Thousands of devotees waiting for the darshan at the Attukal Bhagavaty Temple in Thiruvananthapuram on Monday. , Photo Credit: Mahinsha S
In a short while from now, cooking smoke will rise from countless makeshift ovens on the streets of Thiruvananthapuram as women devotees make the annual Pongala offering to the presiding deity of the Attukal Bhagavathy Temple.
Tens of thousands of women have converged on the state capital to participate in the festival which is being held in its original format for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic. The ritual offering, a sweet pudding of rice, jaggery, grated coconut, ghee and banana prepared in earthen pots, will commence at 10.30 am with the lighting of the hearths at the Attukal temple.
The tantri, Thekkedath Kuzhikkattillathu Parameswaran Vasudevan Bhattathiripad, will hand over the flame from the sanctum sanctorum to the chief priest P. Kesavan Namboothiri for lighting the Pongala hearths at the ‘Thidapally’ of the temple and the ‘Valiya Thidapally.’ Thereafter, the flame will be passed on to an assistant priest who will light the ‘Pandara Aduppu.’ This is the signal for the lighting of the thousands of makeshift brick ovens in the immediate environs of the temple and across the length and breadth of the city.
For the Pongala, Thiruvananthapuram transforms into a city-sized venue for a gathering noted for its astonishing size. In the years preceding the pandemic, the temple, which is associated with the mythological tale of Kannaki, has been drawing women from different parts of Kerala and nearby Tamil Nadu, and even has a few regular visitors from abroad.
Civic authorities are anticipating a bigger crowd this year as the Pongala is being held in the pre-pandemic format after two years. In 2021 and 2022, devotees made the offering from the relative safety of their homes, with the pandemic, which claimed hundreds of lives in Kerala, forcing heavy curtailment of public events of any size. Both years, the rituals at the temple were also limited to the bare essentials.
Known for its record assemblage of women devotees, the Attukal Pongala falls on the ninth day of the annual ten-day festival at the Attukal Bhagavathy Temple. This year it began on February 27.
The State Government and the Thiruvananthapuram Corporation have made elaborate arrangements for the smooth conduct of the festivities which celebrate the victory of good over evil. Arrangements for providing food and water, medical care, travel and security have been made by the various government departments and voluntary organizations. Near the temple and across city neighbourhoods, footpath spots had been booked days in advance by placing bricks, pieces of string and small slips of paper with names printed on them.
On Tuesday morning, as the devotees began making the final preparations, a special advisory from the Fire and Rescue Services on preventing fire mishaps was being repeatedly announced over the loudspeakers. Devotees have been advised to keep sanitisers and other flammable materials away from the fire. They have also been advised to drink large amounts of water and remain in the shade as the summer heat would grow as the day wears on.
Incidentally, the 2023 edition of the Attukal Pongala also coincides with the organization of a strategically important event in Thiruvananthapuram; the maiden joint military exercise by the French and Indian armies at the Pangode military station. The French contingent comprises six officers and 111 troops and the exercise – christened FRINJEX-23 – is being held over Tuesday and Wednesday.
The Pongala ritual will come to a formal close with the sanctification ceremony at 2.30 pm