The ALL WOMEN Kerala festival is Attukal Pongala

Pongala Payasam
  • This article tells you about Kerala’s all women festival, the reason for and nature of its celebration and the ten day Attukal festival.


The year 2019 is just a few weeks away. A major event in Kerala’s capital city of Thiruvananthapuram is the Attukal Pongala, the festival that entered the Guinness Book of World Record in 2009 for the largest number of women who converge at the Temple to personally prepare offerings for the Atukkal Amma, the Mother Goddess.


What makes this form of offering Pongala special?


Come 20th February 2019 all roads lead to the Temple and a large number of women descend on the city to make their ritual offering to the Devi. This is the ninth day of the ten-day festival when the eastern part of the city and a little over five kilometer radius turns into millions of makeshift brick hearths fired by coconut fronds. These are lit by an initial flame from the Temple to facilitate cooking of a payasam as an offering to the Goddess.


This ‘women only’ festival follows a unique method of making offering to the Goddess. It essentially is a one which propitiates the Devi to calm her down. 


The origins of the Temple are pegged to the Kannagi episode in the Silapathikaram, a famous work composed by Elenkovadikal in the Sangam era.


The story goes that Kannagi married Kovilan, the son of a rich merchant.  After their marriage, Kovilan fell in love with a dancer Madhavi. He spent all his wealth on her. When he lost everything he returned to Kannagi who had a pair of anklets. Kannagi told Kovilan to sell one anklet. Kovilan went to the market to sell this anklet. At that time the kingdom of Madurai was ruled by a Pandyan king whose soldiers mistook the anklet with Kovilan as that of their Queen’s, which had gone missing. The angry king ordered that Kovilan be killed.


When Kannagi heard the news, she rushed to the Palace and showed the other anklet in her possession.  The queen's anklet was made of pearls but Kannagi's was made of ruby.  The king and queen ended their lives realizing the injustice meted out to Kovilan and and Kannagi. Thus Kannagi cursed that the entire Madurai kingdom would be burnt down. Her curse led to the destruction of Madurai. She is then supposed to have come to Kerala through Kanyakumari. Enroute to Kodungallur, (a place in Kerala with a very aggressive Devi installed there) she came to Attukal and rested there.  Ladies there gave a warm welcome to Kannagi by preparing pongal (the rice preparation). Later a temple was built in the place where Kannagi took rest. This is one story behind origin of Attukal Temple.


The other version on the origins of the Temple is associated with local lore and geography. The Goddess is said to have appeared as a little girl before the head of the Mullaveetil family, on the banks of the Killi River asking to be helped to cross the river.  Awestruck by the overall radiance and demeanor of the girl, the elderly person not only carried her across the river but also took her home. While the household got busy making arrangements to welcome her, the girl vanished, only to turn up one night in the man’s dream with the demand that she had marked with three lines a space in the sacred grove nearby, and wanted an abode put up on the spot for her. And so was built the Attukal Temple where the Devi was consecrated.


Pongala raw materials for eg fronds, husk.


A unique offering


The open hearth is made of three freshly baked kiln bricks, usually three or four placed in a manner such that it can hold an earthen pot which will be used to make the payasam. The lit fronds fire the hearth and cooking starts at an auspicious time when the temple fire is lit by the priest. To an ululation that rises from the women, spreading across the kilometers they are seated the cooking starts.


The basic ingredients for this preparation are rice, jaggery, grated coconut, cashew and kismis. The payasam would be ready in an hour or thereabouts. Then, begins the wait for the priest to shower purificatory water on the food prepared. With the numbers spilling over to points far away from the Temple, and therefore impossible for human to cover each hearth, a helicopter flies overhead and sprays holy water from mid-air. The devotee is satisfied that the offering to the Devi is done, usually by 3 pm or thereabout.


Women praying post blessings from priest & after cooking Payasam


It is a sight to behold: the city is once again a sea of humanity when the women make their way back to their homes on foot, train or four-wheelers, carrying with them the payasam blessed by their Devi, Attukal Amma.


A typical Hearth


A ten-day Attukal Festival


The ten-day festival begins with the ‘Kappukettu’ ritual. Kappu in Malayalam is heavy anklet. Here the Devi is adorned with anklets on this occasion (recall the anklet that Kovilan carried). Beginning from the first day the ‘thottampaatu’ which is the recital in verse form of the story of ‘Kannagi’ who, according to legends and a version of the origin of the Temple, is worshipped here. 


The recital is the hereditary right-duty of a chosen family over generations, and done from a palm frond shed set up for the purpose in front of the Temple during Festival times, and continues for all the ten days.


On the 9th day when they sing about the destruction of the kingdom of Madurai by Kannagi in her fury, the Pongala by the devotees is prepared to propitiate the Goddess who is at the peak, wreaking her wrath.  When they sing the part on the destruction of the Madurai kingdom on the 9th day, the women light fire to prepare the pongal.

Among the many practices associated with the worship during the festival is Kuthyottam’ performed by boys below 12 years of age. The belief is that these boys are the injured soldiers of Mahishasuramardhini. From the third day of festival the rigor of penance is observed by the boys who will undergo this exercise often made as a vow by parents. It includes, continuous stay in the temple for seven days, food restrictions which mean they take what is given at the Temple.


Kuthyottam performed during festival.


The Goddess is taken out of the Temple in a colorful procession to see her devotees and visit her brother the Dharmasastha (Dharmashasta temple in nearby Manacaud). These Kuthyottom boys dressed up as soldiers, also come along with Goddess. Next day they return back to the temple. The Pongala festival concludes with Guruthi puja which is a special ritual performed by the main priest.

Lady devotees outside Attukul Temple

Architecture of Attukal Temple carries a strong influence of Tamil architecture with traces of Kerala temple design. The gopuram or the temple tower at the entrance has stories associated with Kannagi sculpted on it. The southern gopuram has incidents from the Puranas the Dakshayaga carved on its face among other elements from mythology. Overall the structure is more colorful than the traditional temples of Kerala.


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