The Wonder that is Atukal Pongala

Every year on a particular date, millions of women come to the district of Thiruvananthapuram, in the state of Kerala for the celebration of Attukal Pongala. This one-of-a-kind religious tradition is celebrated on the ninth day of the festival in Attukal Bhagavathy Temple in Thiruvananthapuram.

On this date, women all around the state come to the premises of the temple and make an auspicious sweet in earthen pots, which is called the ‘pongala’. This porridge-like sweet is made of rice and jaggery. Sometimes bits of banana or coconut are also added to the sweet. The women make firewood stoves out of bricks to cook the Pongala sweet. The pongala preparation starts with the ritual called ‘Aduppuvettu. This is the lighting of the pongala hearth placed inside the temple by the chief priest.

Usually, the women coming to the temple are so many that the temple premises cannot occupy all of them. So, they take space on the streets near the temple, and this goes on to a huge area beside the temple. The traffic is blocked in the city for that day, and the district gets a local holiday for this day. The number of women preparing this pongala is so huge that it has taken a place in the Guinness world record for the largest annual gathering of women.

At the end of the ceremony, the holy water is to be sprayed onto the pongala pots. And because of the vastness of the ceremony, this is done by a helicopter.

But the wonder of Attukal Pongala is not the size of it. This festival is an annual liberation for women who rarely step out of their houses. All the homemakers from distant parts of the state travel to the capital city, Thiruvananthapuram on this day without bothering about the distance and the time it takes them to reach there. They are allowed to travel freely. They gather in groups and talk about all the stuff under the sun. The women can even travel freely and safely at night during this festival, which is not possible otherwise. This festival is like an annual picnic for the women who are tired of all their house chores and boring lives at home.

Although cooking under the scorching sun with fire stoves all around you is very difficult, we can see the unity and cooperation of women on this day. Nobody is unwilling to help a nearby devotee by sharing some rice or water. They are there for each other and there is no malice between any of them on this day.

And another wonderful thing is that this is not just celebrated by Hindus. Women from other religions also participate in making the pongala. Also, once the pongala is taken home, it is distributed equally to all the neighbors regardless of their religion or caste. It is a celebration of communal love and unity.

Although the pandemic has drastically affected this celebration, and there can no longer be a huge gathering, the tradition has not died down. Women are preparing the pongala sweet from their home kitchen for the past couple of years, still unable to let go of this tradition and their belief in the Atukal Devi. Attukal Pongala of 2022 is on 17 February, and this time also women are helpless forced to remain in their houses to prepare the pongala. We hope to see that in the next couple of years the pandemic subsides enough that the wonder of Attukal Pongala can continue with its previous grandeur. 

Poorna Krishnan

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