Thiruvananthapuram: Millions of devotees, a vast majority of them women, occupied the streets of Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala's capital city, to offer 'Pongala' for their favourite goddess on Tuesday. The ritual, being conducted in a full-fledged manner after a two-year interval caused by the global pandemic, began at 10.30 am, when the ‘pandara aduppu’ (main hearth) on the temple premises is lit.
The Attukal Pongala is marked as the largest annual gathering of women by the Guinness World Records. The festival entered in the Guinness Book of World Records in 1997 and 2009 when 15 lakhs and 25 lakhs women participated in it respectively.
Where the last two years saw women preparing 'pongala' in their homes due to COVID-19 restrictions, this year tens of thousands, including TV and movie stars, arrived in Thiruvananthapuram from across Kerala and even from neighbouring Tamil Nadu to celebrate the festival with full religious fervour.
Incidentally, this year's festival comes on the eve of International Women's Day, which falls on March 8.
The main ritual of the festival is offering of the sweet delicacy named ‘pongala nivedyam’ prepared religiously by women devotees on traditional hearths to the deity of the temple, Attukal Bhagavathy (the Goddess of Attukal). Heartfelt prayers to the deity bring prosperity as well as success in studies and profession, according to the devotees.
The lighting of the ‘pandara aduppu’ is referred to as ‘aduppu vettu’. The ‘thantri’ (hereditary chief priest) of the temple Thekkedath Parameswaran Vasudevan Bhattathiripad handed over a lamp to the ‘melsanthi’ (head priest) P Kesavan Namboodiri, who lit the hearths at the ‘thidappally’ and ‘valiya thidappally’, which are the temple kitchens, and passed on the lamp to the ‘saha melsanthi’ (co-head priest) for lighting the ‘pandara aduppu’.
At 2.30 pm, the ritual of offering the ‘pongala’ prepared on the ‘pandara aduppu’ to deity – ‘nivedyam’ - is performed and devotees can do the same on their respective hearths, bringing the ceremony to a close. ‘Theertham’ (holy water) too will be sprinkled on the pongala pots at the same time.
Meanwhile, with summer is at its peak, the Health Department has asked devotees to regularly drink water during the ritual even if they don't feel thirsty to avoid dehydration.
Another ritual on Tuesday is ‘chooral kuthu’ at night for children who observed the ‘kuthiyotta vritham.’ At 10.15 pm, the deity will be taken in a procession to the Sastha Temple at Manacaud.
On Wednesday morning, the Goddess will be ceremonially brought back to Attukal Temple. By 8 am, the deity will be back at Attukal. At 9.15 pm on Wednesday, the ‘kaappu’ (an ornament) worn by the Goddess as part of the festival will be removed. At 1 am on Thursday, the ‘kuruthi tharpanam’ ritual will take place, marking the formal conclusion of this year’s Pongala festival.
With the authorities expecting at least a 40% increase in the number of devotees offering Pongala compared to the last time a full-fledged event was held, the government and City Corporation have made elaborate arrangements to ensure a smooth conduct of the ritual.
Apart from 3,300 police personnel, 150 volunteers and 250 Fire and Rescue officials will present in and around the temple. Around 3,000 cleaning workers also have been appointed to ensure sanitation, said the Temple Trust. Moreover, 1,270 public taps have been installed in the festival area. The Kerala State Road Transport Corporation (KSRTC) too will conduct 400 services to the temple.
An important development related to the Pongala this year is insuring the festival for an amount of Rs 14 crore by the Temple Trust. As a huge increase in devotees is expected, the insurance amount could be utilized for the benefit of devotees who face some emergency situation, said office-bearers of the Temple Trust.
Tips for a safe celebration
With millions of people assembling in one location for lighting hearths, chances are high for an accident. However, with proper precautions, the ritual can be conducted safely and smoothly. Here are some tips:
• Drink water at frequent intervals to avoid dehydration as the mercury levels are high.
• Avoid offering ‘pongala’ in public places wearing gold ornaments.
• Wear thin cotton clothes.
• Carry steel plates and cups as distribution of food and water in plastic containers has been banned.
• Cover you head with a cap or cloth to shield yourself from direct sunlight.
• Drink clean water or boiled water cooled to room temperature. Fruits having high water content such as watermelon too are ideal.
• If you suffer burns during the ritual, cool the area with water as a first aid-measure.
• Douse the fire in the hearth after the ‘pongala’ ritual is over with water.
• Discard waste items only at the designated spots.
• Consume your regular medicines as usual. Carry a piece of paper listing your regular medicines.
• Avoid taking children to ‘pongala’. Even in emergency situations, ensure that young children do not approach the hearths.
• Do not remove the pots from the hearths before the ‘nivedyam’ is offered.
• Avoid jostling at bus stops and railway stations as buses and trains have been arranged in all directions.
• Strictly avoid offering of pongala beneath electric posts.
Emergency numbers of the Health Department: Disha – 104, 1056, 0471-2552056
Police control room: 100
Fire and Rescue Services: 101
Traffic-related information: 9497930055, 9497987002, 9497990005
Devotees observe a fast while offering the ‘pongala’ to the Devi. They believe that hunger will not be felt when you go without food while praying. While fasting, devotees can have rice or rice-based preparation once during the day. At other meal-times, they can consume fruits.
It is believed that ‘kodi’ (new) dresses are ideal during the ritual. However, clean cotton clothes which are ironed too would be comfortable. At the same time, personal hygiene and mental purity are more important than the dress you wear. Pongala should be offered with good words, pleasant thoughts and prayers.
Food during ritual
As per belief, devotees should not take any food till the pongala pot boils. Even then, the devotees have to take care of their health. The fast could be ended by taking milk or banana when the ‘nivedyam’ (the pongala preparation) is ready.
All are welcome
The Goddess does not discriminate on the basis of caste, religion or gender and any devotee can offer ‘pongala.’
Reuse of pongala pots
The pots in which the ‘pongala’ is prepared could be taken home after the ritual, cleaned and used to store rice. Devotees have to deposit a fistful of rice in this pot everyday with prayers that you will never go hungry even for a day.
Pongala at home
Conducting the ritual in front of your house or place of work is also believed to bring prosperity.