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Feb 22

Written by: Jayanthi
Friday, February 22, 2008

 by Jennifer Kumar

Attukala Pongala is February 26, 2013.
See Interfaith Calendar for More...

 

Wearing nice new mundu, flowers in the hair and a thali (marriage necklace) around her neck, with the family symbol displayed over her sari, I was shocked to find out she was a widow.  The widowed women I knew personally and helped through social service agencies in the neighboring state of Tamil Nadu almost 10 years ago were not allowed to wear their thalis, flowers in their hair or colored dresses. Though many broke the custom of wearing color, many did refrain from wearing their thalis, as they had been long ago donated to the family temple, or flowers in their hair, in addition to of course breaking the habit of applying kumkum powder to the part in their hair. Additionally, for married women wearing thalis, it was customary to wear the family symbol(s) that dangle on the necklace under the sari, so only the chain was visable. Even asking a woman to see her thali design was an embarrassment to the women, the often elaborate 22 karat gold designs were not to be showcased as that was considered almost like bragging.

This grandmother approaching me of course did not apply kum kum but in all other aspects appeared married to me. It was only much later, after not meeting her husband and asking where he was, I realized he was ‘no more’ and she was a widow. I came to learn in some communities in Kerala, women have liberated themselves from these strict traditions other women in India follow almost meticulously. Part of it is the social structure of Kerala, with higher literacy rates and marriages at later ages than other parts of India, but also, I think because of the matriarchal lineages traditionally assigned to some communities in Kerala. Though some of these matriarchal markers and privileges for women are argued by some to have decreased since the advent of nuclear families where men suddenly took over the ‘head of household’ role, women still remain strong and contributing members of their families in many ways.



Festival of the Goddess and Feminine Energy

attukaltempletrivandrum.jpgOne festival that happens on a yearly basis that celebrates womanhood is the Attukal Pongala festival celebrated in
the Attukal Bhagavathy Temple of Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, near the southern most tip of India (temple tower picture to right, taken by Col. Ajit Kumar). This festival which begins on the day of the Karthika star of the Malayalam month of Makaram-Kumbham (February-March) lasts for ten days, with the ninth day being the most auspicious. It is on the ninth day that 25 to 30 lakh (about 2.5- 3 million) ladies gather at the Attukal Temple in Trivandrum to prepare Pongala. Though few men are allowed in the compound, it is only priests, police, security guards and sparse reporters, all of which need special passes. It is the women who are the ones in charge of the ritual undertaking, priests are available possibly as more of referees or time keepers.

With this number of devotees, people come in days ahead of time with piles of old coconut rinds, earthen pots, rice, jaggery and few other ingredients to make the Pongala. It is indeed an extraordinary number of people in one place at one time and it has been said the Guinness’ Book of World Records has noted this festival as one having the most women in one place celebrating at one time.



Common Sense Safety Precautions Undertaken

In watching the news piece at the end of this post, you may see the ladies who are partaking in the festivities are crying. Upon seeing this, I thought it may be out of devotion. Since they are there out of devotion, it is a possibility, but then I realized it could be a culmination of the body trying to adjust to the extreme heat- weather wise and from the multiple fires- and from the smoke produced from these fires. Dianne Jenett, an American who has experienced this festival many years consecutively notes that in addition to Pongala, women also prepare “terali, a sweet made of rice powder and jaggery steamed in cones made of leaves from the cinnamon tree (vayana) and eaten to cure stomachaches and headaches.” (source)  I suppose this is prepared for everyone to eat a little throughout to reduce the many complications that can arise from the extreme heat and smoke.


Of course, with so many small fires so close, people are concerned about getting burned, and occasionally it can happen. The easiest way to reduce heat exhaustion and catching yourself on fire is to wear the traditional Kerala cotton mundu two piece sari. Though few brave the elements in silk saris, it is not advisable to wear saris of mix fabrics such as synthetics, as they can easily catch on fire and also are not comfortable to wear in the heat. During the mid day, one can see all the ladies covering their heads or their faces with their saris to keep the sun off their head or to breathing through their saris to avoid breathing in the smoke generated. The thick, white smoke produced from burning coconut rinds can easily be seen in aerial shots of the area.



Myths, Stories and Beliefs Of Attukal Pongala

Of course a post on Attukal Pongala is incomplete without the reasons behind this festival. In researching for this article, it was quite easy to find any number of articles recounting the mythological stories of this festival, the most common of which is abbreviated as, “Goddess Attukalamma is believed to be incarnation of 'Kannaki', the heroine of 'Silappathikaram' written by Tamil poet Illango in 2nd century A.D. Attukal is the place where Kannaki took rest on her northward journey from Madurai to Kodungallur.” (Source) And, according to Dianne Jenett, “In all versions of the story, Kannaki represents the capacity of divine power in female form to bring retributive justice to those whom the law fails to protect.”
(source) Many women who celebrate this festival appear to find meaning in this, bringing them back year after year.

In addition to the myth or philosophical meaning behind the festival, many women come because it gives them time away from their normal wifely and motherly duties of the household and interact with other women from many other backgrounds. This festival is often termed as the “Sabarimala pilgrimage for women.” Sabarimala is a famous pilgrimage that starts in November/ December and ends in January with the Makara Jyothi that is attended only by men of all castes, creeds and spiritual backgrounds. Similarly, Attukal Pongala is celebrated by women of all ages, social, economic and spiritual backgrounds. Interestingly, though there has been recent debate in the past few years to allow women into Sabarimala or not, I have not heard a similar debate to allow men into Attukal Pongala, it remains difficult for men even in security, law enforcement and journalism to enter without special permits.


Some may wonder how to cook over a coconut rind fire. This is a wonder for many who attend also. A majority of attendees live in modern cities with gas stoves in their kitchens and may have never cooked over an open fire, be it composed over wood or coconut rinds. This is yet another way that women from different backgrounds- particularly villagers, who may cook from open fire on a daily basis, and city folk, who generally cook from gas stoves, to mingle and learn from each other. Women also help each other by offering prayers for their friends or family members who are unable to attend through preparing one or more pots of pongala at once. It is also said that participating in this festival one and all must share- if someone is in need of something to prepare their pongala and you have it, give it over graciously, if you have visitors stooped near your house (as this festival extends up to a 7 kilometer radius from the temple premises), it is your obligation to feed everyone. Though many are concerned how they will be able to manage this financially, it seems that the worry becomes a moot point as all the required items become available as needed. Back in the temple, once the sign is given by the priest that the rahu kalam (inauspicious time) has passed, the women begin to pack up their belongings and proceed to leave the temple.



** Note for those who regularly follow my blog, the Tamil Festival of Pongal may come into thought. Though Pongal and Pongala both mean ‘boiling over,’ the two festivals are distinctly different in length and reason for celebration. Tamil Pongal is associated with harvest, while Kerala Attukal Pongala is a festival for Goddess. The dishes of Pongal and Pongala are similar but also different and I believe Pongala can have coconut or/and banana, which I have not seen in the Tamil Pongal dish.


References: Red Rice for Bhagavati  |  Kerala Holidays- Attukal Pongala  |  A Million Shaktis Rising  Pongala, a Women's Festival in Kerala, India  |  Attukal Pongala  |  Pongalapayasam Recipe on this page

Experiences of Celebrating Attukal Pongala:  Yamini Nair: When I became a drop (2009)  


Related Posts: Makara Jyothi - The Light That Signals Longer Days  | Pongal 2000- Pakka Pongal Celebration in Tamil Nadu Village  |  Pongal Recipe | Western/Vedic (Tamil, Hindi, Malayalam) calendar comparison 

==article concluded==

 

Author of this post and owner of this blog; Jennifer Kumar, an American living in Kerala, facilitates better communication and cross-cultural understanding for Indians working with Americans. To learn more about her services through Authentic Journeys, click here.

 

Updated February 2011, 2013

 

Copyright ©2008-2010 Jennifer Kumar, Cross-Cultural Coach

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8 comments so far...

Re: Celebrating the Feminine Divine: Attukal Pongala in Kerala

I really enjoyed reading this article.Attukal temple is where I was married.I have yet to experience this festival although my husband talks of it often.He is very proud of how progressive Kerala is and is the first to point out that his grandmother had 5 girls..which shocks people who think female infanticide is rampant all over India.
It truly is an amazing place with so much to offer the more you imerse into the culture.."God's Own Country" Thank you for this writing!

By Jennifer Cook on   Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Re: Celebrating the Feminine Divine: Attukal Pongala in Kerala

Thanks, Jennifer. Wow you were married here! They let you in? :) What an experience. Krishna would also like to attend this someday for the experience of photography! What a sight it would be! Thanks for stopping by!

By admin on   Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Re: Celebrating the Feminine Divine: Attukal Pongala in Kerala

Very informative and refreshing read.I am a native of Trivandrum and have stayed at Attukal for a long time and have seen the Pongala ritual.My father was associated with the temple trust and my mother is an ardent devotee of Attukal Amma and takes part in Pongala offering.I have heard about Dianne Jenett's PhD Thesis on Pongala from my father who has helped her during her visit to the temple. Thanks for providing the link.

By Pramod G on   Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Re: Celebrating the Feminine Divine: Attukal Pongala in Kerala

Glad you found something useful in this blog, Pramod.

By admin on   Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Re: Celebrating the Feminine Divine: Attukal Pongala in Kerala

Thank you for the information is really nice to hear it from you your personal experience.

By Namrata Shukla on   Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Re: Celebrating the Feminine Divine: Attukal Pongala in Kerala

Thank you for stopping by, Namrata.

By admin on   Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Re: Celebrating the Feminine Divine: Attukal Pongala in Kerala

This is great reporting, Jen!

By Caroline on   Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Re: Celebrating the Feminine Divine: Attukal Pongala in Kerala

Thank you Caroline! I am sure you experienced this in Kerala?

By admin on   Tuesday, December 22, 2009

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