Being Women

Kannagi’s Rage To Attukal Amma’s Grace – Experiencing The Spirit Of Attukal Pongala

Attukal Pongala was celebrated on the 25th of February this year. It is the annual festival of the Attukal Bhagawathi temple in Thiruvananthapuram, which is also my hometown. The Pongala festival is featured in the Guinness Book of World Records as the largest gathering of women at a single time anywhere in the world. In 2009, over 2.5 million women gathered to offer sweet brown rice (Pongala) to the Goddess. The main deity of the temple is Attukal Amma, in whose honour the festival is celebrated. She is considered to be a form of Bhadrakali.

Kannagi’s story

Do you know Attukal Amma’s story? Many of you may have heard of Kannagi, who has been rendered immortal in the literary masterpiece ‘Chilapadhikaram’. The walls of the temple have her story inscribed on them. Kannagi was a chaste and pious lady married to Kovalan, a merchant. Hard times befell them. Kovalan suffered heavy losses in business and also strayed in his marriage. He repented of his sins and returned to Kannagi, begging for her forgiveness.

The couple decided to head to Madurai for a fresh start. Kannagi gave her husband her anklet to sell so that they could raise money to start a new business. When Kovalan tried to sell the anklet, he was arrested by the royal guards. The Queen of Madurai had lost her anklet, and it was similar to Kannagi’s. Kovalan was arrested and executed without a trial. A distraught Kannagi appeared at court and proved her husband’s innocence; she split open the anklet in question. It had rubies inside it, while the Queen’s one had pearls. The King and the Queen were grief-stricken.

They had executed an innocent man!

Kannagi’s rage knew no bounds. They say that such was her grief that she cursed the entire city, and it burst into flames. She represents the power of the sacred feminine and the righteous rage of a woman wronged. The patron deity of Madurai, Goddess Meenakshi, appeared before Kannagi and pleaded with her to curb her anger, and guided her to seek salvation in Kodungallur. Legend has it that on the way there, Kannagi stopped at Attukal in Kerala.

The legend of Attukal temple

At Attukal, an elderly man saw a little girl asking him to cross the river. When he guided her to the other side, she disappeared into thin air. Later that night, she visited him in his dream and showed him a spot, asking him to build a temple there. It is at this place that the Attukal temple was built. Attukal Temple is known as Women’s Sabarimala. During the festive season, men, barring the priest, are not allowed entry.

Childhood memories and citywide celebration

I have had the privilege of studying at Chinmaya Vidyalaya, which is located quite close to the temple. While in class, we could hear the firecracker sounds from the temple.

During Pongala, all roads lead to Attukal. The atmosphere is truly festive, and the air is filled with smoke from earthen stoves dotting the roads and the chants of Amme! (Mother). Women from all over the state and neighbouring states travel to participate. 

This festival celebrates the divine feminine. It is of women, by women, for women. The queues start at the temple and run for several kilometres. Women sleep overnight on the roadside to reserve a place for their makeshift brick stoves to place their earthen stoves on.

A sensory experience

On Pongala Day, the main stove is lit at the temple. The flames are passed around, and the individual stoves are lit. Water is boiled, and rice is added. Once it overflows (similar to the Tamil festival Pongal), there are loud chants and ululations. The word pongu in Malayalam means overflow. Hence the name Pongala. Once the rice is softened, jaggery, cardamom, coconut, and banana are added and mixed. Ghee is poured on top and the mixture comes together as Pongala.

Women also make additional sweet treats, like Elaiyappam/Therali (steamed leaf cakes) which have a rich cinnamon taste. The atmosphere is thick with crowds and smoke, which causes the eyes to tear up. The ingredients swirl in the pots, and adulation brims in the hearts of the devotees. The aroma of jaggery and cinnamon, the chants of ‘Amme Narayana, Devi Narayana’, faces shining with the light of faith; this is a one-of-a-kind experience that I’ve been blessed to be part of. 

The joy of fulfilling a promise

Rose petals are showered by helicopters. At this auspicious time, the Pongala is offered to the Goddess and thousands of women pray to their heart’s content – to bless them and their families with health, wealth, and prosperity. Theirs’ is a sublime love that goes beyond words and description. Once the festival is over, the women are ecstatic that they managed to keep their promise to the Goddess. Brushing their tiredness away, they rush to catch their transport, some availing of overnight buses/trains. 

Keeping the Spirit of Attukal Pongala Alive

After moving to Singapore, I make sweet brown rice to offer to the Goddess every year. It is a ritual I wouldn’t miss for the world. My Amma says I’m Attukal Amma’s favourite child. All through the difficult times in my childhood, when things were going downhill, Amma firmly believed that it was SHE who guided me and gave me the strength to move ahead.  I hope to visit Trivandrum soon to see both my Ammas and seek their blessings. Till then.


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