According to the Guiness Book of World Records, 25 lakh women had participated in the event in 2009.

The Attukal Pongala festival began on a devotionally intense note on Saturday with the temple chief priest Brahmashree Balamurali lighting the traditional hearth in the presence of hundreds of ardent worshippers.

Social differences seemed erased for a day as thousands of women devotees cooked rice and jaggery on simple hearths on roadsides and offered the concoction as a sacrament to the presiding deity of the ancient temple.

According to police, not less than 7 lakh women devotees from different parts of the State, country and abroad were camped out on roadsides, compounds of houses, lodges, hotels and precincts of Government and private establishments spread across 22 Municipal wards in the capital city to participate in the event.

The temple management has put the figure at 30 lakh. According to the Guiness Book of World Records, 25 lakh women had participated in the event in 2009, making it, arguably, one of the largest religious congregations of women in the world.

In many ways, the festival was also a celebration of secular and human values. Citizens in the festival area, irrespective of their faith, accommodated devotees in their houses. Several churches and mosques provided devotees camping facilities.

The flame from the sacred fireplace in front of the temple precincts was passed on quickly in several directions. Many devotees lit their brick hearths, taking a cue from the loud clashing of cymbals, joyous incantations and bursting of crackers emanating from inside the temple and which were transmitted to other parts of the city through a network of loudspeakers and television screens.

Many others received text messages and mobile phone calls from those near the temple signalling that the auspicious time for lighting the hearth was at hand.

Earlier, the priests ritually sanctified the temple precincts. The temple “thanthri”, Chonas Dineshan Namboodiripad, then handed over the sacred flame from inside the sanctum sanctorum to the chief priest.

Vehicles transporting pilgrims and women laden with earthen pots, bricks for setting up hearths and kindling clogged the city from 3.30 a.m. onwards.

Tough task for police

It was perhaps one of the toughest days this year for the 3000 odd policemen charged with maintaining the peace and regulating vehicle and pedestrian traffic.

With help of iron barricades, video surveillance cameras and temple volunteers, the police successfully managed the tide of pilgrims converging on the temple.

However, many pilgrims suffered minor injuries in the seemingly unstoppable rush. Health department doctors Sobha Kumari and Suresh said they treated over 50 patients with minor contusions, nausea and dizziness between 8 a.m. and 9 a.m. The police rushed those need specialized medical care to nearby hospitals in their vans and ambulances.

The police reunited scores of women and children with their relations after they got separated from their near ones in the hustle and bustle of the festival.

From the hectic control room at Attukal, the police used wireless communication, loud speakers and mobile telephones to guide lost children to their parents and women devotees, who had gone astray, to their respective pilgrim groups.

They also restored scores of lost purses, anklets and wrist watches to their owners. The police had a tough time calming anxious mothers who sought help to trace their missing children and women reporting the loss or theft of their valuables.

There were at least two instances of suspected chain snatching. The police arrested a member of a group of suspected migrant thieves. They said they were verifying the woman’s background.

Student Police Constables

As many as 30 Student Police Constables (SPC) from the Government Girls High School, Manacaud, helped the police regulate women devotees inside the temple premises. S. Lakshmi, one of the first SPC to report for duty, said she was not averse to a career in the police department.

City Mayor K. Chandrika, V, Sivankutty, MLA, District Collector Sanjay Kaul, Additional Director General of Police (ADGP), South Zone, S. Chandrasekharan, ADGP, Intelligence, A. Hemachandran, Inspector General of Police, Thiruvananthapuram Range, K. Padmakumar, City Police Commissioner M. R. Ajith Kumar supervised the arrangements.