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Attukal Pongala Festival in Trivandrum (Kerala)

6 April, 2011 (01:19) | Living in Europe | By: admin

Saturday, February 19

Today is a big festival in Trivandrum. Thousands of women will make the pilgrimage to the Attukal Bhagavathy Temple downtown. More than 3 million women (30 lakhs), both young and old, rich and poor, Indian and foreign are expected to participate this year. I’m told Attukal Pongala festival is registered in the Guiness Book of World Records as the largest gathering of women in a single place on a single day in the world. I am honored to be here. The timing of this festival is related to the full moon.

Nisha is very involved in this festival, and a fervent believer in the positive power of pongala.
While stirring her four clay pots she explains to me the meaning of the pongala. I take notes, which is a good thing because once the festival gets going I am interviewed on a live radio station called “Club FM” and am actually able to answer questions about the festival intelligently.

Nisha tells me that the word ‘Pongala’ means to boil over, and refers to the ritual offering of a porridge made with rice, coconut milk, cashew nuts, raisins, and chopped bananas. The pongala is cooked in clay pots which must face east. Though I don’t catch the significance of why the pots must face east, I diligently take notes so I can try to make sense of it all later. She tells me the pots are prepared early in the morning, the pongala simmers all day, and eventually the poojari (Hindu priest) passes by and sprinkles rose water on the devotees and their offerings to signify their prayers are being heard.

Mark stays home today to rest and catch up on some work. We’ve only been in India for less than a week, but we’ve taken in so many sounds, images, experiences, aromas, food and cultural exchanges this week that he simply feels like being alone. I can understand that, so I go with Nisha to take in a few hours of this unique event which, if I understand correctly, is supposed to give mental strength to withstand the miseries of life. With her recent tragedy (miscarriage) she needs all the mental strength the gods can give her.

Bijoy and Nisha do not live at the homestay; they have a centrally located apartment which means they are on the poojari priest´s route. As Nisha stirs her four overflowing pots she is hoping the poojari will bring her inspiration and strength.

Everywhere I look there are women making their way to the temple, carrying the required mud pot, with dried coconut palms on their heads. The streets are filled with colorful saris and the sidewalks are aflame.

I don’t stay that long, for it is a hot day and Bijoy offers to take me back before the streets become too congested. Like Mark, I too am a bit tired from all the excitement of the last few days. Nonna Devi is delighted when I return because she gets to feed me/us again.

Later Nisha stops by with some pongala to share with us. She adds some sweet brown molasses “for the birthday girl”. I try the pongala despite my reservations. I’m a picky eater and had assumed anything that cooked all day on the sidewalk would have no texture and must taste bad. Boy am I wrong! The pongala is astonishingly yummy. In fact, I think its the best porridge I’ve ever eaten!