Attukal Pongala – one of the largest women gatherings in world

It was in 2016 when I witnessed Attukal Pongala for the first time and didn’t know the importance of this mega-event at that time! In 2017 I couldn’t attend it as I was away and this year, I made a point to not miss this festival. But why? Coz this ritual had made it to the Guinness Book of World Records for being the largest religious gathering of women on a single day in 2009. The festival falls on Karthika star of the Malayalam month of Makaram or Kumbham, which usually falls in February of March, and is celebrated for 10 days. The Attukal Pongala takes place on the 9th day when women offer Pongala – a sweet dish to the Goddess.

According to a legend, the Attukal Pongala festival commemorates the hospitality accorded by women in the locality to Kannaki, the divine incarnation of the heroine of the Tamil epic ‘Silappadhikaram’ while she was on her way to Kodungalur in central Kerala after destroying Madurai city to avenge the injustice to her husband Kovilan. It is said that she stopped at Attukal for a day’s rest where the local women offered her rice and jaggery for lunch. The temple, located in the heart of the city, is dedicated to Attukal Bhagavathy, believed to be an incarnation of Kannaki.

The Attukal Pongala fell on 02nd of March this year. One week before the commencement of this Annual festival, streets of the capital city of Kerala were lined-up with make-shift shacks selling mud pots, bricks, wooden ladles, the loud-speakers of all temples came alive, and many miniature shrines were erected at almost all the junctions. People from all parts of Kerala arrived into Thiruvananthapuram days in advance to secure a hearth close to the Attukal Bhagavathy Temple and mark their spaces to have their make-shift brick stoves on which they would prepare ‘Pongala’.

It was 05.00 hrs in the morning on 02.03.2018 and I started stirring up in my bed when the women downstairs started making their preparations. Almost all the men will be hooked up to their homes while the women would be on streets in their new golden bordered Kerala Kasavu sarees. When I stepped out of my home, a long row of brick-stoves with mud-pots and bronze vessels neatly placed on top of them caught my eye. After making my visit to the nearest Goddess temple, I made my way to my office by-passing the many women devotes who are waiting patiently on either sides of the road braving the hot sun.

I could see some of our staff along with other women ready with their hearths near to the Ganesha temple. All were busy with washing rice, grating jaggery and crushing cardamom while the temple authorities were keeping a check on their wristwatches and waiting earnestly for the auspicious time. The rituals actually begin when the chief priest lights up the main hearth of Attukal Bhagavathy temple with fire brought from the sanctum sanctorum of the temple. Finally at around 10.15 hrs, the chief priest of the Ganesha temple lit the temple’s hearth and the fire has been passed on to the other hearths by the burning fronds.

The women were into immediate action. Soon the roads were covered with the smoke from the brick-stoves, women turned into a shade of pink due to the hot sun, heat emanating from their stoves and coughs stirred up. I myself found to have a running nose and eyes because of the smoke. Though the sun was blazing like hot molten lava, it couldn’t break the determination of these women devotes. As if pleased by their devotion, the sky was filled with clouds and a cool breeze started to flow. Breaking away from the temple road, I walked towards the junction.

Here too, the situation is more or less the same – women were cooking, volunteers were helping, police personnel were overlooking the activities. Few women started ululating when the contents of their pots were overflowing and praying silently. When asked a lady she went onto say that when the contents in the pot boil over, it marks prosperity and they ululate to thank the Goddess for that. Most of them started to rest after preparing Pongala, which is rice cooked with jaggery and coconut while few others went onto prepare few more delicacies like the Manda Puttu – a green gram delight, Therali Appam – a dish that is steamed in aromatic bay leaves and Aravana.

It’s time for them to go home. It was 14.00 hrs and I could still see the anticipation in everyone’s eyes as the time for the final ritual for the day was approaching. It’s the Nivedhyam (offering ceremony). When the signal came at 14.20 hrs, the chief priest sprayed some holy water over the temple’s utensil containing the Pongala and thereby making it into a holy offering which would be distributed later to the devotes. Later, he went onto spray the holy water over all the pots of the devotes marking the end of the ritual. I too took my share of ‘prashad’(holy offering) before I left to my home 🙂

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Gavi – A Eco-Tourist spot

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Gavi is an eco-tourist spot in Kerala which has widely become popular after ‘Alistar International’, the world acclaimed tourism major listed it among the leading eco-tourism centers and one of the must-see places in India. Spread across the beauty of Periyar Tiger Reserve, Gavi is a quiet, beautiful and pristine forest haven.  Located 250 kms away from Thiruvananthapuram, the capital city of Kerala, Gavi of Pathanamthitta district offers its visitors activities like trekking, wildlife watching, outdoor camping. So why late? Lemme share my travel tale of Gavi 🙂

The road leading to Gavi is blanketed by tea plantations and pine plantation (which is a rare sight in South India, and is a refreshing experience. We took the route of Trivandrum-Patthanamthitta-Ranney-Mundakayyam-Vandiperiyar-Gavi. The Gavi check post which is located 18 kms away from Vandiperiyar is the gateway to the lap of Mother Nature.

One should be keen in observing the surroundings as this is the only way of spotting wildlife in Gavi. The place is rich in flora and fauna. The commonly sighted animals here are the Indian Giant Squirrel, Lion-tailed macaque, Nilgiri Tahr, Bisons, Wild Pigs, elephants and birds like kingfishers and woodpeckers. I was lucky enough to spot almost all of these animals except the elephants. But did get a chance of seeing their footsteps and fecals.. Lol 😀

Places of Interest:

#Pine Plantation: This came as a surprise to me as I didn’t expect such a beautiful place on this route. The windy climate and the mighty pines.. Ground covered with their leaves and seeds.. Sunlight peeping through the gapes and the surroundings adding to the Serenity.. The best place for our body and mind to rejuvenate. And a perfect place to meditate too 😛

# Safari: One can enjoy the sight of the wildlife in their natural habitat through Vehicle safaris to take a glimpse of the endangered species.

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# Boat Ride: Row boating is available at Gavi, on the Gavi dam’s reservoir. The panoramic view from the boat in middle of the waters’ of the reservoir is truly enticing! There is a small waterfall on the other side of the reservoir, which can be reached on this boat and it is some 15 minutes hike. A must visit place see the undisturbed beauty of the Mother Nature.

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# Sabarimala View Point: Gavi gives an amazing view of the Sabarimala amongst the lush green surroundings. This is a 20 min hike from the Gavi Dam and the view of the mountain ranges and the sunset in the evening over these ranges covered with evergreen trees and a blanket of golden color grass is breath-taking!

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# Cardamom Plantation: Gavi is a fertile land and the local’s mastery over the land has blessed the land with vegetation. A leisure visit to the nearby cardamom plantations is a sight to behold. We can see the wilderness of the wild elephants damaging these plantations.

Best part of the trip:

For the most adventurous ones who would love to spend a night in the deep forest can stay here in a small tent. This is the most unique feature of  Gavi, camping in the forests. As the dusk stretches into the silence of the night, one can feel the presence of wildlife in the middle of nowhere, an experience that cannot be explained in worlds, but needs to be just experienced.

The KFDC provides good vegetarian food and snacks with the local flavors and one should definitely try this food.

How to reach?

200 kms from Kochi International Airport, 250 kms from Trivandrum International Airport and 195 kms from the Madurai Airport. The nearest railway station is Kottayam (120 kms). Regular buses are available to Vandiperiyar from Kochi & Thiruvananthapuram. There are also buses available from Vandiperiyar to Gavi. But make sure that you reach the Gavi Checkpost before 5 pm.

Pack your backpacks now… 😉