration of the feminine.