Residents from different walks of life in the city get set to host devotees who have come for the annual Attukal Pongala festival

Varghese Antony is taking a much-needed break in a temporary shed in front of Connemara market, Palayam. With just hours left for the Attukal Pongala, considered the largest congregation of women in the world, he has to tie up a number of loose ends in his capacity as an office-bearer of Palayam Brothers.

“Caterers will start working tonight. Names of volunteers have been registered with the police station, food counters are getting ready; we have got the licence of Food Safety and Standards Authority of India for the annadanam…,” he lists. It is for the ninth year that the Palayam Brothers are serving lunch to thousands of women offering the pongala (offering to the deity that is cooked in open hearths) in and around Palayam area on Sunday (February 16).

“Till a few years ago the Pongala hearths were put up till VJT Hall, but now it has crossed PMG Junction. We need at least 15 sacks of rice to serve lunch. In addition to different curries, we plan to include bananas and pappadam in the spread if somebody sponsors it,” says Varghese, a headload worker, who started Palayam Brothers along with friends, Shinoj and Santhosh. Now, among its members are headload workers, shopkeepers and social activists.

Palayam Brothers is one of the many such groups of ‘brothers’ and ‘clubs’ who play perfect host to the women who come from across the state and outside during the Attukal Devi Temple festival. Preparations are on at fever pitch among various such Poura Samitis (association of volunteers), residents’ associations, shops and business establishments, who pull out all stops to provide food, water, snacks, an array of juice, fruits, medical aid and other facilities for the devotees. Such groups in and around Attukal temple have been providing food, lodging and facilities for the devotees for many years now. However, similar initiatives are becoming common in other parts of the city as well, with the Pongala extending to several kilometres away from the temple.

Almost every place where the devotees congregate to cook the Pongala on open hearths has an association to provide food and help to the devotees. There are veteran associations in the list such as the three-decade-old Kuriathi Poura Samiti and Thampanoor Poura Samiti, which has been organising the ‘annadanam’ for 27 years now.

In Thampanoor area, the annadanam was launched by Sasidharan Nair, now its patron. “It has become a people’s initiative with auto drivers, shopkeepers and people in the area coming forward to serve the lunch. We need at least 350 kg of rice for the sadya, which includes a payasam as well,” he says.

Meanwhile, shooting prices of cooking gas, vegetables and other provisions have created problems but not shot down the enthusiasm of the volunteers.

“Almost every year we get sponsors for rice and other essential ingredients. Even then it is difficult to manage the expenses, especially because we have to meet the labour charges. In fact, last year we had to shell out Rs. 25,000 as wages alone for the catering staff.

This is added to the total charge which is calculated on the basis of the sacks of rice we use. There have been instances when we have to cook more food at the last minute,” says a member of the Kuriathi Poura Samithi, adding: “However, nothing really dampens the festive spirit, though.”

It is that time of the year when generosity boils over.

THE MENU

Rice and curries such as sambar, avial, thoran and pulissery regular are served in most places. But some like Thakaraparambu Brothers try to be different by serving vegetable biriyani with salad, pappadam and pickle.

“Earlier we used to give kanji (rice gruel) and curry or sadya. Last year we used 300 kg of basmati rice. In the morning we give sambharam to the devotees,” says A.K. Manoj, president of TP Brothers.

Punnapura Residents Association began by supplying lime juice. Now they provide sadya and are toying with the idea of providing breakfast as well. Kuriathi Poura Samiti serves idli, sambar, rasavada, tea and banana on the eve of the Pongala and on the Pongala day there is continuous supply of juice and soft drinks besides a sumptuous lunch, says Ganesh Kumar, convener.

THE BROTHERHOOD

TP Brothers, Kuriathi Poura Samithi, Thampanoor Poura Samithi, West Fort Brothers, Vazhappalli Brothers, Overbridge Brothers, Nandavanam Brothers, Punnapura Residents’ Association, Enchakkal Poura Samithi, Subhash Nagar Poura Samithi, Sreekandeswaram Poura Samithi, Chempakassery Poura Samithi, Bakery Junction Poura Samithi and unions of taxi drivers and autorickshaws are a few of the voluntary organisations that help devotees. Each of these groups chip in with not less than 50 volunteers.