The Attukal Pongala is a well known religious spectacle. What’s less known is the pollution it leaves behind.
Every year during the Malayalam month of Kumbham, the sleepy city of Thiruvananthapuram awakens to the clanging of mud pots that will soon fill the arteries of the city’s commercial heart. Millions of women from across various districts arrive with their cooking pots to perform a ritual to please the goddess Kannaki, the deity at the Attukal temple.
The preparations start with shopping for mud pots in various shapes and sizes. In the days preceding the festival, the city is probably one of the biggest mud pot markets in the country. Ambika, from Neyyatinkara who’s been selling pots for 10 years, swears that this could be the biggest mud pot market in India. With dwindling clay resources in the state, most of the sellers bring their pots from the southern towns of Nagercoil district in Tamil Nadu.
Thankachi, a 40-year-old from Thumpa who’s been selling pots for 20 years, says there is a slump in sales but hopes to see it go up just before the festival . According to her, prices have gone up by Rs.2 to Rs.7 compared to last year. As the bargaining heightens, young Anjana and her mother fix on a single pot while 70-year-old Lakshmi decides to stick with her three aluminium pots to make travel more convenient.
By the time dusk falls over the city, the streets towards the temple are full of women shopping and reserving seats at convenient spots for the next day’s offering. Besides the festival part, the day allows many women to take a break from regular chores for a spiritual outing away from home. The public spaces, which are otherwise hostile in social discussions, will now be occupied by millions of women for the next 24 hours.
On the morning of the festival, Thiruvananthapuram wakes up to an endless line of stoves leading from the Attukal temple covering a radius of 5-6 km. Millions of women anxiously wait for the announcements from the temple to fire their stoves from the light passed on from the main stove at the temple. At 10.30 a.m., as millions of stoves are fired together, the city becomes a smoking kitchen, with the smog covering the sun for several minutes. Meanwhile the pots boil over with the porridge made of rice, coconut gratings, jaggery, nuts and raisins. It is this ritual Pongala that is offered to the deity.
In 2009, the Attukal Pongala was awarded the Guinness World Record for the highest attendance of 2.5 million women on a single day. It also means more than 2.5 million stoves are fired together, each roughly burning half a kilogram of biomass fuel producing smoke and soot that envelope the centre of the city.
As the smoke settles over the city, the temple priests shower holy water on the offering and call it a day. Then it’s time for these million tired women to pack their bags and return to their nests. But for the city corporation workers, the day has just started. They still have to clean the garbage and wash off the streets using artificial rain.