The neatly woven baskets are out there, so are the smooth red earthen pots. Stacks of firewood tied up in neat bundles have arrived and so have the bricks to build makeshift hearths. Flowers have been wound into beautiful garlands, ready to adorn the Mother. The crowds have slowly started trickling in from near and far. The ones who can, have already booked their spots with friends and family and others are camping overnight to save theirs. Everywhere in the city, in the very air, there is a palpable sense of excitement especially among the womenfolk, as they gear up for the most massive event that Ananthapuri bears witness to … Attukal Pongala.
On Saturday, the 19th of February, on the day of Pooram nakshatram in the Malayalam month of Kumbham, men in Ananthapuri will beat a retreat and hand over their beloved city to the faith, camaraderie and benevolence of womankind. Blossoming out from the nerve center that is the Attukal Bhagavathy temple in Manacaud, row upon endless row of women will virtually transform the city into a sahasrara padmam or thousand petalled lotus. They will light fires with piety and prepare sharkkara payasam, manjal choru or therali appam as offerings to Devi. As the cooking food boils over, ululations or kuravas will fill the air in prayer, thanksgiving or simply, joy. There is something awesome about all that feminine energy gathered in one place.
Beyond its religious association, the spirit of the Pongala, the biggest gathering of women anywhere on the planet, finds deeper meaning at several levels- social, economic, and spiritual. More than anything else, it is one grand celebration of the Great Feminine Power or Shakthi and harkens back to a time when the women of Kerala actually wielded power at home and in society.
The Pongala is a great social leveller and on this day, womenfolk irrespective of caste, creed or socio economic position, are out there, huffing and puffing to keep their fires burning.
Powerful women and dainty ladies happily brave themselves through the smoke filled atmosphere; beautiful celebs trade in expensive make-up for soot and grime and everyone is willing to lend a hand to a fellow devotee in need. (Did I hear someone remark that by themselves, women are much nicer to each other. It is when the men come into the picture that nastiness rears its head?)
The Pongala is a tribute to the instinctive sense of nurturing and big heartedness in women. The spirit that makes people throw open their doors and hearts to total strangers and feed hundreds of people they have met for the first time in life. It is a moment when a woman can truly be celebrated as Lakshmi, the bestower of material wealth and happiness. That is why the Pongala is also a time when a lot of women make money from the sale of baskets, flowers and earthen pots. Maybe they are overpriced, but then, Pongala comes but once in a year!
Legend has it that Attukal Devi is none but Kannagi the paragon of virtue and the heroine of the exquisitely sculpted gem of Tamil Sangham literature, Silappathikaaram. Kannagi is one of the most powerful women in all civilizations. Such was her power that consigning the grand old city of Madurai to flames in righteous anger at the injustice meted out to her husband by the Pandya king, was but child’s play to her. (It is a subject of discussion for another day whether a faithless wimp of a guy like Kovalan deserved a magnificent woman like Kannagi).
Kannagi’s power came not from any physical superiority, intellectual prowess, social clout, martial expertise or financial superiority. Rather she was just an ordinary woman who drew from her own inner well of strength, and her act came as the final explosion from a simple woman who had been wronged.
Now, does that ring a bell somewhere ladies? In the wake of the recent tragedies that befell womanhood and motherhood (we do not give birth in pain to sacrifice our children to perverted beasts on deserted railway tracks or to the murky depths of dirty rivers), all of you ladies, as your Pongala boils over, draw, inspiration from that firebrand of a woman and resolve to get in touch with your inner Kannagis. You do not have to burn up cities; all you need to do is pro-act to the society around you.
Moving on to the mundane from the sublime, with vehicles off the roads, and restraints to mobility, uncovered fires and milling crowds, the Pongala could pose a major safety hazard. As the Sabarimala disaster still lingers fresh in the minds of people, hopefully steps have been taken to ensure a safe experience. Emergency personnel capable of handling any untoward incident that could happen have hopefully been deployed in plenty.
We are still reeling from the spate of tragedies that have haunted us since the beginning of the year. A sincere prayer goes out for the safe celebration of this phenomenal gathering of Feminine Energy and Faith. Maybe in the end, that is what will get us through!
Originally published in http://www.yentha.com on February 18,2011.