India Today
Holy Cooking

A 10-day Kerala festival enters the Guinness records for attracting the largest number of women

SACRED RECIPE: Devotees making payasam during Pongala

Even in a matriarchal society like Kerala's, where men have a festival, Sabarimala, exclusively for them, could women be far behind? Yes, they have it too, in the form of Pongala which helped them better the men by entering the Guinness Book of Records last year for their sheer numbers. The festival at the Attukal Bhagvathi temple in Thiruvananthapuram is now officially recognised as the largest congregation of women who throng from all over the world on the last day of a 10-day ritual which takes place in March every year.

So you have Omana Gangadharan, a member of Britain's Labour Party and the Deputy Civic Administrator of the City Council of Newham, rubbing shoulders with Savithri Devi, mother of Indian cricket team's pace bowler S.Sreesanth, to seek the blessings of "Attukal Ammachi (mother)". "This year's Pongala is for Gopu's (Sreesanth's pet name) and India's victory at the World Cup," says Savithri, while preparing the payasam.

The devotees range from poor labourers to celebrities armed with earthen pots, firewood and bricks with which they set up hearths and observe Pongala which predominantly involves preparation of the payasam (a sweet).

Serpentine queues of devotees, sometimes extending up to 10 km, bear testimony to the festival's popularity among women. Scores of women devotees spend nights on streets to be able to set up hearths early the next day. Life comes to a complete standstill on this day (March 4 in 2007), when the state capital turns into a huge kitchen or a gigantic yajnasala. The process of cooking the payasam which starts in the morning goes on till evening, when more than 200 priests come and sprinkle the theerth (holy water poured on the deity). This is believed to transform the payasam into prasadam (the holy offering). "The cooking ritual is symbolic of dedicating oneself and destroying one's ego at the feet of the goddess," says Madhavi Amma, who has been participating in Pongala for the past 20 years. Special buses and train services are arranged while authorities make special arrangements for basic amenities. "While Guinness records show the highest number of participants at 1.5 million in 1997, this time the number was more than 2 million," says Gopinathan Nair, President of the Attukal Temple Trust. The temple's popularity is growing with every passing year.

Feminism may have begun in the West but a new beginning, it seems, is being made in the East.

India Today
MARCH 19, 2007

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